Reconciling Priorities in the India-U.S. Relationship

Reconciling Priorities in the India-U.S. Relationship
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Last week saw significant advances in the U.S-India defense relationship. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, traveled to India to meet with their counterparts, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in what was dubbed the “two-plus-two” summit. The leaders signed landmark agreements meant to further cooperation between the states in their efforts to promote regional stability.

The U.S-India security relationship is underpinned by a strong foundation of shared interests and ideologies. Both countries are invested in the stability of India’s region -- they want to rein in Pakistan, stabilize Afghanistan, and halt the spread of China’s influence -- and the two nations’ democratic institutions offer a normative basis for deeper collaboration. 

However, India’s relationships with opponents of the United States may act as a roadblock to future collaboration. The Trump administration’s challenge will be to determine how to balance its partnership with India with policies that target Washington’s own opponents. Fortunately, India’s foreign policy may be useful to the United States in its pursuit of other regional goals and could be considered a means to ends that are advantageous for both states.

The Trump administration clearly values India’s role on the global stage and is committed to growing its partner’s influence. Secretary Pompeo put it succinctly when he said “[w]e fully support India’s rise.” General Dunford expanded on the sentiment, stating “India is one of our premier security partners and an important and influential global leader.”

It is encouraging that Trump is not ignoring presidential precedent when it comes to India. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama made relations with New Delhi a high priority during their administrations and passed landmark security agreements with India that were instrumental in building the partnership to where it is now. The United States has become India’ second-largest arms supplier with a total of $15 billion over the past 10 years.

India’s Cold War-era wariness toward the United States is fading, enabling deeper collaboration in the security partnership. During last week’s summit, the officials signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. The accord, which had stalled for years over Indian concerns about overexposure to the U.S. military, grants India access to U.S. network communications and sharing which would enhance security cooperation between their militaries. The senior officials also agreed to hold joint exercises between their air forces, armies, and navies on the eastern coast of India in 2019.

Tangled relations

However, some of India’s historic relationships are at odds with American interests. Two prime examples are Russia and Iran. Russia has been a close partner of India’s for decades, though the relationship has come under strain in recent years as New Delhi and Washington have grown closer. Indeed, India plans to buy five Russian S-400 Triumf missile air defense systems -- a purchase that could violate U.S. sanctions on arms purchases from Moscow. This issue was not resolved during last week’s meeting, as India has not finalized the sale and the Washington has not decided to grant New Delhi an exemption to proceed with the final steps of the acquisition. However, there is a way the situation could turn to Washington’s favor, if India considers purchasing American-made alternatives to the Russian system instead.

Substituting India’s reliance on Russian weapons with American-made systems would be an easy transition, given New Delhi’s recent purchases of U.S. defense technologies. India recently finalized the purchase of 24 multi-role MH-60 Romeo choppers from Sikorsky-Lockheed Martin to detect, track, and hunt enemy submarines. New Delhi also approved a $1 billion acquisition of Raytheon’s National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System-II missile defense shield. India was one of the first international buyers to purchase the P-8 Poseidon naval surveillance aircraft. 

India is also looking for future domestic-foreign partnerships with U.S. defense companies to supply 111 naval utility helicopters to replace an aging fleet of Alouette, Cheetah, and Chetak choppers. Some contenders include Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) and Bell Helicopter’s Bell 429, as well as TASL and Lockheed Martin’s customized S-76D. The United States should take advantage of arms sales to India as a way to deepen cooperation and prevent Russia from exerting influence over a valuable partner.

A navigable obstacle

India’s partnership with Iran may prove more complicated for the United States to navigate, given the pair’s co-dependent relationship in oil supply. Tehran is New Delhi’s third-largest oil supplier, and India is Iran’s second-largest oil buyer, after China. Past rounds of U.S. sanctions have not deterred the relationship; a spokesman for India’s Foreign Ministry stated “[w]e do share a very strong, very good relationship, we are in touch with [Iran] on several issues including on the fallout of the U.S. withdrawal from [the nuclear deal].”

However, New Delhi’s relationship with Tehran can help the United States meet other objectives. India is a large investor in the construction of Iran’s Chabahar port, which it plans to make operational by 2019. This port would give India better access to Afghanistan, potentially creating a path for New Delhi to become more involved in Kabul’s security and stability -- a goal that the United States has had for its relationship with India for years. The port could also provide Afghanistan with an alternate trade corridor that reduces its dependence on Pakistan. It may ultimately be in Washington’s favor to grant India a waiver to finish building the Iranian port in order to address other regional security concerns.

The U.S.-India security relationship is on a steady rise. As wariness in India toward a deeper partnership with America recedes, the bigger obstacle will be New Delhi’s relationships with opponents of the United States. However, these connections could present more opportunities for Washington to deepen its partnership with India and encourage New Delhi to play a more active role in bolstering the region’s stability. The Trump administration will need to reassess its international priorities and how they may compete with one another. Ultimately, the administration’s commitments to India are sound investments, and the U.S.-India security partnership could have a lasting impact on global power alignments.

Rathna K. Muralidharan is a program director at the Lexington Institute with a focus on global security and regional politics. You can follow her at @RathnaKM and the Lexington Institute @LextNextDC. Read her full biography here. The views expressed are the author's own.



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