The centrality of defence in India-US ties
America is back. Diplomacy is back. Alliances are back.” This is, undoubtedly, United States (US) President Joe Biden’s foreign policy bumper sticker. It was Biden’s underlying message in the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance published earlier this month by his administration. It is this simple, clear, and irrevocably direct message that the US secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, brings to India on March 19, as he touches down in New Delhi for a short visit. This is the tail-end of a trip to Asia. He, and the US secretary of state Anthony Blinken have visited Japan and South Korea — America’s “treaty allies”.
India is not an ally, clearly. The relationship with India represents an abiding partnership unlike any other. As Austin noted, on his way to Hawaii, the first stop before the Asia tour, the aim of his travels was to rediscover “great alliances” and “great partnerships”. Every American principal in the present day understands that India will never be an ally of the US. This has been established through decades of jostling, misunderstandings, uncanny interventions, and finally, the management of expectations on both sides.
There is a democratic, economic, and even a cerebral promise that ties this relationship together. Equally, there is enough argument between the two sides — from data diplomacy to the price of stents and from agricultural standards to taxes on motorcycles — to keep practitioners on their toes.
For the US department of defense, India offers stability, or at least a degree of balance, in a region beset by Chinese bellicosity. Whether on land, on the commons, or in cyberspace and the internet, China’s one-sided, forceful, and obstructionist imperatives are clearer today that at any time since the end of the Cold War. Decisive discussions on the future shape and form of the Indo-Pacific, giving additional substance to Quad following the summit last week, and navigating the challenge of maintaining regional stability are the key topics that are likely to inform discussions during Austin’s visit.
As far as bilateral defence ties are concerned, situationally, India and the US could not be in a better position. In October 2020, days before Donald Trump lost the election, both sides signed what is popularly known as the fourth “foundational” defence agreement. It concluded a two-decade long process of tiresome negotiations. The first agreement, setting standards for sensitive information shared between India and the US, was signed in 2002.
The remaining three were concluded in the last five years. In essence, these agreements facilitate greater military interoperability; they make it easier to share geo-spatial intelligence — which reportedly helped India a great deal during the 2020 standoff with China; and they allow India to access encrypted and highly-sensitive military technologies. In sum, these agreements are potentially transformative, if and when they are fully implemented.
In many ways, defence ties have saved the larger bilateral relationship from political lethargy when negotiators dealing with matters of commerce and trade have been unwilling to reconcile differences. In some quarters, both in the US as well as in India, there is an argument to connect the defence dialogue more clearly within a larger political framework. Experts argue that the “over-securitisation” of the defence relationship presents an uneven organising principle for a broad-ranging relationship. Trade, data, and US and Indian positions in multilateral fora, some suggest, ought to be considered alongside and parallel to strengthening defence ties.
This would be a mistake.
The differences on trade and the future of technology are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Trying to balance the scales between dairy standards, carbon emissions, and the sale of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles unnecessarily over-complicates the tightly negotiated defence relationship.
Austin’s visit provides an excellent and timely opportunity to further develop military-to-military ties, enhance joint training, and deepen discussions on the import of emerging technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, for military adoption.
Equally, Austin should be left with no uncertainty about the fact that sanctioning India — under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — for the purchase of the Russian made S-400 air defence system will be nothing less than a strategic blow to India. US officials argue that critical equipment such as the S-400 make the sharing of sensitive information with India difficult. Others make the case that the relationship can absorb the sanctions.
Whilst each of these arguments may well be merited, what is clear is that India will not stop buying Russian military equipment. This, however, does not take away from the steady drift towards American-made platforms. It’s worth recollecting that between 2008 and 2020, defence sales have jumped from zero to $20 billion. This is partially why the US gave India the Strategic Trade Authorisation tier 1 status in 2018, making it much easier for India to access critical military technologies.
Partnerships such as these, rather than treaty alliances, are designed to provide more room for manoeuvre. This is what “great partnerships” ought to account for. It is clearly outside the purview of the defence secretary’s remit to make a call on CAATSA. Yet, as much as this visit is about bolstering ties, he needs to appreciate that sanctions, if authorised, will, in no small way, undermine the spade work invested in a relationship between these two oversized democracies.
Rudra Chaudhuri is director, Carnegie IndiaThe views expressed are personal