The US Congress is about to pass a legislation that will declare India a “major defence partner” and mandate a set of measures for the administration, whoever be in charge, to enhance defence and security ties between the two countries.
Though the Obama administration has already named India a “major defence partner” for the purpose of fast-tracking sale and transfer of sensitive defence technology, the legislation will lock it in for all future governments, until repealed.
The legislation will also send a strong political message of Congress’s support for enhanced US-India defence ties, according to multiple people familiar with its framing and the negotiations that went into finalising it.
The National Defense Authorization Act 2017, which is the US military’s budget for next year and which contains the section on ties with India, is slated for filing any day now, for voting in the House of Representatives first and then in the Senate.
Both chambers of Congress have already approved the final legislation, with all differences reconciled during a legislative process called “conference”, and, notwithstanding last minute objections, it is expected to go through in the next few days.
The final draft may disappoint those who were expecting the “language to be stronger”, a phrase widely used in these circles for slotting relations higher on the totem pole, matching those the US has with Israel or with its Nato-plus allies.
But India will be content with the current language and provisions, considering the higher categories both “tricky” and “unnecessary” for now, according to those who know but spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Titled “Enhancing defense and security cooperation with India”, Section 1292 of the NDAA directs the secretaries of state and defence to recognise India as a “major defence partner”, which it currently is, and the only country with that designation.
It also seeks the appointment of a “designated” individual within the executive branch who has experience in defence manufacturing and technology to oversee and facilitate the sale, transfer and production of defence equipment.
The legislation lists steps that Congress expects the administration to take to enhance and deepen defence ties, including supporting the development of India’s export control and procurement regime.
“The attempt is to define ‘major defence partner’ designation”, it was said, “that had been left a little unclear and vague by the administration.” And to commit coming presidents to it.
If there was legislative backing for President Barack Obama’s initiative resuming ties with Cuba, it was pointed out, the incoming Trump administration would find it difficult to roll the move back, as it has threatened.
The legislation doesn’t do very much else, some experts have said. “It’s a make-work effort,” said Ashley Tellis, South Asia expert at Carnegie, a leading think tank. “A lot of energy has been put into it but with very little reward.”
Tellis argued the India section of the NDAA is more in the nature of a “sense-of-the-Congress resolution”, and does not change anything — that it did not “enjoin the executive branch to do anything the executive branch wasn’t already doing”.