In the era of Donald Trump, India-US defence ties change tack - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 24 April 2017

In the era of Donald Trump, India-US defence ties change tack

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th April 17

On April 18, almost three months after the United States President Donald Trump was sworn in, his National Security Advisor, Lieutenant General HR McMaster, travelled to New Delhi --- the first high level US official to visit India to pick up the strings of defence and security ties that had blossomed under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Senior New Delhi officials, accustomed to the warmth of Ashton Carter, defence secretary in the Obama administration, found McMaster’s visit rather less comforting. It yielded mainly routine statements on “shared perspectives” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and pro-forma US assurances that India remains central to Washington’s notion of Asian security. No date was agreed for Modi to visit Washington – recognition the prime minister covets, but must now wait for.

New Delhi has expected change, after being at the target end of Trump’s anti-immigration, anti-outsourcing campaign platform. Change was also predicted in the China factor, which had triggered Obama’s “rebalance to Asia” and, therefore, India’s new importance in Asia’s security architecture.

On the day Trump was sworn in, he fulfilled a campaign promise to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an anti-China trade grouping, thus potentially easing trade tensions with China. The new president has deferred campaign promises to declare Beijing a currency manipulator, ostensibly after Chinese promises to rein in North Korea. Trump’s invitation to China’s President Xi Jinping for an ice-breaking summit in Florida in early April inflamed New Delhi’s concerns that he is mercurial on China, up one day and down the next.

On the crucial US-India-Pakistan dynamic, Trump had already irked New Delhi last November by offering to mediate on Kashmir. This was aggravated earlier this month by his influential UN envoy, Nikki Haley, who declared that Trump himself might oversee an India-Pakistan peace process. New Delhi’s response was predictably icy.

There remains immense goodwill for India amongst US Congresspersons, both in the Senate and the House of Representatives. But an administration embroiled in acrimonious political battles has lagged in appointing officials to the senior positions where policy is enacted and prioritised. No matter how well intentioned the US Congress, it can do little for now with just a skeleton administration to work with.

Of the 600-700 new Trump appointments that the Senate must okay, barely 22 have been confirmed so far. The two key departments dealing with security policy --- defense (the Pentagon) and state --- are functioning without confirmed Deputy Secretaries, who are their de facto chief operating officers. Nor do these departments have South Asia points-persons --- there is no confirmed Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia; or Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia. There is no Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, another key official.

That leaves New Delhi in the unfamiliar and uncomfortable position of not having a champion in Washington. For years, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter drove the India relationship, fuelled by the Obama White House’s unwavering conviction that a strong India was in America’s national interest, regardless of whether it marched alongside America; or bought US weaponry.

Carter brought attention to India at the Principals’ level – the rarefied decision-making layer that is Washington’s equivalent of India’s Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs. In the Trump administration – or what of it can be discerned so far – New Delhi can take solace only in the appointment of Lisa Curtis, who has been named Senior Director for South Asia in the National Security Council.

A Washington insider says that with the new administration so understaffed, there is little adult supervision of India policy. Yet, without a strategic India policy from the executive, or enough personnel to sustain new strategic initiatives on India, the question already taking centre stage is: Why exactly is New Delhi a policy priority? What is India delivering to us?

“The Trump team wants deals that tangibly benefit both countries, including American workers. Senior officials are instinctively pro-India, but they will invest time in the relationship only if they see positive results rather than just rhetoric”, says Ben Schwartz, of the US-India Business Council.

This outlook aligns with Trump’s insistence, voiced during campaigning, that America’s military allies and partners who “free-ride” on US military capabilities must start paying their way. While India is not a US treaty ally like Japan, South Korea or NATO countries, the Trump administration’s default mind set is transactional, rather than strategic. That causes US officials to raise proposals like: “Don’t you think India should buy the F-16 fighter to demonstrate support to the new president?”

This transactional approach has a serious downside, says a US defence industry executive. “If India chooses Sweden’s Gripen NG light fighter over the F-16, the chatter in Washington will return to how “oversold” the India relationship is.

“Under Trump, it’s easy to imagine the president’s desire for quid pro quos clashing badly with New Delhi’s insistence on decision-making autonomy,” says Shashank Joshi, a fellow with the Royal United Service Institution in London.

While New Delhi has always seen the US defence relationship as a source of high technology for building indigenous defence weaponry, Pentagon officials say Defense Secretary Mattis wants to shift the relationship’s focus from technology transfer to operational cooperation between the two militaries. If China is what binds New Delhi and Washington strategically, believes Mattis, there needs to be visible action and capability creation towards that.

New Delhi, however, has longstanding reservations about participating in anything that resembles a military alliance. In March 2016, the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) chief, Admiral Harry Harris, speaking before a New Delhi audience, envisioned the day when “American and Indian Navy vessels steaming together will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Asia-Pacific waters.” But Manohar Parrikar, then India’s defence minister, quickly poured cold water on that prospect, publicly ruling out any question of joint patrolling. Then, in July, Parrikar reinforced that message in parliament, stating: “No talks have been held with United States on conduct of any joint naval patrols. Further, Indian Navy has never carried out joint patrols with another country.”

True, Sino-Indian relations have sharply declined since then. Beijing’s opposition to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; its support to Pakistan in blocking a UN resolution designating Jaish-e-Mohammed chief, Azhar Mehmood, a terrorist; the growing supply of Chinese weaponry to Pakistan; China’s role in connecting its western Xinjiang province with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar under the “Belt and Road” initiative; and, this month, Beijing’s aggressive castigation of New Delhi for permitting the Dalai Lama to visit the disputed Tawang area in Arunachal Pradesh, might have sharpened resolve in New Delhi to be more assertive with China.

Yet, it remains an open question whether this disharmony will encourage India into deeper joint training and operations with the US and its allies. For now, New Delhi seems disinclined to provoke Beijing by acceding to Australia’s request to be an observer in the forthcoming Indo-US-Japan trilateral Malabar naval exercise.

Operational cooperation is also impeded by New Delhi’s longstanding reluctance to sign two defence agreements that would legally enable Washington to supply safeguarded military equipment. The first of these, the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), would allow the US to transfer secured communications links to India that would improve the ability for joint operations. For example, in January, Pacific Command chief, Admiral Harris, told this correspondent that the US and Indian navies were cooperatively tracking Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, using the Boeing P-8 maritime aircraft. However, India’s non-signature of COMCASA meant its P-8I (I for India) was supplied without the communications equipment needed to “talk” to the US Navy’s P-8A (A for America). This was a self-inflicted blow to operational effectiveness, noted Harris.

Even so, New Delhi has resisted signing COMCASA, as also the second agreement – termed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Information and Services Cooperation (BECA), which facilitates secure digital mapping –because of intrusive security measures that come with safeguarded equipment, including inspections on Indian bases.

New Delhi has gradually ceded ground to the US on these agreements. First, it signed India-specific “end user verification” agreements, which allowed it to get cutting-edge protective equipment for the prime minister’s executive jet. Last year, a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was signed, which allows the two militaries to access each other’s logistic facilities. Neither of these faced the domestic political blowback that New Delhi was so worried about. Admiral Harris believes COMCASA might be signed first, as “it deals with interoperability and stuff that we really need”. This would amount to an Indian statement that would provide serious impetus to US-India defence ties in the early days of Trump.


Improving US-India ties

US-India ties galvanized by Defence Framework Agreement of 2005, renewed for ten years in 2015

Defence Trade & Technology Initiative (DTTI) deals with defence trade issues

The “India Rapid Reaction Cell” in the Pentagon clears roadblocks relating to India

Of three “enabling agreements”, “Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement” (LEMOA) signed last year

US policymakers expect “Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement” (COMCASA) to be signed next

An amendment to the National Defence Authorization Act of 2017 (NDAA 2017) legally binds every US administration to treat India as a “Major Defence Partner”

After Obama administration’s strategic approach to India, Trump likely to demand more quid pro quos.

Trump regime currently short-staffed, officials not yet named for key positions


  1. Trump has just taken over. These ties usually do not really dramatically depend on change of guard. It will settle down. Finally all international,relationships are based on give & take keeping in mind national interests .
    We as a nation are independent financially and have reasonably independent defence policy unlike a few other countries depending on hand outs. Let us push this path of self sufficiency, things will work out.

  2. Hello Ajai,

    How are you? Its been years I commented on your articles, funny enough, I choose this article to critic as it mentions Trump.
    For starters, I would like this article broken down to many topics. The article first mentions some facts like Mcmasters visit, and quickly jumps(->) to New Delhi's expected change (does not say what change it wants) -> trump executive orders ->India -Pakistan -kashmir mediation -> Trump's understaffed administration -> single engine F16 vs Gripen competition -> Sino India relations -> US India Operational Cooperation. Have read the article twice, but still did not get a point you are trying to make. I only important quote which was worthy (I still do not understand what this article is trying to point the reader at) to remember was this,

    “The Trump team wants deals that tangibly benefit both countries, including American workers. Senior officials are instinctively pro-India, but they will invest time in the relationship only if they see positive results rather than just rhetoric”, says Ben Schwartz, of the US-India Business Council.

    Now, If you could have elaborated more, or given your view after your analysis, to what New Delhi Wants (from your sources, New Delhi's expected change) versus Trumps tangible deals, (what is India gaining and what is it losing). Is Single Fighter competition a pawn here, that would be nice. If you are already writing an article along this line, ignore my comments. Do not get angry now :)

    Again, Thanks for your efforts,

  3. Waiting for COMCASA to be signed .

  4. The recurring mention of indo-US ties, COMCASA etc on this site is getting boring.

    The americans believe in one prime policy - to avoid direct confrontation with the enemy. They do this through the policy of balancing one country against the other. Pakistan is used to balance india and india is/will be used to balance china. The problem for the US is that indian policy makers witnessed and understood this first hand during the death on lakhs on bangaldeshi hindus.

    Today, India refuses to follow america's instructions. It refuses to balance china. The russians too want china to grow. Both the indians and russians share a common goal. The question is, will china fall to opportunism and turn against india and russia? The US thinks this is so...

    Fearing a china-russia co-operation, trump plans to do a nixon. Back in 1971, when india refused to stop and changed geography, nixon was forced to travel to china. This partnership with Us-china was arranged by none other than the pakistanis. The aftermath of 71 prompted the US to develop china. During this period, the americans initiated unprecedented technology transfer to china(assembly lines, military complex etc). Now trump wants to do the same. It is unclear what the US will give to china this time.

    Regarding the indo-US relationship and its lobbyists, I don't know what caused them to become so blind. Understand this... there are only two real super powers in the world. If you want to stop the will on one(america), you can only that through the other(russia). The rest(india, china, pakistan etc) are mere pawns in the game.

    You think rafales and f16s can stop the americans from doing what they have been doing since the 50s?

  5. FYI -

    Hope that you have learned the truth about your sources, truth, using, and censoring opinions...


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