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What’s Next for US-India Defense Ties Under Trump and Modi?

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Asia Defense

What’s Next for US-India Defense Ties Under Trump and Modi?

A closer look at what both sides discussed in the security realm and what we might expect going forward.

What’s Next for US-India Defense Ties Under Trump and Modi?
Credit: US Navy Photo

As I wrote earlier this month, though Donald Trump’s administration might appear to be in domestic disarray and still lacking a coherent Asia strategy, it has been quite active on the Asia front (See: “The Truth About Trump’s Asia Commitment Problem”).

This week is a case in point as Trump kicked off an active round of Asian summitry. He met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 26, and new South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visit is set for June 29-30 (See: “Trump’s Big Asia Summit Month”).

With the Trump-Modi summit concluding on Monday, what did the two sides achieve on the defense and security side, and what might we expect next in this realm of the bilateral relationship?

As I indicated in a preview of the Trump-Modi summit, one of the closely-watched items on the defense side was the operationalization of India’s newly-earned status as a “major defense partner” through sales of defense equipment and technology.

With New Delhi getting that designation, which gives it access to U.S. defense technology at effectively the same level as U.S. allies, toward the end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term, observers were looking to see if any actual progress would be made on this score. There have been ongoing delays on this front and officials had been dampening expectations even before the summit.

As expected, the inroads made on defense were fairly modest though still notable, even though the discussions centered around wider cooperation. In particular, the joint statement made reference to the reports that Washington had offered New Delhi 22 Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems or drones for over $2 billion, which was a deal that both sides have been negotiating for a while now amid some difficulties. Separately, during Modi’s visit, there was also congressional notification of a possible foreign military sale to India for C-17 transport aircraft at an estimated cost of $366.2 million.

To be sure, this is just a fraction of the range of defense equipment that both sides are mulling, the list of which also includes attack helicopters, maritime patrol aircraft, and fighter jets. And the fact that India has still not approved a key foundational defense agreement, initially called the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), has also affected the extent of progress both sides can make on this front.

But the fact that some transfers did occur from the U.S. side was an important step in actually putting some substance behind the major defense partner designation India had received. One thing to watch will be if we see more of such transfers in the future.

Maritime security was also a highlight during the summit meeting. Both sides made reference to the Malabar Exercises, which will commence next month. As I have noted before, in the two decades since its inception, Malabar has gone from a U.S.-India drill to an emerging platform for Indo-Pacific cooperation, even though its expansion has been progressing slower than some in Washington would like. Japan is now permanently included but Australia is still left out (See: “Malabar Exercises: An Emerging Platform for Indo-Pacific Cooperation?”). As we move past this round of Malabar into next year, the persistent issue of expansion will likely continue to be a conversation topic.

Both sides also said that they would enhance collaboration on maritime domain awareness by expanding the implementation of their “white shipping” data sharing arrangement. Though often overlooked, such agreements are important because information on the location of non-military, commercial vessels can help detect their potential use by nefarious actors. And as Joshua White, who previously worked on South Asian Affairs at the Obama White House noted on Twitter following the summit, there is “lots more” both sides can look to accomplish in this field moving forward.

Th two countries also addressed broader defense issues that were of importance to them. Unsurprisingly, terrorism featured prominently. Securing the homeland is a key priority both within Trump’s “America First” vision (amid continued concerns over Islamic State) as well as within Indian foreign policy, with cross-border attacks from Pakistan and concerns about Afghanistan. Apart from the fact that terrorism received its own section in the joint statement, with four paragraphs devoted to it, the substance was also notable.

For instance, the joint statement not only notes Indian appreciation for U.S. designation of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, but notes the formation of a new consultation mechanism on domestic and international terrorist designations listing proposals more broadly to discuss this moving forward. This is a promising example of collaboration by the two sides in this area apart from other lines of effort already ongoing, including intelligence-sharing and operational-level cooperation.

The joint statement is also quite tough on Pakistan. Washington’s acceptance of strong language in the paragraph referring to Islamabad, including its culpability in allowing its territory to be used as a launching pad for cross-border attacks against India, is telling in terms of where the Trump administration is on this issue with respect to the two South Asian giants, even if these realities have long been quite clear to both sides.

That said, it is also important to keep in mind that the Trump administration’s broader strategy for the Middle East still has not really taken shape beyond occasional kinetic actions as well as proposals for troop increases. Despite the broad alignment of interests articulated by both sides publicly – including increasing collaboration with Middle Eastern partners in accord with New Delhi’s “Think West” policy – Indian uncertainties on this front are likely to remain with respect to the specifics of the administration’s policies and things could get heated down the line.

North Korea also featured much more prominently than it has before. That too was to be expected given how much the administration has prioritized it thus far as well as the centrality of the issue in its diplomatic engagements. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress earlier this month that Pyongyang was the “most urgent” threat to U.S. national security. Accordingly, the issue has been a highlight in other interactions with Asian state where it typically would not have been, including the Special U.S.-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting  (See: “What Was The First Special US-ASEAN Meeting Under Trump Really About?”).

In his remarks with Modi at the Rose Garden, Trump directly thanked New Delhi for joining Washington in applying new sanctions against the North Korean regime. Last month, India, which has been a key trading partner for Pyongyang, suspended most of those links, bringing it into line with United Nations sanctions as the Trump administration has been pushing U.S. allies and partners to do (with varying degrees of success).

Despite the alignment between Washington and New Delhi on North Korea thus far, it is worth noting that it is still early days in the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy, and many pieces of the puzzle still remain quite uncertain, including U.S.-China relations and the direction of South Korean foreign policy under the new government.

Lastly, China was also a topic of conversation. Though the joint statement unsurprisingly makes no direct mention of Beijing, the very structure of the joint statement, which sets out three principles – freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce; the peaceful and lawful resolution of disputes; and bolstering regional economic connectivity keeping in mind transparency, responsibility, sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, and the environment – is centered around a vision that is quite distinct from Beijing’s practices today, whether it be in the South China Sea or with its Belt and Road Initiative (See: “The Real Trouble With China’s Belt and Road”).

That is a comforting, if heavily caveated reminder that even though there may still be differences in Washington and New Delhi in terms of how they specifically deal with Beijing’s rise – ones that could exacerbate should U.S.-China relations worsen further down the line during the Trump presidency – they do share a common positive view of what Asia should look like that they can try to advance in concert with other like-minded states.

To be sure, there was much more that both sides talked about apart from the defense side. But the security realm unsurprisingly featured quite prominently in the Trump-Modi meeting, and it will be interesting to see what kind of progress both sides can make after their summit.