The U.S.-India partnership has seen substantial growth since the early 1990s, and defense cooperation with India has emerged as the defining pillar of this important relationship. The focus on defense cooperation can be attributed to two major concerns that give both nations common cause: stability in the Indo-Pacific and international counterterror efforts. To achieve both, India needs to modernize its military and ensure some level of interoperability with its partners.
The past few years witnessed the leadership of both nations tackling major policy and procedural impediments to bilateral progress, formally beginning the realization of this partnership’s full potential. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, the government of India has tackled offset policies, foreign direct investment and procurement procedures, harnessing the private sector’s role in providing military capability as reflected in the 2016 Defence Procurement Production.
In addition, the U.S. government has revised its technology and transfer policies to place the government of India on par with some of our closest allies and even legally recognized India as a major defense partner. Despite these significant steps forward, the challenge of best demonstrating the impact of these historic decisions remains.
The U.S. operates internationally within a longstanding policy and legal framework where select agreements enable and advance cooperative defense relationships. This approach is highly structured, withstanding the test of time. Part of this structure includes agreements that enable technology cooperation and interoperability. In our relationship with India, the U.S. continues to insist that India embrace this established paradigm and install “enabling agreements.”
Unfortunately, India resists this paradigm while simultaneously seeking a creative solution beyond the established norm. As a friend, and not an official ally, India is very sensitive to some of the standard language the U.S. is accustomed to. For example, references to “operations” and “bases” are not acceptable to New Delhi because, if taken out of context, such terminology could imply a relationship of an alliance rather than a mutually beneficial partnership.
Recipe for mutual success
To effectively move beyond discrepancies, both democracies must conclude the enabling agreements from a position of creative determination to get the job done. There are two key conditions that are necessary for this partnership to flourish.
First, there needs to be a very senior-level decision to tackle a challenge in the defense relationship with a firm time frame. One relevant example is the Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement. The LEMOA laid fallow for years until a commitment was made in early 2016 to finalize and announce the agreement during the meeting between Modi and then-U.S. President Barack Obama in June of that year. With a deadline in mind, both the governments of India and the U.S. moved mountains to succeed. A major issue during the negotiations was that the draft text of this U.S. India agreement remained the same over the decade in which this effort laid untouched.
The U.S. was reluctant to move forward with such outdated language and sought to renegotiate the text from a contemporary standing. India, however, insisted that it would be impossible to prepare fresh text and meet the compressed timeline. To reach a bilateral agreement, both governments made major concessions. The U.S. agreed to accept the dated text with minor revisions, and India agreed to accept the contemporary financial text mandated by current U.S. law. Both nations addressed standard wording to find suitable replacements for words such as “operations” and “bases.” The agreed-upon text was delivered to Obama less than one hour prior to his meeting with the prime minister. Success was achieved through a high-level approach and mutual determination to get this agreement done. It is this type of approach that will be critical for the future of the U.S.-India defense partnership.
The second condition is the need for policy and procedural changes to be coupled with a tangible program under that well-defined timeline. This has happened before. For example, with the signing of the Obama-Modi joint statement in January 2015, several pathfinder projects were announced. Two of these programs were joint projects requiring the negotiation and conclusion of agreements allowing both nations to legally partner in select areas of research. These types of agreements are common for similar purposes between the two nations. However, negotiating such agreements has historically taken an average two to three years per agreement. In 2015, however, both sides were tasked to negotiate and conclude the agreements in under six months. Balanced cooperation and immense flexibility brought success to both countries.
The past few years have exposed a very a clear formula for success in the defense-relationship of these two nations. They function best when under high-level pressure with a willingness to be creative and accommodating, while achieving the legally binding framework necessary to meet the standards of each nations’ legislature. Defined joint projects agreed to at the highest levels, with associated timelines against which progress can be measured, have often allowed for success in the past and will again in the future.
As counterterror efforts increase in volume, along with a focus on regional stability in the Indo-Pacific and specifically China, following this recipe will be beneficial for the future of this bilateral relationship. We are in an extremely unique and hopeful period in our relationship, and defense cooperation remains the cornerstone. The time is now for the U.S. and India to move beyond the aspirational and toward the tangible.
Keith Webster is the senior vice president of defense and aerospace at the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, a nonprofit seeking to strengthen the U.S.-India bilateral and strategic partnership.