Washington and New Delhi Seek to Deepen Ties, But Spoilers Loom

September 13, 2018

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published by The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Sydney. War on the Rocks is proud to be publishing select articles from The Interpreter.

After talks had been delayed previously owing to domestic developments in the United States, causing much disappointment in India, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis finally arrived in New Delhi last week for meetings with their counterparts in India – Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Minister for Defense Nirmala Sitharaman.

This 2+2 dialogue, the first between the two countries, is aimed at strengthening the strategic relationship. The agenda for the talks was outlined in a joint statement, designating India as a “Major Defense Partner” of the United States, and committing to “strengthen defence ties further and promote better defence and security coordination and cooperation,”

Pompeo also highlighted India’s relevance to the success of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. This followed the noteworthy change of name in May of the U.S. Pacific Command to the new Indo-Pacific Command – a change symbolic of the growing American interest in India.

The impetus to strengthen the strategic relationship is also reflected in the revival of the Quadrilateral Dialogue between India, the United States, Japan, and Australia. First initiated in 2007, the dialogue failed to take off and was disbanded, but has been reconstituted with meetings in November 2017 and April 2018.

Following the U.S.-India meeting in New Delhi, the two countries decided to set up a direct hotline between the foreign and defense ministers. There were also negotiations to support closer defense industry cooperation and collaboration, and steps to increase personnel exchanges between the two militaries, and a discussions of a host of other issues in the relationship.

India and the United States have signed a Communications, Compatability and Security Agreement, enabling the United States to provide India with communications equipment and technology. India had earlier objected to this agreement, concerned with sharing of critical information and its sensitive strategic communications network.

Notwithstanding the recent enthusiasm, there also exist potentially significant spoilers for the partnership.

Reports of U.S. President Donald Trump’s mimicking the speech of  Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a frosty meeting between the two in Manila in November last year, present something of a personal hurdle. And at a strategic level, India’s need to balance its interests between the United States, China, and Russia, as well as maintaining relations with regional partners such as Iran, are also a significant factor. While critical of China on the domestic front, Modi has been reluctant to take a tough line on China at international forums, disappointing many during the Shangri-La summit in June.

Outside Asia, the American influence in India’s Iran policy also has been a factor previously and a new set of sanctions penalizing India for trade with Iran (as a major source of oil imports for India) could trigger another balancing act.

While India has asked for waivers, and Pompeo said during his visit to New Delhi, “our effort here is not to penalize a great strategic partner like India,” he seemed to leave little room for exemptions. Pompeo declared:

The sanctions with respect to Iranian crude oil will be enforced … and it is our expectation that the purchases of Iranian crude oil will go to zero from every country, or sanctions will be imposed.

India could find itself on the end of U.S. sanctions for its ties to Russia, too. The United States has objected to India’s planned $6 billion purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles from Moscow and called for the deal to be cancelled – a demand India has so far resisted.

Despite these obstacles in the relationship, the Indian media was pleased that the talks resulted in pressure on neighboring Pakistan. The joint statement called for a crackdown on cross-border terrorism, reflecting signs of tension between the United States and Pakistan over financial assistance. Despite this, however, Pakistan is crucial to American operations in Afghanistan.

While the India-U.S. relationship moves forward, encouraged by the success of the dialogue, particularly from the American perspective, the impact of these spoilers and India’s balancing act is likely to create significant tensions. Trade sanctions will be particularly detrimental to a struggling Indian economy, and deterioration of relations with either Russia or Iran could significantly hamper India’s regional position.

There is plenty more to talk about.


Dr. Stuti Bhatnagar is an Adjunct Fellow associated with the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide, Australia. She specializes in Indian foreign policy, especially the role and rising influence of think tanks in India. She has been working as a research assistant and tutor at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Adelaide, teaching courses on Global Politics, South Asian politics and environmental politics. 

Image: James Mattis/Flickr