Media reports are often like avalanches: Once they set off downhill, there is no stopping them. The original information often snowballs, quickly covered over with opinions, biases and more-and-more unrelated facts. Eventually a fact may be transformed into a generalization, a half-truth, or simply the opposite of truth when it reaches the general public.
This is the case of recent media reports that U.S. legislation has granted India a status on par with Washington’s non-NATO allies (a “major non-NATO ally,” or MNNA). Such a change could have made India a key strategic ally of the United States, a position enjoyed by such countries as Japan or Israel. While this had not really happened, news articles still indicated a true and important trend of growing strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi.
In April this year, Representatives Joe Wilson, Tulsi Gabbard, and four others proposed the H.R.2123 bill (suggested as the United States-India Enhanced Cooperation Act of 2019). It would, among other things, add India to the group of nations mentioned in the section 3(b)(2) of the Arms Exports Control Act. The relevant section lists the countries to which the United States can transfer its military technology without the approval of the President – these states include NATO member countries and a select few key U.S. allies: Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Israel, and New Zealand. This group of five is, by the way, much more narrow than the list of “major non-NATO allies” and is not identical to it. The same piece of legislation would also include India in this category of countries in a few other sections of the Arms Exports Control Act, effectively making the security cooperation between the two nations smoother, wider, and quicker. At the time of writing, the bill has not yet come through.
A very similar attempt was made in 2016, when Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner introduced bill S. 2901 (suggested as Advancing U.S.-India Defense Cooperation Act). That piece of legislation also sought to add India’s name to a number of clauses in the Arms Exports Control Act. Even at that time the attempt was not to make India a MNNA, however. At any rate, that bill also did not live to become a law.
What has been voted through as of July 2019, however, was the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2020 (in both houses, though in different versions and now these differences need to be reconciled). While this document neither confers any broad, strategic status on India nor does it make the transfer of American weapon systems to India any easier in the legal sense, one can at least say that its spirit is of general support to the growing U.S.-India partnership.
One of the act’s key changes – when it comes to India, that is – is a bit more than a technicality, but much less than a strategic shift. The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act should now be amended to include the need for a description of U.S.-India defense cooperation in such areas as the Western Indian Ocean, and their joint activities in such aspects as “humanitarian assistance, counter terrorism, counter piracy, maritime security and other areas.” The only “ally status” one can identify in the Act when it comes to India is its stipulation that “[n]ot later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense shall submit […] a report containing,” among others “an assessment of the potential to host, or incorporate through software-defined payloads, Global Positioning System M-code functionality onto allied global navigation satellite system systems.” One of those allied systems, as defined in the Act, is the Indian GPS-equivalent system, NavIC. This is, by and large, all there is; no fireworks to look out for in the sky this time.
And yet the general direction seems to be clear: all pros and cons considered, Washington still wants to deepen its partnership with New Delhi, and perceives it as possessing strategic value. Those legal proceedings are taking place at a time when New Delhi and Washington are facing an array of challenges in their bilateral relations: India had to unwillingly halt its oil imports from Iran under the threat of American sanctions, the U.S. policy towards Tehran is hurting the progress of the Chabahar port development project (jointly realized by Afghanistan, India, and Iran), Washington and New Delhi are in a tussle over their bilateral trade and have recently thrown tariffs at each other, and, last but not least, the U.S. government is very unhappy with India’s 2018 decision to buy the Russian S-400 missile system.
It is conceivable, as part of the press has suggested, that the NDAA could have included more significant gifts for India if not for the S-400 issue. But the going could have as well been much more tough: It is enough to remember that the specter of U.S. sanctions over acquiring the S-400 still hangs over India. New Delhi was to “find out soon” what the decision on the sanctions was going to be, as U.S. President Donald Trump declared in November last year, but nothing has transpired so far. It is probable that Washington wants to make an exception in the case of the Indian purchase of the S-400 by not using the sanctions option; eyeing a wider partnership with New Delhi, it the U.S. will eventually leave this issue behind. And yet one does not simply proceed from threatening another nation with sanctions to immediately offering it a special partnership status. With all the above disagreements casting their shadows over the relationship, Washington probably did not want to offer any larger concession to India at the moment, as that would make it appear weak.
India’s inclusion in the clauses of the Arms Exports Control Act is very far from certain as of now, and ideas such as the country becoming a MNNA are still being kept on the shelf reserved for speculation (and lest we forget, Pakistan still enjoys this status). The goal, perhaps, is to make India a partner equal to an MNNA, without naming it in such a way. But even without these changes and designations, the U.S.-India security cooperation is clearly growing, as indicated by a number of deals signed in the last few years, such as New Delhi’s purchase of Apache and Chinook helicopters, or the signing of the COMCASA and LEMOA agreements. Moreover, in 2016, India was designated as a “Major Defense Partner” of the United States in that year’s annual NDAA. While this status is not as formal and concrete as MNNA, the general understanding was that it was to lead to the U.S. greater openness in sharing military technology with India.
Both sides understand that despite all the differences on many fronts they need each other on the other ones, such as in dealings with China. While New Delhi will steer clear from being perceived as uniformly siding with one global power (be it the United States or any other nation), it is obvious that it wants to enhance its partnership with Americans much more than with any other major country. In the long run, this may perhaps lead to India becoming Washington’s key strategic-partner-but-not-ally.
And this is where I will leave it to the legislators to describe such cooperation in formal and legally binding terms.