Updated: Nov 11
(On the left side, there is Shri. Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister and towards the right, it is Joe Biden, President of the United States of America).
The bilateral relationship between India and The United States (US) was a distant one before the independence of India. The Cold War and the containment policy of the United States led to the search for allies in South Asia. The newly emerged state of India followed a policy of peaceful co-existence. India followed a non-alignment approach which is against the system of alliances and blocs and did not align to show any preferential disposition towards any bloc.
Thus, India followed the policy of non-alignment and based its movements on the principle of sovereignty and independence. As Nehru said, “India wants World Peace rather than to join any bloc.” The statement alienated the US and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and the US viewed the non-alignment decision of India as a hostile gesture. During the same time, India developed cordial relationships with China by advocating “Asia for Asians” and voting for China’s permanent seat at the United Nations (UN). This affinity towards China and the non-alignment policy drove the wedge between India and the US further.
Against this strained background, Pakistan was facing an economic crisis and wanted to stabilize the power disparity in the region. As a result, Pakistan opted to reach out to become “the most allied ally” of the US while the latter was searching for allies in Asia. During the Cold War period, the American efforts to assist India and Pakistan in resolving the Kashmir dispute can be witnessed with several diplomatic arrangements in 1948 and 1999.
A new paradigm in the relations in the 1990s
The 1990s was a historic decade for most of the nations. On one hand, there was a global political upheaval as the United States and the Soviet Union publicly acknowledged to the world that they would work together to create a new partnership based on discussion and collaboration, ending the Cold War framework. Furthermore, the disintegration of the USSR led to unrest in global politics. On the other hand, India was facing an economic crisis(the diminished foreign reserves led India to borrow from global institutions) and a change in national politics led to the opening of the Indian economy through LPG reforms. So, there was the U.S. dominance on the global stage and Western institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were in the picture as the global economic governance nudged developing countries to adopt neo-liberal economic policies. To solve the economic crisis in India the U.S. was instrumental in providing the IMF of US$1.8 billion to India. Prime Minister Rao visited the United States in 1994 and President Clinton encouraged India's economic reforms. Six memorandums of understanding were signed with a plan of expanding on high-technology transfer, enhancing defence cooperation, stimulating bilateral ties, and establishing a business partnership initiative. This was a breakthrough in India's and the U.S. defence bilateral cooperation.
The new era of strengthened bilateral relations began with the signing of the 'Agreed Minute on Defence Relations between the United States and India' in 1995. In this pact, the Ministry of Defence and the U.S. Office of the Secretary interact with research and production levels. The discussion takes place in three groups: the Joint Defence Policy (DPG), the Joint Technical Group (JTG) for discussing issues related to defence research and production cooperation and the Joint Steering Committee (JSC) to increase the frequency and scope of Service-to-Service cooperation.
However, the synergy between the countries plunged and halted with the five nuclear tests conducted by India in 1998. Prime Minister Vajpayee wrote in a letter to President Bill Clinton, citing a "deteriorating security environment" given the threat of a nuclear-armed China and Pakistan's "covert nuclear weapons state" that led to India's decision to have an active nuclear policy. Though it was an act of deterrence, India received a reaction of international isolation, and the U.S. imposed several economic sanctions on India for several weeks after the test. The sanctions included termination of humanitarian aid, foreign assistance, foreign military financing, U.S. government sales of defence articles and services, design and construction services, prohibition of most U.S. bank-backed credits, licensing exports of 'specific goods and technology,' licenses for exporting U.S.Munitions List (USML) items and denial of credit or other Export-Import Bank support for exports.
The U.S. goal was to make India and Pakistan halt further nuclear testing, sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) immediately without conditions, and not deploy or test nuclear missiles or weapons. However, India did not accept the CTBT since many other countries were reluctant to eliminate their nuclear weaponry. India believed CTBT favoured the nuclear-weapon states rather than focusing on nuclear disarmament. After several bilateral talks, the U.S. failed to convince India to join the CTBT and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
By the end of 2001, all the sanctions were lifted, and the U.S. normalized the relationship with India. The sanctions were eased because of the terrorist attack on the United States in September 2001 as the U.S. officials believed in an immediate need to mend ways and serve U.S. national security as a priority. Thus, the face of the 'War of Terror' restored relations between India and the U.S., and their cooperation enhanced in a strategic and meteoric rise like no other.
1. Thriving ties in the 21st century-
1.1. A New Era with Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP)-
The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), announced by India and the US in 2004, was designed to increase cooperation in three leading areas - civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programs, and high-technology trade, which was later expanded to missile defence. Thus, NSSP aimed to benefit bilaterally on economic and defence fronts. It also meant changes in the U.S. export licensing regulations that applied to commercial space programs and granting authority for some exports to power plants at safeguarded nuclear reactors.
India-US strategic alliance solidified with the signing of the New Framework for India-US Defence Relations in 2005. The State Department of the US announced it as "an important milestone," and Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee referred to the ten-year defence agreement as a "new era" of two-way defence trade. This strengthened collaborations and expanded bilateral relations to missile defence, technological transfers, and co-production and established a bilateral Defence Procurement and Production Group. A roadmap was set for cooperation in defence technology, joint exercises, and training.
This Framework enabled 'shared national interests' between the two nations as both share common values and principles. It bolstered collaborations in the military exercises, prevention of terrorism, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data, and technologies. It also protects the free flow of commerce via land, air, and sea routes. However, the Defence Policy Group (DPG) remained the same and made it more effective by restructuring. Defence Policy Group (DPG), is the highest-level official group where the US Department of Defence and the Indian Ministry of Defence work together to thoroughly evaluate and direct, with a policy-focused approach, all facets of bilateral defence cooperation. Thus, the DPG remained the same and was made more effective by restructuring. The Defence Framework Agreement was updated and renewed for another ten years in 2015.
1.2. Agreement or the Indo- US nuclear agreement (2008)
The Indo-US nuclear cooperation agreement was signed in 2008, which was an impetus to a closer relationship between the two nations. After the nuclear tests in 1998, India had to face several economic sanctions by countries like the U.S., Japan, and Europe. However, the sanctions were removed as soon as India communicated its test clearly to the world that it was an act of deterrence to potential nuclear threats.
The deal was signed in 2005 and released as a joint statement by then-U.S. President Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. However, the deal took three years to materialize, which lifted a three-decade U.S. suspension on nuclear trade with India. This agreement's significant aspect lies in the waiver of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). It made India the only country without signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that gained a waiver in conducting nuclear trade with other countries. India-IAEA (International Atomic Energy Association's) agreement was also signed. It was followed by India separating its civilian and military nuclear facilities so that all the civil nuclear power reactors are under the purview of the IAEA, the United Nations system. Soon after the waiver, India signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Japan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Namibia, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, the U.S., and Vietnam. However, India still faces global criticism as this agreement does not cover the nuclear weapons program.
1.3. The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI)-
A “strategic trade dialogue” as described by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, DTTI is a flagship defence partnership forum launched in 2012 between the U.S. and India. According to this accord, it is intrinsic to facilitate defence technology development by reducing bureaucratic involvement in all possible ways. Simply put, DTTI is a strategy that helps the US and India to transform the bilateral defence relationship and eliminates the traditional “buyer-seller” dynamic along with bureaucratic obstacles. Thus, DTTI helps both countries to leap towards a more collaborative approach.
The chief areas of this flagship defence cooperation included increasing the flow of technology and investments, co-development, co-production, and augmenting cooperation in research and development. The Secretary (Defence Production) in the Indian Ministry of Defence and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment in the U.S. Department of Defense has been designated to lead the DTTI Group and meet every six months.
The recent spotlight under this initiative is the `Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET)' in 2022, steered by the National Security Council of both countries. It is a cynosure of the defence sector in contemporary times. Defence, industrial and technological cooperation, defence start-ups, innovation systems, semiconductor ecosystem development, A.I. research-based partnership. Cooperation on human spaceflight, the advancement of 5G and 6G technologies, and the adoption of OpenRAN network technology in India are the pivots of the initiative. Now, it perpetuates beyond the two governments and defence establishments. It includes industry, innovators and start-ups, investors, research laboratories, academia, strategic analysts, and more.
This proposal is a more collaborative partnership involving the primary stakeholders of society like businesses, scientists, research scholars, and institutions, which is expected to elevate the relationship further in the U.S.- India partnerships shortly.
1.4. DEEPENING THE COOPERATION THROUGH THE FOUR PILLARS- FOUNDATIONAL AGREEMENTS
The signing of the foundational agreements between the US and other countries is a sign of collaboration in the defence sector along the lines of sharing basing, refuelling aircraft, joint exercises etc. The U.S. signs these agreements with the countries that pass each level of military cooperation with them. The U.S. has signed more than 100 such agreements with its allies to uphold its position, safeguard its economic interests globally, and fend off prospective enemies. With India, all four agreements were signed over two decades. It helps both nations to advance the interoperability of militaries and common standards for the sale and transfer of high-end technologies. Over some time, India and the U.S. grew their relations strategically by advancing these agreements. These include:
The General Security of Military Information Agreement (G.S.O.M.I.A): In 2002, Vajpayee's government signed this pact to share military intelligence and establish security guidelines and procedures for securing data sent between the Pentagon and the Indian defence ministry, as well as between U.S. defence companies and Indian public sector defence enterprises (D.P.S.U.s). Recently, the signing of the Industrial Security Annex (I.S.A.), which was added to the General Security of Military Information Agreement (G.S.O.M.I.A.) in 2019, has paved the way for the exchange and protection of classified military information between India and the U.S. private companies engaged in defence production too.
The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (L.E.M.O.A.): It was signed in 2016, and in India's version, it comes as the Logistics Support Agreement (L.S.A.), permitting US and Indian militaries to share each other's bases to refuel and replenish their supplies and also provide logistical support along with some other services on a reimbursable basis. In simple terms, it facilitates both countries in sharing their land, air, and naval bases. This agreement is quintessential from the lens of the Indo-Pacific as the U.S. and Indian navies exercise and work together in the strategic location of South Asia. This agreement encompasses sharing four elements: port calls, training, joint exercises, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. By virtue of this agreement, India can access U.S. facilities across the globe for logistical support and expand its reach to all those strategic bases. Additionally, this will enhance India's naval capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region against the dominant Chinese naval bases. It is also a deal that combats the 'String of Pearls' of China's roadmap in South Asia.
Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (C.O.M.C.A.S.A.): It was signed in 2018 during India's inaugural 2+2 defence and foreign ministerial dialogue. C.O.M.C.A.S.A. is the tweaked Indian version of the Communications and Information Security Memorandums of Agreement (C.I.S.M.O.A.). The name says it all, the U.S. provides India access to its encrypted communications systems and equipment so that military leaders of both nations can interact over secure networks during peacetime and armed conflict. It promotes interoperability among the armed forces, usually covers the technological-related aspects, and ensures the secrecy of its C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) systems.
The Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (B.E.C.A.): Under the leadership of Narender Modi, this pact was signed in 2020. It is a unique and heightened level of bilateral cooperation, enabling real-time access to American geospatial information. Through this, India gets access to topographical and aeronautical data and cutting-edge technologies that can facilitate navigation and exchange of information on maps and satellite photos to precisely target rivals even in sparse regions.
1.5. THROUGH THE LENS OF INDO-PACIFIC & QUAD
"The future of each of our nations- and indeed the world- depends on a free and open Indo-Pacific enduring and flourishing in the decades ahead," Joe Biden (Quad Leader's Summit 2021). Several nations in South Asia and the West have an Indo-Pacific approach in their foreign policy due to the strategic location and the growing significance of the ocean and their surrounding nations in recent times. At the 2017 APEC Summit, Donald Trump used the term "Indo-Pacific," later, the US Pacific Command was renamed the Indo-Pacific. India's External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar, mentions in his book, “The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World.” The author describes the complex landscape of contemporary geopolitics and provides intricate evidence of how Indian foreign policy puts national interests in priority. For instance, in the Indo-Pacific area, Jaishankar describes, 'For the U.S., a unified theatre addresses convergence that is central to its new posture.' The U.S. has changed its stance and views due to the rise of China in this region.
This changed stance deepened India-U.S. relations from just being a hard power to a combination of both hard and soft power. The U.S. reaffirmed the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy on several occasions but India asserted the idea of a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific (FOIIP). The U.S. views India as a potential nation to counterbalance China's growing hegemony in this region and focuses on solidifying its ties with India through cooperation, connectivity, and strategic partnerships. According to the U.S. policymakers, they desire this region to have a multilateral relationship of 'understandings, agreements, and alliances.' India is considered a "net security provider" to preserve maritime transportation routes and global commons in the Indian Ocean.
According to the Biden administration, the U.S. government recognizes India as a "like-minded partner and leader in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, active in and connected to Southeast Asia, a driving force of the Quad and other regional fora, and an engine for regional growth and development."
Coming to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), it is a regional and security alliance between the US, India, Australia, and Japan. The primary aim is a free, open, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. This strategic forum, especially between the U.S. and India, is strengthening through shared priorities in the Indo-Pacific. For all the partners, this informal grouping is an opportunity to maintain the sea routes free from any influence and build a cooperative global region. The reciprocal exchange of services with U.S.-India's foundational agreements and the joint military exercises that both nations set off from time to time underlines the importance of the levelling up of the strategic partnership. The first in-person QUAD meeting was conducted in 2021, where a joint statement was also issued, which came to be known as 'The Spirit of the Quad.' The leaders in the summit brought upon development, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, vaccines, technology, climate change, and supply chain management.
The five focus areas released by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy 2022 refer to India as a "like-minded partner" and "driving force" in the QUAD. The U.S. shift in the power dynamics by enhancing military alliances with existing and new nations has been in the limelight in recent years. U.S. policymakers envision freedom of navigation for all and maritime security by deepening the defence capabilities of the partner nations. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (I.P.E.F.) is one major initiative launched by the Biden administration recently for the economic corporations through trade, a resilient economy, clean energy, and a fair economy. The recent 2023 summit was called off but was carried on the sidelines of the G7 Summit. New initiatives emanated from the meeting in areas of education, new undersea cable infrastructure projects, clean energy, technology, maritime, space, health, and cyber. In 2022, Joe Biden initiated the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (I.P.M.D.A.). In 2023, the progress of the same was marked, and new steps to enhance it using satellite-based radio frequency were discussed. India views the US in the Indo-Pacific as a strategic partner to advance the Indo-Pacific vision and counter any traditional and non-traditional threats.
1.6. DEFENCE TRADE, MILITARY EXERCISES & RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
The defence growth trajectory can be witnessed in the defence trade between the U.S. and India. The defence trade surged from near net zero in 2008 to over US$ 20 billion in 2020. India was recognized as a "Major Defence Partner" (M.D.P.) of the U.S. in 2016, a designation that is unique to India, and in 2018, India was granted the status of Strategic Trade Authority Tier 1 (STA-1) that allowed advanced dual-use technology products to be exported to India by U.S companies. These developments bring India to a level commensurate with its closest allies and partners.
Regarding joint military exercises involving all three Services, Special Forces and the National Security Guard (N.S.G.), India and the U.S. currently conduct the most bilateral and multilateral operations. The bilateral exercises include Tiger Triumph, which was first ever tri-service exercise, Vajra Prahar, Yudh Abhyas, Spitting Cobra, Sangam, Cope India, Tarkash, Milan, and Malabar exercise which is multilateral is run by the QUAD grouping. India also participated in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific (R.I.M.P.A.C.) exercise. The US is also a dialogue partner of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). This paradigm creates a more stable and secure Indo-Pacific region.
In 2021, a new chapter unfolded as both countries inked 'India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership.'
"Together, we will build an even stronger, diverse U.S.-India partnership that will advance the aspirations of our people for a bright and prosperous future grounded in respect for human rights and shared principles of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law," said the joint statement of the above proposal.
The State visit of Modi to the U.S. in June 2023 anchored the ties at a whole new level. It led to an innovation platform called the India-United States Defence Acceleration Ecosystem (INDUS-X). This initiative will catalyze both nations bilaterally to strengthen their armed capabilities and the ability to defend a free and open Indo-Pacific. It will enable Indian and American start-ups to co-develop and co-produce in artificial intelligence. Through this, the vision is to achieve its target of $5 billion in defence exports by 2025 and for India to diversify its defence supply chain. Other critical developments include the proposal for joint production of jet engines in India, operationalizing tools to increase defence cooperation, undersea domain awareness cooperation, and joining the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative by the U.S. Other outcomes of bilateral talks include:
The manufacturing of General Electric's F414 engine in India,
Collaborating with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and
Proposals to propel research and education sectors.
The Indo-US defence relationship is evolving, and the ties can be a game-changer in shaping the global order in the 21st century. India is an emerging global power, and with the adept handling of foreign policy during the pandemic and Ukraine-Russia conflict, India is at the centre of most nations' foreign policies. Governments are realigning into new groups, and India has a long road to calibrate between global and national interests. However, India's approach has been and continues to be in the best of its national interests.
With the unprecedented transformation in the last two decades, both nations aspire to engage significantly in all spheres like defence, economics, trade, technology, counter-terrorism, and people-people engagement. Moreover, it is evident that India and the U.S. have a profound interest in making the Indo-Pacific Ocean free from any domination and also have a free, open, prosperous, and inclusive ocean. The governments are exploring opportunities now and then to solidify their interests.
However, engagement with other nations multilaterally is indispensable to a country like India. So come the bottlenecks along with the benefits. India has to strategically plan its interests by also considering the changing dynamics. India counters a complex situation of China's hegemonic rise in the Indo-Pacific and China's changing narratives about the north and eastern borders. A democratic nation like India must resolve this soon and effectuate plans to emerge as a global power by expanding relations with the Middle East, African nations, and the long-standing ally and major power, Russia.
India and the U.S. are continuously rediscovering new paths that find common interests to fortify their defence capabilities and embrace new partners. It all fits into the common saying about geopolitics, 'There are no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.'
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