The United States and India: Active Partnership in Defense and Commercial Affairs
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Issue Vol. 35.4 Oct-Dec 2020 | Date : 11 Dec , 2020

In one of his academic papers, Turkish retired admiral Cem Gürdeniz emphasized that: “the collapse and the demise of the Soviet Union created huge geopolitical and economic tsunamis as well as power vacuums in the geopolitical arena. That collapse gave way to American power the elevated status to claim uncontested, unipolar world leadership after a long-lasting bipolar world order following World War II, between 1945-1989.”1 The constantly changing geostrategic postures of key European and Asian countries, have encouraged the United States to establish a strategic cooperation agenda with the Republic of India, and under the proactive leadership of President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, the bilateral partnership has significantly delivered impressive results in the fields of commerce, defense dialogue, training of Indian Armed Forces and defense technology partnership is bolstered.

This research paper will focus on the study of bilateral cooperation between the United States of America and India, over the last six years (2014-2020) and address the military and commercial partnership that has been fostered between the two countries.

With the ongoing armed conflicts in the Nagorno – Karabakh2 region, preemptive military engagement and economic involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Mali and Libya, are the principle reason why Washington has demonstrated a constant proclivity to strengthen the commercial and military to military cooperation with the Government of India. US Defense Industry has been a key supplier of cutting-edge weapons and provided equipment to the Armed Forces of India. Furthermore, the tragic collapse of international financial order in 2008, has attracted the United States to embrace closely and further shape the ongoing strategic partnership with India. Bilateral cooperation between the US Department of Defense (Pentagon) and the Indian Government Defense officials, will be tackled in this essay; as well as the commercial and trade cooperation promoted by the US Department of Commerce and Indian Officials, under the leadership of Secretary Wilbur Louis Ross Jr.. Additionally, I will be delving into the US Foreign Policy and actions taken by the US Department of State including bilateral meetings and matters discussed between key diplomatic leadership of the United States and the Republic of India.

In the economic sphere, the United States has significantly bolstered the trade relationship with India. In 2019, the overall US–India bilateral trade in goods and services reached over US$149 billion. A fundamental milestone of the United States Foreign Policy are the energy products that are exported to India, representing a strategic development platform in both countries. The Republic of India purchased in 2018, 48.2 million barrels of US crude oil, that is a significant increase from 9.6 million in 2017. All these accomplishments were done during the administration of President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Furthermore, the US Universities’ Education and Technological Training Programs provided to incoming Indian students, are a genuine fulcrum in the bilateral relations between Washington and New Delhi. In 2019, the enrollment of Indian students at United States Universities contributed over US$ 8 Billion to the national economy. According to the US Department of State, “the total number of Indian students pursuing their studies in the US has more than doubled over the last decade, from 81 thousand in 2008 to 202 thousand in 2019.” However, this essay will address the growing level of cooperation in the areas of Defense Industry and Commerce between the Governments of India and the United States; as the two principal pillars of bilateral strategic framework.3

Cooperation in Defense Technology and Military Training

The ongoing partnership between the United States and India is mainly grounded on a shared commitment to freedom, democratic principles, mutual respect for International Law, upholding the human rights, promoting environmental preservation initiatives and a very close cooperation in the International Maritime Organization. As Aman Thakker4 noted in his publication: “No area of United States-India defense cooperation holds more promise than maritime cooperation. India is increasingly concerned about the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, particularly when viewed through the prism of China’s steady escalation of tensions in the South China Sea. Both the United States and India are critical responders in the region in case of humanitarian disasters.”5

Both countries have a common objective and that is promotion of global security, stability, and economic prosperity through defense cooperation, trade, investment, and connectivity.

On September 11th, 2020, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs David Helvey held a virtual meeting with their Indian counterparts under the framework of the US–India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue. The two delegations welcomed the opportunity to discuss the US–India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership, emphasizing the growing cooperation and “increased closeness across multiple areas of the bilateral relationship.”6

The United States has always underlined the great role and responsibility of India as a Major Defense Partner, the expanding military-to-military cooperation, and other defense priorities. According to a Pentagon Press release: “the two sides discussed a range of bilateral, regional, and multilateral issues, including combating COVID-19, counterterrorism, India’s membership on the UN Security Council, support for good governance and sustainable development in the Indo-Pacific region, and efforts to counteract recent destabilizing actions in South Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region.” The two governments are willing to further strengthen the military-to-military partnership and fine tune the diplomatic efforts within the multilateral organizations’ framework.7

In May 31st, 2019, the senior government officials from the United States, Australia, India, and Japan met in Bangkok for discussions on how to tackle their collective efforts to advance a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. According to the US State Department: “the four nations reaffirmed their shared commitment to preserving and promoting the rules-based order in the region.”

The four countries have emphasized their aspiration to continue close coordination and collaboration in support of sustainable economic development, good governance, maritime security, environment and fisheries and defense cooperation. The four delegations have also emphasized their genuine efforts to uphold “universal respect for international law and freedom of navigation and overflight.”8 Other fields of cooperation addressed on the quadrilateral round table were regional disaster response, maritime security, counterterrorism,9 nonproliferation, cybersecurity and governments were committed to address all trans-boundary challenges.

Salvatore Babones10 notes that: “the nascent pact with Australia, Japan, and the United States is pointless. It should be quietly disbanded. Many proponents of the Quad consider it a fledgling alliance with the potential to form the nucleus of an “Asian NATO” to contain China. Detractors dismiss the Quad as a false dawn for Indo-Pacific multilateral cooperation. Although the United States’ partners in the Quad have been careful not to say so, Pompeo admitted as much last year when he said the grouping would play a key role in ‘ensuring that China retains only its proper place in the world.’11 Yet it is not at all clear that Australia, India, and Japan actually want or need the Quad to put a check on China. Even more importantly, the United States might be better off without the Quad, too.”12 Another important milestone of the United States – India Defense cooperation is the endorsement of India – US Declaration on Defense Cooperation, an agreement signed in 2014 by President Barack Obama and former Prime Minister Singh, that demonstrates the long term bilateral commitment and strategic partnership to strengthen geostrategic interests and enhance security operations.

In 2015, President Barack Obama traveled to India to attend as Chief Guest the country’s 66th Republic Day Celebrations.13 This historic visit set the foundation of a bilateral cooperation in Defense and security matters. During his second term in office, President Obama has strongly embraced the strategic cooperation with India and as a self-professed realist, he has elevated the bilateral relationship with New Delhi to a high priority for the United States. The achievement of the 2015 Framework for the US–India Defense Relationship, has guided and expanded the ongoing bilateral defense and strategic partnership. The agreement to pursue four pathfinder projects under the DTTI as well as cooperation on Aircraft Carriers and Jet Engine Technology are some of the strategic thrusts that have brought Washington, DC closer to the Indian Government.14

On December 8th, 2016, the Secretary of Defense15 Ashton Baldwin Carter noted: “I am confident that the US–India relationship will be the defining partnership of the 21st Century. It’s built on common values, significant progress our two nations have made over the last 15 years, and the momentum of two great handshakes. The first handshake between India’s Act East policy and America’s rebalance. Military-to-military cooperation is, as you noted, growing. Exercises that are at unprecedented level, both with respect to other countries in the world and our history. We’ve concluded important defense agreements that allow our two nations better to operate together in many ways. And then there’s the technological handshake, between the DTTI and the Make in India policy of the prime minister, which advances co-production and co-development projects that we’re working on together in a very practical way between our two ministries.”16

India has acquired some of the cutting-edge military technology17 equipment manufactured in the United States and such cooperation is expanding under the current US Administration. The Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region is the principal pillar of a shared vision for stability in the region and promising economic prosperity for both nations. Such a solid tradition of cooperation has been carefully harbored by the current administration of President Donald Trump.

According to US Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III18: “Pacom continues to “work hand in hand with our allies and partners to help ensure stability and security across the Indo-Asia-Pacific. […]Our forces are globally deployable no matter where they’re stationed, and the United States military has put a lot of time and effort into being able to get forces where we need them, when we need them, on a timeline that makes sense for us.”

In relation to the US–India strategic partnership, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III explained19: “We’re seeing tangible evidence across all elements of the rebalance, not only in force structure … I don’t get the sense that we’re backing away from the Asia-Pacific rebalance because of other events occurring in the rest of the world.20 A plan called Pacific Pathways allows the Army to develop small units that will be forward deployed for quick response to humanitarian emergencies or regional threats. Seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are in Pacom’s area of responsibility, so it makes good sense for us to have good cooperation, good interaction between our armies. We look forward to enhancing our [military-to-military] relationships with India. A couple of years ago, President [Barack] Obama reiterated that we will need to build a long-term and … a stronger relationship with India, and that includes our mil-to-mil participation.”

The relationship between Washington and New Delhi is a whole-of-government effort, the official visits to India of former Secretary of State John F. Kerry (on July 31st, 2014)21 and former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (in August 7, 2014)22, are important events that have strengthened the cooperation between both governments. Particularly the fifth Annual Strategic Dialogue held on July 31st, 2014 has marked the first substantial high-level bilateral diplomatic dialogue between the two nations, since Narendra Modi23 and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in India following a landslide electoral victory.24 The Indian Government had appointed Sushma Swaraj, the External Affairs Minister, to lead the Indian delegation in these Strategic Discussions that have certainly strengthened the defense cooperation, as well as business and commercial partnership.25 Washington is deeply interested to work with India in the fields of counterproliferation exercises and promote US investments in New Delhi.

The Armed Forces of India are constantly reshaping and bolstering its strength in partnership with the US Department of Defense providing technological equipment and intensive combat training to its land forces. India has great interests to revamp and enhance its warfare capabilities including hybrid, conventional/sub-conventional, and surgical strike potential; and Washington stands ready to provide indispensable support to the Modi Government.26 The aggressive strategic posturing by India has led Pakistan to reciprocate with the operationalization of full-spectrum deterrence while relying on its tactical nuclear weapons. India’s strategic outlook has taken a drastic transformation that has altered the power equation in South Asia, which has created security predicaments for Pakistan.

India’s government has a growing propensity to increase its military arsenal and become a fulcrum of regional peace while exerting deterrence through its modern Navy and Air Force; in the economic realm New Delhi continues to be highly focused in the development of economic projects that generate growth and prosperity in Southern – Central Asia.27

According to Darshana M. Baruah28, in her research essay is well emphasized that: “Beijing’s growing collaboration with India’s neighbors has created a sense of unease in New Delhi. Like any rising power with global ambitions, China is looking to expand its presence and increase its profile beyond its immediate neighborhood. Naturally, as China’s influence in South Asia grows, India is faced with the challenge of managing its relationship with its biggest neighbor and competing to maintain its prominence in the region.”29 It is precisely Beijing’s growing geopolitical presence and widening economic interests in Asia, that have convinced New Delhi to bolster its strategic partnership in the areas of defense, political dialogue and economic development with the United States Government.

Economic and Commercial Partnership

On October 27th, 2017, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and the Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry Suresh Prabhu held a meeting to discuss the US–India commercial relationship and launched their first session of the US–India Commercial Dialogue. Both sides celebrated the impressive three-fold increase in total US–India trade since 2005 and asserted the significant “strategic and economic importance of the US–India relationship in promoting joint economic growth, job creation, and prosperity.”

In 2019, the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report, had ranked India 23 points higher than previous year, placed at 77 out of 190 countries.30 The United States Department of Commerce is encouraged by India’s efforts to improve the business climate and attract investment at the sub-national level. According to the Department of Commerce, many US companies find it advantageous to take the approach of working through their states to establish partnerships and identify customers in India. The US–India commercial rapport includes cooperation in the areas of standards, ease of doing business, as well as travel and tourism. In standards, there is potential for exchanges between the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), and India’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Both governments have organized an ongoing series of Ease of Doing Business webinars to introduce US and Indian companies to commercial opportunities in each other’s markets. In the areas of travel and tourism, Secretary Ross and Minister Prabhu have highlighted successful outcomes from the US–India Travel and Tourism Partnership Year, including an Aviation Connectivity Roundtable in February 2019. The ongoing public-private discussion centered on the theme of standards cooperation under Phase II of the US–India Standards and Conformance Cooperation Program (SCCP) is a unique opportunity for greater cooperation and preserves a vibrant dialogue. Furthermore, the first private-sector led US–India Innovation Forum in August 2016 is another milestone on the bilateral economic agenda.31

Conclusion and Policy Implications

The United States is India’s largest export destination; while India, with a population of 1.35 billion people is only Washington’s 13th largest export market. The Trump administration continues to work diligently with the Indian government and private-sector partners in both countries to eliminate barriers to US products. The endorsement of the Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation was in fact a salient priority of President Obama that continues to be unchanged during the current Trump – Modi bilateral Defense Agenda.

In order to contain the belligerent attitude of the People’s Republic of China, it is imperative for New Delhi to strengthen its defense cooperation with Washington and the renaming of the former US Pacific Command as the “Indo-Pacific Command” (effective June 1, 2018) is a serious orientation of US defense posture and an affirmative action from the Pentagon that demonstrates its laser focused orientation towards India and its Armed Forces. The brutal, illegal and lethal border incursions and maritime space violations, orchestrated by the communist regime of Beijing32, demand for a closer, transparent and steady cooperation between both nations, especially in the fields of intelligence, counterintelligence and geo spatial services. President Trump’s international critics33 are roaring and continue with their venomous language; nonetheless India – US defense partnership has never been better. The “foundational” Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), signed by the two countries,34 allows the Indian military to receive a greater perception of maritime activity in the Indian Ocean region35, where China’s arrogance equipped with its bullying navy is becoming increasingly dangerous. Under this spirit, the effective bilateral dialogue will continue for many years to come, while striving to preserve India’s strategic interests in Asia, above all defend its maritime space.


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  18. A former commander of the United States Indo – Pacific Command (March 9, 2012, to May 27, 2015); former executive assistant to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations and former commander, US Naval Forces Europe, US Naval Forces Africa, and Allied Joint Force Command Naples.,%20III%20biography.pdf
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  35. “China created border dispute with India as if it was part of ‘mission’: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh”
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Peter Marko Tase

is an expert in American Foreign Policy and International Relations. He is the author of The Foreign Policy of Azerbaijan and its Contributions to World Peace (2016).

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