The relationship between the United States and India is excellent proof that the dominant theory of international relations—nations form partnerships and alliances based on mutual interests or common values—is wrong. If this theory were true, America and India—the world’s oldest and largest democracy, respectively, united by a common English language, increasingly connected through trade and investment flows, targeted by the same terrorist groups, and confronting Chinese expansion—would be far more closely aligned than they are today.
More illuminating in this context is the law of inertia: In the absence of a major crisis, don’t expect major change from large democracies. Secretary of State Pompeo will soon arrive in New Delhi for his first exchange with Prime Minister Modi since his re-election victory. Mutual words of affirmation will surely be uttered, and the specter of growing Chinese military power will be a silent presence during the dialogue. But it remains to be seen if this common concern can compel both governments to move toward meaningful cooperation.
In 2016, the United States Congress declared India a “Major Defense Partner”—a designation uniquely crafted for India. I had the opportunity to play a modest role in the conceptualization of this policy during my time in the Pentagon, and later advocated its adoption before Congress. This designation sought to address Indian suspicion of America’s reliability. Indians have long chafed at what they call “technology denial regimes,” the set of interlocking U.S. sanctions and policies that denied India technology in the name of non-proliferation. This is not an abstraction for Indian leaders, many of whom served as junior officials in 1998 when the U.S. government cut off resupplies to the Indian military after India’s nuclear test. In addition to addressing this challenge, Major Defense Partner (MDP) status also aimed at a target far closer to home—U.S. Executive Branch officials who needed political justification to treat India on par with America’s partners and allies in the context of defense technology trade and cooperation. Reaffirmation of MDP has since been a feature of nearly every major speech on U.S.-India relations.
And it has been more than rhetoric. The MDP designation institutionalized a prioritization of India that resulted in the release of advanced defense technologies and increased staffing resources for Indian requests. Particularly welcomed by New Delhi was the coveted “Strategic Trade Authorization 1 Status,” which streamlines exports of sensitive goods from the United States and facilitates the integration of both nations’ supply chains in defense manufacturing. (Not even Israel has STA-1.) This was a rare joint victory of the Obama and Trump Administrations, agreed to in principle by Obama’s team but implemented in 2018 by Trump’s Secretary of Commerce. New Delhi also welcomed the Pentagon’s nod to India’s centrality to Asia. While the Indian navy cannot match the Chinese navy’s power projection capabilities, the U.S. Department of Defense bestowed on India titular dominion over a vast maritime domain by renaming U.S. Pacific Command the “Indo-Pacific Command.”
The U.S. government’s traditional approach to India, going back to 1947, aspired to balance relations with Islamabad and New Delhi. But as Washington’s relations with Pakistan soured over its support for insurgents in Afghanistan and China became an urgent concern, India decisively won this policy battle. Then a new contest emerged that effectively pitted India against Indifference—and Indifference commands a dedicated constituency.
Progress with India always requires time-consuming exceptions and workarounds to typical U.S. government policies and procedures. Indian “exceptionalism,” defense officials learned long ago, is a time suck. And the feeling is often mutual among skeptics of America in New Delhi, who believe dealing with Washington on issues like export and technology controls is unacceptably difficult.
Yet the advocates of the partnership have won important victories of late. In 2016, after more than a decade of negotiations, the Modi government signed a “foundational” agreement governing military logistics cooperation with the United States, a prerequisite to true operational level cooperation. Two years later a second foundational agreement governing advanced communications security was sealed. These agreements came despite hysterical heckles from India’s old guard foreign policy hands warning of Western imperial entrapment and the loss of Indian sovereignty. In reality, the agreements are important but far from intrusive, and their greatest significance may be to demonstrate the ability of both governments to show flexibility in setting the terms of practical partnership. Foundational agreements are boilerplate documents that the U.S. bureaucracy resists revising and political appointments generally avoid fiddling with. Yet, under former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and his India lead Dr. Joe Felter, the U.S. government did just that by renaming these agreements to make them unique to India. Indian exceptionalism won the policy battle that day.
This kind of progress is not exactly “low-hanging fruit,” but it bears emphasizing that these developments do not a meaningful defense partnership make. Easing export restrictions and technology controls is essential. Developing and vocalizing American and Indian political alignment is important. But these are first steps. The chief imperative of the U.S.-India defense partnership is to maintain multipolarity in Asia in the face of the most transformational development of our age: the rise of China’s economic and military power.
The Chinese are well on their way to dominating the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific, which will put severe strain on neighboring countries’ autonomy and freedom of decision-making. If not deterred by a countervailing coalition of hard power, the asymmetry in military capability risks causing a bandwagoning of support behind Beijing that poses not only a threat to the freedom of countries in the region but a global challenge to the postwar U.S.-led order. The recent progress in U.S.-India defense ties doesn’t come close to addressing the problem.
And this is not a theoretical problem—it’s a math problem. As U.S and Indian alignment has increased at the rhetorical level, a gap has grown between commitments and capabilities. Admittedly, assessing military power balances by comparing military spending totals is misleading for several reasons—it takes fewer resources to deny an adversary access to local territory than to project power across vast distances; not all countries’ defense acquisition procedures are equally efficient; and there is no universally accepted standard for measuring defense spending. Nonetheless, contrasting India’s military budget with that of China reveals a dangerous chasm.
This year India’s budget had the lowest defense allocation since 1962, the year China defeated an ill-equipped Indian military—and this in the midst of what Indian observes describe as a “readiness crisis” caused by shortfalls ranging from depleted fighter aircraft to lack of basic ammunition. By contrast, China’s defense budget has doubled during the past decade at an annual average of 8 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, propelling the country to become the second largest military spender in the world. And by most accounts China’s gotten good value for its money, in contrast to consistent criticism of the efficiency of India’s defense acquisition system. Looking purely at the budget numbers, former Indian military officers note that the nominal increases in India’s defense budgets have been neutralized by inflation and rupee depreciation. The allocation of funds also doesn’t support modernization. Manpower costs have grown from 44 percent in 2011 to 56 percent in 2019 while capital procurement expenditure dropped from 26 percent to 18 percent, according to the Indian Ministry of Defence’s in-house think tank. The Indian way of war has always privileged low costs and quantity over high-cost technologies of quality, but the universal trend in military modernization goes in the opposite direction.
A larger and different allocation of Indian defense spending is part of the solution, and expected to occur under the new Indian government, but India won’t match China’s military spending any time soon. Nor would such an increase necessarily be in India’s interest. After all, India is still a developing country, and issues like malnutrition, pollution, and employment rank far higher on the priority list for the average Indian than matching China’s military spending. Despite ambitious statements that suggest India is preparing for simultaneous full-scale land wars against Pakistan and China, Indian war plans—and the budget—are based largely on the country’s historical experience, which doesn’t include a full-spectrum war with China. The solution to the math problem has been apparent for some time. Indian military power combined with U.S. military power can match and deter Chinese military power (India + U.S. ≥ China). Forging new defense alliances is the time-tested answer to the problem of a rising revisionist power. Yet the culture and history of the United States and India make this concept difficult to implement in practice.
The dominant tradition in Indian foreign policy is “non-alignment,” an approach that India’s first Prime Minister devised to protect Indian independence during the Cold War. The non-aligned approach largely endures to this day because old habits die hard and because this approach emanates from India’s particular geopolitical predicament. Indian diplomats frequently point out that they “live in a difficult neighborhood.” It isn’t hard to recognize that India is located between two countries—China and Pakistan—with which it has gone to war and may well do so again. Nor is it lost on a casual observer that Pakistan continues to sponsor and direct a violent campaign of irregular warfare and terrorism against India. In this sense, this statement seems to mimic the well-known Israeli retort to American government officials: “Don’t preach to us about our security. You live in Chevy Chase, Maryland. We’re sitting on top of a volcano.”
But after years of hearing this phrase from Indian diplomats, I came to understand that its meaning is quite different from the Hebrew-accented version. India’s message carries a different connotation: “Our neighborhood doesn’t afford us the luxury of directly confronting our foes.”
An irony at the core of Indian foreign policy is that autonomy is heralded to be its central principle but in practice Indian policies are often guided by foreign coercion. For example, India’s military equipment is overwhelmingly of Soviet origin and without the resupply of Russian spares and maintenance, India’s ground forces would literally come to a grinding halt. There is widespread disdain within the Indian military toward Russia for this state of affairs and a sincere desire to diversify away from Russia. Yet India keeps purchasing new Russia defense systems. Why?
The official answer is that Indian defense procurement is based on value for money and the Russian systems serve Indian military requirements at the best price. While this is true in some instances, such as a Russian partnership in nuclear submarines, there is also an unofficial second answer: India has little choice. Moscow will cut off the sustainment support the Indian military needs and retaliate by selling more advanced systems to China and Pakistan unless India buys new Russian systems. This is the cold logic of India’s “difficult neighborhood,” and it encourages an Indian approach to foreign relations that manifests in placation of foreign powers. India offers energy deals to Moscow, foundational agreements to the United States, and buys fighter aircraft from the French, all in an effort to keep such powers happy enough to respect Indian interests. But such hedging also forestalls the kind of deep partnerships that could truly empower the country.
The non-aligned mentality in the context of U.S.- India ties is sustained by two beliefs in particular. One is that “India doesn’t need America.” In recent years it has become clear that Indian elites have a vision of India rising in global influence in the midst of a “multipolar world.” The weakening of the “superpowers” in relative influence is a welcome sight for a generation that lived under international conditions designed and often dictated by denizens of Washington and Moscow. At Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Prime Minster Modi said: “President Putin and I shared our views on the need for a strong multipolar world order for dealing with the challenges of our times.” He continued by emphasizing that India’s “friendships are not alliances of containment. We choose the side of principles and values. . . not one side of a divide over the other.” This hedging stands in contrast to Washington’s vision of “A geopolitical competition between free and oppressive visions taking place in the Indo-Pacific,” in the words of Admiral Harry Harris. In January 2019, in a public exchange that brilliantly captures the divergence in American and Indian perspectives, General David Petraeus declared that India had to “take a side in this competition” to which India’s recently appointed Foreign Minister Dr. S Jaishankar retorted: “Yes, India will take a side, India’s side.”
The corollary of “India doesn’t need America” is “India doesn’t trust America.” On this point, Indian diplomats have reasonable grounds for suspicion. Governments can never be fully trusted, but consistency and predictability are very important considerations and by these criteria the United States has fallen short. In one breath the U.S. government declares India to be a Major Defense Partner and in another threatens to impose new sanctions on the Indian Ministry of Defense as part of the Countering America Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Passed in retaliation for Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, CAATSA aims to deter foreign governments from transferring hard currency to Russia by threatening secondary sanctions on individuals or entities that buy significant equipment from the Russian military.
Yet in the context of India this legislation is entirely counterproductive because threatening sanctions exacerbates pre-existing concerns about the reliability of America’s defense industry and pushes the government closer to its time-tested supplier: Russia. No wonder that the number of announced defense deals between Russia and India have increased significantly since CAATSA was signed into law, with prospective orders including 750,000 AK-203 Kalashnikov assault rifles, four Krivak III-class frigates, five units of the S-400 Triumf air defense missile system and the ten-year lease of a nuclear-powered attack submarine from Russia. The absurdity of CAATSA in the Indian context was taken on by former Secretary of Defense Mattis, who successfully lobbied Congress to create a flexible waiver provision in 2018, but to utilize this waiver the Trump Administration will need to overcome a bureaucratic reflex for a uniform sanctions policy on all sales of specific Russian weapons systems. It’s far from certain that the Administration is able and willing to operate with such nuance.
Such self-inflicted wounds undermine arguably the most important component of the relationship: Defense industrial integration in the context of technology security vulnerability. If the U.S. government could flip a switch and make the Indian armed forces more capable than they are today, it would have every interest in doing so. Yet this American interest does not supersede the imperative of ensuring America’s crown jewel military technologies aren’t compromised and acquired by its adversaries, including the Russians. The issue of Indian funds being transferred to Russia and used to bolster Putin’s coffers (the problem CAATSA took aimed at and missed) is real but a fleeting concern driven largely by U.S. domestic politics. No reasonably informed person can conclude India plays a significant role in enabling Russian aggression. The far larger and more enduring problem is the ramifications of India’s continued defense relationship with the Russians (and others) on the security of advanced defense technologies that must be at the center of meaningful U.S.-India defense cooperation.
The strength of the U.S. armed forces derives from what’s called the “defense industrial base,” which is the product of innovation and investment made by America and its closest partners including Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Today, this allied industrial base faces multiple threats, most notably technology theft. The Department of Defense estimates that in recent years the United States has lost between $250 and $340 billion annually due to intellectual property theft and cybercrime. Congress and the Trump Administration are now in the process of constructing new walls in the form of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) restrictions and defense export restrictions to arrest this trend. The location of India with respect to these regulatory walls will set the parameters of the bilateral defense partnership for at least a generation. Will India be inside the camp with the United States and its close partners or on the other side with Russia and China?
This is the reason India’s pending acquisition of a Russia S-400 anti-aircraft system may be so consequential. Much has been made in public of the Turkish government’s pursuit of this system and the ramifications for NATO and the F-35 fighter aircraft partnership. India’s time in the spotlight of this issue is not far off. Due in part to the refusal of the United States to offer an alternative capability until India’s deal with Russia was effectively concluded, and due in part to the value for money the system provides in managing the risks associated with India’s depleted fighter aircraft fleet, the S-400s appear to be a done deal for India. While the threat of CAATSA sanctions for this purchase remains, the bigger problem is the sale’s implications on industrial collaboration. The S-400 is a giant radar and locating a Russian radar (and Russian technicians) in close proximity to advanced American stealth aircraft is a great way to compromise that stealth. As one Pentagon official put it, “The S-400 is a computer. The F-35 is a computer. You don’t hook your computer to your adversary’s computer and that’s basically what we would be doing.” This kind of transaction flies in the face of India’s most vocal defense priority: attracting FDI along with cutting-edge new technologies.
Fixing this problem—the challenge of defense manufacturing integration—needs to be the central focus of Indian and U.S. government efforts for there to be any hope of building a truly major defense partnership. This in turn requires the U.S. and Indian governments to reach understanding and agreement on the actions needed to create safe spaces for advanced defense technology work. This began years ago with Boeing and Lockheed’s establishment of joint production plants with Indian companies like TATA and Dynamatic Technologies that build components for platforms like the Apache attack helicopter and the C-130 military transportation aircraft. Yet there is a glass ceiling to such cooperation if India doubts American reliability and the U.S. government suspects that critical technology sent to India could be compromised. These are manageable problems—they aren’t zero-sum negotiations—but they require focus at a time when both democracies are distracted. It’s a question yet again of the urgent pushing out the important.