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When Barack Obama won the American Presidential elections in 2008, there was not much enthusiasm among most of the Indian strategic community. This was partly because of his views on outsourcing, but mostly because of a popular assumption in the community that Republican Presidents are better for India than Democrats. Those who propagate this assumption of course conveniently forget President John F Kennedy’s help during the Sino-Indian War and President Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘tilt’ towards Pakistan and his rapprochement towards China. Given this background, how did India-US relations, particularly defence relations, fare under Obama and what are they likely to look like under Donald Trump?


There were no big breakthroughs in Indo-US relations under Obama, definitely nothing like the nuclear deal under President George W Bush. In fact, there was much frustration and angst, whether it was over the Khobragade episode, or India’s inability to get the NSG membership. Despite these disagreements, the one component in the bilateral relationship which was kept moving forward was the defence relationship. This has come about because of the convergence of the two countries’ strategic goals in the Indo Pacific as well as India’s policy of broadening its basket of arms importers and defence partners.


India’s armed forces now hold more joint exercises with the US than with any other country, including its prime supplier of defence equipment, Russia. In the last decade, India has bought over $15 billion worth of American made defence equipment. Today India is the second largest market for American arms, close behind Saudi Arabia. Under Obama, New Delhi and Washington also established the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which aims, among other things to “strengthen India’s defence industrial base by moving away from the traditional ‘buyer-seller’ dynamic toward a more collaborative approach.” This fits in well with India’s “Make in India” policy and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stated aim of building a strong defence industrial base for India. Modi would be well aware of the fact that no country can become a great power by merely importing weapons and not manufacturing its own weapons and weapons systems.


Once Ashton Carter, seen as an Indophile, took over as Defense Secretary from Chuck Hagel, defence ties picked up even more pace. Carter had supported the nuclear deal and as Deputy Secretary of Defense, he helped push through the DTTI. Carter was convinced of the need for a “strategic handshake” with India because of the convergence between the US’ rebalance to the Asia Pacific and India’s Act East policy as well as the need for a “technological handshake” to use the two countries’ industrial and technological capabilities for mutual security needs. He even described the bilateral defence relationship as the “anchor of global security”.


Under Carter, the two countries signed the ‘Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship’ in 2015.  India recently was designated as a “major defence partner” during Carter’s visit in early December. This means India can expect to procure weapons systems more smoothly than in the past and procure the latest defence technology. Earlier, India had also signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), giving access to both countries to select military facilities on either side for refuelling and replenishment. Moreover, an India Rapid Reaction Cell to route India-related issues on priority was set up in the Pentagon under the DTTI.  The only grievance Washington has, comes from New Delhi’s refusal so far to sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) — earlier named the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) — and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which would enable secure exchange of communication between the two militaries and the sharing of geospatial data. The highlight in defence ties under Obama came with the end of the US’ hesitation to transfer technology and to co-produce weapons systems with India, including jet engine and aircraft carrier design, and India’s classification as a Major Defence Partner. The relationship is thus moving from a purely buyer-seller relationship to co-development and co-production and from a strategic partnership to a strategic partnership 2.0.  


This brings us to the “assumption” referred to in the beginning. Obama has been good overall for India and has performed no better and no worse than a Republican President in the same circumstances. So, the assumption remains just that—a myth not borne out by facts. In fact, as detailed above, the Indo-US defence partnership has scaled new heights under Obama. So, what is the path ahead from such heights for the Indo-US defence relationship under Donald Trump’s administration?


Trump’s election as President of the United States has thrown in an element of uncertainty about the future of the US’ relations with much of the world. India, whose relationship with the US has fortified under the Obama administration, would be watching Trump’s policies, particularly towards Russia and China with much interest as this would have repercussions for its own relations with the US.


If Trump continues his confrontational attitude towards China and if the US needs to contain China, it will have to look for partners or allies closer physically to China. India then becomes a natural ally if its leaders overcome their reluctance for alliances. But if India is to be part of the balancing game against the US, it will have to augment its defence capabilities and have broader and faster force projection abilities. This would mean that the US will have to continue selling equipment to India and completely overcome its qualms about transfer of defence technology to India. However, if the US and China resolve their differences, there will be less imperative for Trump to help bolster India’s defence.


The second relationship which could have an impact on our bilateral defence ties is the US-Russia relationship. The signs for a Russia-US “reset” look promising in the backdrop of Trump’s campaign speeches as well as his choice of Secretary of State.  If Trump is willing to accept Russia’s sphere of influence in its Near Abroad, it will ease tensions between the two countries. A détente between Washington and Moscow would give India the best of both worlds—it will increase its space for manoeuvre and enable it to buy technology and equipment from both powers without causing heartburn to either. It would also move Russia out of the Chinese orbit and its plans for deeper ties with Pakistan. However, if the relationship goes downhill, India might have to choose between the two countries.


All said, it will however be difficult for Trump to reverse the gains made in the bilateral defence partnership because of the bipartisan support for India on Capitol Hill. The National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) of 2017, which has a section on ‘Enhancing Defence and Security Cooperation with India’, signed recently by Obama had been earlier passed with overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, is a case in point. Further, the NDAA binds future administrations to treat India as a “major defence partner”. Moreover, as a businessman, Trump is unlikely to ignore India, the world’s largest arms importer, since the US arms industry employs over 800,000 people, making up over ten percent of the US manufacturing demand. It will be up to India to make the most of this advantage under the Trump Presidency.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.