In the Era of Donald Trump, India-US Defence Ties Change Tack

This article has been taken from Mr. Ajai Shukla's Blog, Broadsword.

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.