NEW DELHI — The White House symbolically confirmed its policy to treat India as a major defense partner, following its decision to move ahead with the sale to India of 22 Guardian maritime drones worth about $2 billion prior to a June 26 meeting in Washington between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump, say analysts.
"The fact that the Trump administration made the effort to expeditiously close on the Indian request (for Guardian drones) signals its interest in preserving close relations with India," said Ashley J. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
India requested to buy the 22 drones in late 2016 under the Obama administration, but the former president left the decision to the new administration. India's request also included the purchase of an unknown numbers of armed drones.
India's wish list still includes that import of armed drones from the U.S., but that sale would require "a major policy change," according to Tellis.
"The United States has a standing prohibition against export of advanced unmanned aerial vehicles. The only exceptions we've made are to allies involved in combined operations. India's need for armed UAVs is great, but it will take a major policy change for the administration to authorize the sale of armed UAVs to India," Tellis said.
An Indian Ministry of Defence official said the country will now look to Israel for its acquisition of armed drones, rather than wait for a decision from the U.S.
An official with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. president "evaded hardcore strategic issues (during his talks with Modi) and instead concentrated on economic issues which impact U.S."
The joint statement after the Trump-Modi meeting does not name Pakistan by name for breeding terrorism, as New Delhi would have liked, analysts note.
"An anti-terrorism statement in anti-Pakistan terms, concessions on H1B visas and those for the Indian pharma industry, and indication of firmness vis-à-vis China will be the main metrics for Delhi to make up its mind about the Trump dispensation," said Bharat Karnad, a research professor and national security expert with the Centre for Policy Research.
Also speaking to the White House's policy toward China, Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India, said: "The administration's overall China policy is still very much in flux. Part of what Modi will have to ascertain is what shape it will take going forward."
Indo-U.S. defense ties have so far been of a selling nature, and India wants this to change to one involving the co-development of weaponry. This desire has become a cornerstone for future defense ties between the two countries, the MoD official said.
In the last 10 years, India has bought weaponry and equipment worth over $15 billion from the United States, but joint weapon development has not taken place.
The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, a forum between India and the U.S. that negotiates the possibility of joint development of high-tech weaponry, had been very active during the Obama administration. But DTTI was not part of the Trump-Modi discussion.
Speaking in Washington after the meeting, Modi said: "President Trump and I have also spoken about strengthening bilateral defense technology."
However, Karnad noted, the joint development of defense technology discussed could only be restricted to the production of F-16 fighter aircraft in India "because it is an obsolete aircraft involving no advanced military technology and no great loss of manufacturing jobs because all the high-value technologies and avionics components will still be made in the U.S."
Overall, Tellis believes it's too early to judge Indo-U.S. defense and strategic ties.
"It's far too early," Tellis said. "However, there's broad support for India and few acute problems, so I wouldn't be concerned at this point, no matter what the outcomes of the Modi-Trump summit."