By Sri Krishna
Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that the Indo-US “growing security and defence cooperation is very important,” is indeed significant since defence relationship has emerged as a major pillar of India-US strategic partnership with the signing of ‘New Framework for India-US Defence Relations’ in 2005 and the resulting intensification in defence trade, joint exercises, personnel exchanges, collaboration and cooperation in maritime security and counter-piracy, and exchanges between each of the three services.
The bilateral defence relationship rests on a broad and deep foundation, constructed through the focus and vision of a succession of US and Indian governments and accelerated by their increasing alignment on key strategic issues. Most importantly, US and Indian policymakers, strategists, and industry leaders remain committed to the continued expansion of this relationship and to the successful navigation of potential challenges. It is important to note that there is agreement among policymakers in both Washington and New Delhi that the US-India defence relationship rests on the pillar of a bipartisan, cross-party commitment to a stronger relationship.
Since the election of Joe Biden as US President, three top officials of the new American administration have visited India which is clearly an indication of the direction in which Indo-US relationship is moving and more so in the area of defence and security. American Defence Secretary General (Retd) Lloyd Austin came for three days from March 19 to 21 which was the first outreach by the Biden administration. The defence relations assumes significance in the wake of the prevailing tension along the Sino-Indian border where the Chinese continue to posture aggressively and the tough stance of the Chinese in South China Sea with the aim of becoming a power to reckon on the Pacific rim.
Lloyd’s visit gave a boost to the US-India defence partnership and brought about greater synergy in framing a cooperative agenda in nurturing “a free, prosperous, and open Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean Region.” During the visit the two sides laid emphasis on ways to strengthen military-to-military engagement and bilateral defence trade, including industry collaboration. The two sides discussed the evolving situation in Afghanistan as it is indeed a major cause of concern to countries in the South Asian region like India as the drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan is on.
Indo-US defence trade has grown manifold in recent years with the US becoming one of India’s top defence suppliers. Recognizing the need to weave a close web of security partners in the Indo-Pacific, a Pentagon statement on the trip said that the US knows it needs “strong allies and partners and friends in that part of the world.” India being part of Austin’s first overseas trip sends a strong and clear message to China.
In April came the visit of American President’s Special Envoy on Climate Change John Kerry from April 5 – 8 which was for consultations on increasing climate ambition ahead of Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate scheduled for April 22-23 and the COP26 meet to be held later this year. US President Biden invited 40 world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to a US-hosted virtual summit on climate to underscore the urgency and the economic benefits of stronger climate action.
And now comes the visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken who is the third high-ranking official of the Biden administration to travel to India. He met external affairs minister S Jaishankar, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Narendra Modi before travelling to Kuwait on the next leg of his tour. With US withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan where reports indicate of the Taliban getting the upper hand, the security situation in Afghanistan was one of the key issues that figured during the talks that Blinken had with the Indian leaders with India believing that US support for Afghan forces over the next few months will be crucial for retaining the gains made under the democratic system in Kabul over the past 20 years.
With the Defence Framework Agreement updated and renewed for another 10 years in June 2015, the two countries now conduct more bilateral exercises with each other than they do with any other country. In addition, the inking of major agreements in defence cooperation in the past one year has indeed brought India and US closer and the QUAD of which both are members further strengthens the relationship.
The US – India defence cooperation assumes importance in the wake of the developments in Afghanistan where the drawdown of American troops gives an advantage to the Taliban and a new government in Kabul may not be to Washington’s liking. In such a situation, Indo-US strategic partnership in defence gains in importance and considering that the Chinese aggressive posturing in the North East along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and China making to establish relations with the Taliban, the US needs a bulwark in the region. With Pakistan too having close ties with Taliban and being a partner with China as part of its strategy to check India, the US needs an ally in the region and for that India is in the present scenario best suited.
Apart from the key agreements between the two nations, India also acquired defence equipment worth over US$ 13 billion. India and the United States have also launched a Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) aimed at simplifying technology transfer policies and exploring possibilities of co-development and co-production to invest the defence relationship with strategic value. This commitment has enabled a remarkable set of achievements in recent years: In 2016, the United States named India a Major Defence Partner—a unique designation denoting India as the US’s most important non-treaty security partner. Between the years 2017 and 2020, the two countries finalised the last two of four foundational enabling agreements—i.e. the Communications, Compatibility, and Security Agreement (COMCASA); and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) to allow for the sharing of high-end capabilities, equipment, and intelligence. The two nations initiated an annual “2+2” ministerial dialogue, putting India on par with top US allies.
The US-India defence relationship is supported by a bipartisan, cross-party commitment in both Washington and New Delhi to deepen and broaden defence cooperation on the basis of shared democratic values and converging interests across a range of economic, political and security issues. Most importantly, in the past few years, New Delhi has come into closer alignment with the United States on essential strategic issues: India and the US share concerns around China’s growing ambitions, its assertive behaviour in the Indian Ocean region, increasing use of cyber warfare, and, most critically, its territorial aggrandisement along the Sino-Indian border.
Though there are still areas of disagreement, policymakers in New Delhi and Washington are sharing ideas about how best to respond to existing threats. There is agreement in both capitals on the need to develop closer relations with and among likeminded partners, foster more resilient economies and societies, bolster deterrence through the acquisition of high-end capabilities, and expand US-India cooperation beyond the traditional defence issue set. Today, the relationship remains anchored in shared values and interests, but the United States and India are also united by a shared commitment to enabling the latter to become a leading power in the Indo-Pacific region. That US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin visited New Delhi before visiting the US’s NATO allies only underscored the United States’ commitment to this vision.
While bilateral defence ties between India and the US are robust owing to broad political support in both countries, there is scope for further expansion. This will require the two countries to make more of existing engagement mechanisms and work towards building out new ones. Forging new avenues to work together, particularly at the operational, industrial, scientific and academic levels, is key to ensuring that India-US defence ties remain dynamic.