As part of a defence appropriations bill of over $600 billion, the US Congress passed legislation that designated India as a “major defence partner”. Under its provisions, India will be treated at par with the US’s closest allies when it comes to the transfer of defence technologies. This development, in many ways, is the logical culmination of the on-going diplomatic discussions that have their origins just over two decades ago. It began in 1995 with the Agreed Minute on Defence Relations.
The process of defence cooperation may well have proceeded apace following this agreement. However, after May 1998 following the Indian nuclear tests, all such collaboration effectively ground to a halt. It required multiple rounds of talks to place the incipient security relationship on an even keel. Despite the successful conclusion of this diplomatic minuet, progress on defence cooperation did not materialise. At least two factors hobbled movement on this front. First, India had remained heavily dependent on Russia for its defence supplies. Second, despite the Cold War’s end, some within India’s policymaking community remained loath to turn to the US for substantial defence purchases.
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The Obama administration’s initial approach to India appeared lukewarm. However, following his 2010 visit, the relationship started to acquire momentum. This may well have stemmed from the administration’s failure to arrive at a strategic understanding with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) despite early attempts. Against this backdrop, three other factors opened up the possibility of a more productive Indo-US relationship. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the US decision to drawdown its forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s utility dramatically declined. Around the same time, the PRC, which had been boosting its presence in the South China Sea, showed signs of greater assertiveness. Not long after, in 2014, Narendra Modi assumed office. Despite past tensions with the US over his tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister, the Obama administration adopted a pragmatic approach toward the new regime. Modi proved to be more than willing to reciprocate.
The US Congress’s willingness to designate India as a “major defence partner” represents the culmination of a process that has slowly but surely brought the two states into a mutually supportive defence cooperation relationship. Along the way, it has also been supplemented with important defence deals. India has become not only the largest foreign purchaser of US weaponry but the US has now transplanted Russia as the principal supplier of weaponry to India. Even though some big-ticket joint projects, such as the building of an aircraft carrier, remain in abeyance, there is little question that the Indo-US arms transfer relationship has undergone a fundamental transformation.
The obvious question now is whether a Trump administration will continue the policies of its predecessor. There is no clear-cut answer. However, forces at various levels may compel Trump to persist with the direction Obama had set. It is hard to visualise how Trump, given his combative outlook toward the PRC, is likely to abandon a significant defence partnership in Asia. Nationally, there is a bipartisan consensus on relations with India. Consequently, there is little reason to believe that Trump will needlessly go against the grain of one of the few areas where bipartisan sentiment exists. Finally, it would be foolish to discount the Indian diaspora. After decades of political quiescence, it has become politically vocal and a force that must be reckoned with. For a president-elect whose popularity is quite limited, alienating a significant constituency could prove perilous. Given this conjunction of circumstances, there is every reason to believe that the emergent defence partnership is likely to thrive in the foreseeable future.