The Modi Visit and U.S.-India Defense Cooperation

October 6, 2014

The recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington must have come as a welcome reprieve for a White House consumed by chaos in the Middle East, Russian revisionism in Eastern Europe, and the spread of Ebola in Africa. Modi’s resounding electoral success in the May elections, his sterling pro-business credentials, and his reputation as a pragmatist fueled expectations that the visit would overcome the legacy of the 2005 U.S. visa ban for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, and reinvigorate a relationship that had grown stagnant in recent years.

For the White House, the objectives were clear: telegraph an exuberant welcome; signal that the President seeks to revitalize a critical economic and strategic partnership with India; build a personal relationship with Modi and his team; discern where and how India may be willing to join the United States in leading on pressing global issues like climate change and terrorism; and begin to flesh out shared priorities that the respective bureaucracies can pursue over the coming months. By these measures, the visit was undoubtedly a success.

Expectations were similarly high for what the visit would mean for cooperation on defense and security issues. The U.S.-India defense relationship has grown dramatically in recent years, measured both in terms of defense trade and exercises. India imported almost $2 billion of military equipment from the United States in 2013, up from $237 million in 2009. The increase has been so dramatic that the United States recently surpassed Russia as India’s largest supplier of arms. Defense cooperation is similarly robust: the Indian armed forces conduct more military exercises with the United States than with any other country in the world.

Between the Lines: Unpacking the Joint Statement

A close reading of the Joint Statement suggests that there was indeed progress in the U.S.-India relationship, both in tone and substance. Still, the statement suggests that there are areas of agreement that need to be clarified and a great deal still depends on implementation. The defense bureaucracies in Washington and New Delhi are both under strain, and it remains to be seen whether they can bring renewed energy to a relationship that has seen its share of aspirational declarations that eventually do not amount to much.

Joint statements are typically not enthralling documents, but neither are they haphazard. They are crafted to tell a story about shared priorities. In doing so, they point to the ways in which the defense and security aspects of the U.S.-India relationship fit within the larger framework of bilateral objectives. The 2009 Joint Statement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Obama, coming just a year after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, led off with issues of global security and counterterrorism. The 2010 statement, cued to the start of India’s rotation on the U.N. Security Council, began with global strategic issues and multilateral priorities. The 2013 statement, released as part of Singh’s valedictory visit as prime minister, began with defense trade, reflecting a growing interest in defense sales and technology transfer (and a paucity of other major deliverables as Singh’s government limped to the end of its decade-long tenure).

How did the Obama-Modi Joint Statement begin? Not surprisingly, it led off with the Indian government’s top priority: economic growth. Following closely behind were agreements on an important White House priority area: energy and climate change. Defense and homeland security cooperation rightly followed, but they were not meant to be seen as lead objectives of the visit.

Defense Trade and Cooperation: Signals and Specifics

The defense and security aspects of the Joint Statement, while not at the forefront of the document, nonetheless hit all the right notes, emphasizing closer cooperation and a frank assessment of shared interests. There was, to be sure, quite a lot of hedging. The language often avoided specifics that might obligate either side to take specific steps on specific timetables.

On defense trade, the two leaders reaffirmed a previous commitment to “treat each other at the same level as their closest partners”—an assurance that, in the main, signals a growing American willingness to offer India sensitive technologies for defense-related co-production and co-development. They established a Task Force to oversee implementation of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, a joint effort to cut through bureaucratic obstacles to trade and technology transfer. And, surprisingly, they agreed to revive and rethink the Political-Military Dialogue, which had been dormant for six years before restarting in 2012.

These are all welcome moves. At the same time, it is unfortunate that both sides could not agree upon and announce at least one flagship co-development project under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, such as the next-generation Javelin anti-tank missile. In the September 2013 Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation, the United States and India looked forward to “the identification of specific opportunities” under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative “within the next year.” That timetable was, by any reasonable interpretation, not met. Observers will also be watching closely the composition of the initiative’s task force and the scope of the Political-Military Dialogue. For it to be effective, the former should be led at the Assistant Secretary/Joint Secretary level, and the latter—if it is to address strategic matters and not simply export licensing—would have to be refashioned to include a wider array of civilian and military representatives from both countries.

One of the important outcomes of this summit was the agreement by Obama and Modi to renew the 2005 New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship, which is set to expire in 2015. The Joint Statement suggested that the New Framework was simply renewed without any changes, but subsequent comments from senior Defense Department officials have indicated that both governments will indeed revise the framework to reflect new priorities and aspirations. An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that both sides have in fact tabled substantive revisions and that negotiations are ongoing. As I argued in the lead-up to the visit, much has changed since 2005, and both sides would do well to consider lessons-learned from the previous decade of defense engagements, and ways in which the framework could be enhanced.

Apart from defense trade, there were notable defense cooperation agreements as well. The leaders publicly endorsed plans for the United States to cooperate with India’s planned National Defence University—a significant signal, given the long-standing inclination of India’s political class to publicly downplay U.S.-India defense activities. They also pledged to bolster work on maritime security and naval “technology cooperation.” Here the language was disappointingly vague, as both countries already have robust science and technology cooperation on naval issues. It could prove meaningful, however, if it leads to formal agreements on information-sharing at sea, or signals new partnerships on implementing common maritime domain awareness platforms in the Indian Ocean.

The same holds for the unspecified commitment to “upgrade” the flagship U.S.-India MALABAR exercise, which dates to 1992 and has been held in locations from the Arabian Sea to the Japanese coast. An upgrade could signal slightly more extensive participation by the respective navies, which already bring substantial assets. Alternately, an upgrade could involve more consistent participation by Japan, Australia, and Singapore, all of whom have joined in previous years, or episodic participation by selected ASEAN nations. A bigger MALABAR is not necessarily a better MALABAR, unless both sides upgrade their discussions about the capabilities that they want to develop and the regional effects they wish to achieve. To date, those discussions have been sorely lacking.

Beyond Defense: Counterterrorism and the Regional Environment

Looking beyond defense issues, there were other security-oriented deliverables that came out of the Obama-Modi meeting. The language on counterterrorism and law enforcement cooperation was arguably one of the strongest sections of the Joint Statement. It called out not only militant organizations, but specific networks that facilitate them, such as the Karachi-based D-Company of Dawood Ibrahim. It also identified key areas in which cooperation was both natural and needed: reviewing extradition agreements and countering counterfeit currency, cybercrime, terrorist travel, and improvised explosive devices. Taken together, this suggests a robust agenda for the coming year, and one endorsed at the highest levels.

President Obama and Prime Minister Modi were understandably cautious in speaking specifically about the regional security environment. But here too there were hints of where their priorities lay. They decided to “explore” upgrading the India-U.S.-Japan trilateral dialogue to the ministerial level, a welcome step given the natural affinities and shared interests between Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe. The statement’s language on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was remarkably direct, and copied nearly verbatim from American public statements on the issue. Seen in light of Modi’s effusive trip to Japan, and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s recent visit to Vietnam in which he agreed to expand joint oil and gas exploration, this language seems to point to a shared and growing impatience with Chinese naval activity and sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

The leaders were decidedly more muted on Afghanistan. Given the election turmoil in Kabul and Islamabad’s ongoing sensitivities to Indian commentary on Afghanistan’s future, that is to be expected. It should not escape attention, however, that Afghanistan was the only specific country referenced in the Pentagon’s official readout of the meeting between Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Further, while there was no mention of discussion about India-Pakistan relations, it was surely a topic of conversation between the two leaders. Despite—or perhaps because of—the uptick in U.S.-India relations, the prospect of Indo-Pakistani conflict remains considerable, and both India and Pakistan have rapidly growing nuclear arsenals. Sooner or later, the United States will have to broach with the new Indian government the challenge of dealing with these growing risks, particularly as they involve the possibility of nuclear war.

On wider nuclear and strategic issues, there were cautious steps forward. The United States and India agreed to start a new dialogue on “maintaining long-term security and sustainability of the outer space environment,” including space situational awareness and collision avoidance. Such a dialogue is probably a prerequisite to closer civilian space cooperation. A bolder move would have been a joint commitment to move toward agreement on the European Union-drafted International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. One can hope that the new bilateral dialogue will be a forum that moves both countries toward that objective.

The United States also reiterated its commitment to supporting India’s “phased entry” into the key nonproliferation regimes. That much was expected. What was new in this statement was the President’s affirmation, for the first time, that India now meets requirements to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Membership in MTCR would help to solidify India’s standing as a responsible nuclear state, and may ease further U.S.-India defense cooperation in sensitive technology areas.

The Way Forward

Ultimately, Prime Minister Modi’s visit was not about specific deliverables. For the prime minister, it was about demonstrating that he would not let the past get in the way of a strong future for U.S.-India relations, and that India would not take a zero-sum view of its global relationships and obligations. For President Obama, the visit was about signaling that the United States was willing and eager to engage India’s new leader, that economic growth should take center stage in that relationship, and that Washington remains committed to New Delhi assuming a leadership role on the world stage.

By and large, those objectives were met. In the process, the summit produced some incremental outcomes on defense and security cooperation. Real progress in that area, however, will only come when political leaders in Washington and New Delhi give their respective bureaucracies a mandate to act decisively in the interest of shared strategic priorities. The United States has come a long way in recent years in moving beyond its Cold War assumptions about defense trade and strategic cooperation with India. Under Prime Minister Modi, the Indian bureaucracy seems to be under new pressure to do the same. If anything, the Obama-Modi summit should signal to the respective bureaucracies that it is time to move beyond aspirations to action.

Joshua T. White is Deputy Director for South Asia at the Stimson Center. He previously served as Senior Advisor for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He can be followed on Twitter: @joshuatwhite.

Photo credit: Chuck Hagel

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