Credit: US Department of Defense
On March 20th, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited India, capping off an Asian tour that saw the secretary visit Japan and the Republic of Korea. The visit by Austin constituted part of a larger American effort to show diplomatic strength in the run up to a meeting with Chinese officials in Anchorage.[i] The tour had mixed results. In 2+2 talks with the Japanese, Austin and Blinken reached a firm joint statement signaling resolve vis-à-vis China while promising to strengthen the alliance.[ii] In Korea, the pair were less successful, securing a meagre joint statement that did not mention China by name, on account of Seoul’s close economic relationship with Beijing.[iii]
After Seoul, Blinken left Austin to attend another 2+2, this time with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, with the Chinese diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi. Austin proceeded alone to Delhi, where he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Secretary of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar, and his counterpart Defense Secretary Rajnath Singh.[iv] While most eyes focused on the drama unfolding in Anchorage, the US made substantial progress in its bilateral relationship with India, with important implications for both the Quad and the broader Indo-Pacific.
Austin’s visit led to important progress in two key areas of the relationship during his first visit to Delhi. Firstly, the US and India agreed to “enhance[e] cooperation with the US Indo-Pacific Command, Central Command, and Africa Command.”[v] Overall, increasing military to military cooperation is an important evolution of the relationship. The last point merits further examination. The US perception of the Indo-Pacific has traditionally been more limited, typically not reaching the limits of the Western Indian Ocean. On the other hand, India’s conception of the Indo-Pacific extends to the Eastern Coast of Africa, which is of interest to Indian given its energy supply routes and diaspora. Indian mention of cooperation with AFRICOM, and a tweet by Austin explicitly mentioning the Western Indian Ocean signals an important American shift in its conception of the Indo-Pacific and a willingness to accommodate Indian views.[vi] It is also interesting to note that the previous administration planned for a dedicated Indian Ocean fleet, which would have consolidated American naval relations with India, but the current administration has yet to comment on these plans.[vii]
Secondly, the two countries announced their intent to operationalize existing foundational agreements between the two countries. Currently India and the US have three foundational pacts in place. The first pact is the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) signed in August of 2016. LEMOA facilitates reciprocal logistical exchanges between each nation’s military that primarily benefits both sides’ navies during port visits and joint exercises.[viii] The second is the Communications Compatibility and Cooperation Agreement (COMCASA) signed in September 2018.[ix] COMCASA allows the US to sell secure communication and data equipment to India, which enables the US to offer real time data sharing to the Indian military using secure channels.[x] This agreement helped facilitate the sale of American manufactured MQ-9 drones.[xi] The third is the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) signed in October 2020 that enabled India to access US geospatial intelligence for military purposes.[xii] The decision to fully operationalize these existing foundational agreements is an important step in the bilateral defense relationship that signals increased cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. It also signals the Biden and Modi administrations comfort in operating within existing frameworks for the time being.
The Bad and the Ugly
While Austin made notable progress in Delhi, there were some noticeable shortcomings. Firstly, the two sides failed to make substantial progress on defense industry collaboration. Defense Minister Rajib thanked Austin for American participation in an Indian defense exhibition and invited American industry “to take advantage of India’s liberalized foreign direct investment (FDI) policies in the defense sector.”[xiii] However, there was no mention in official statements of the US-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), an agreement signed in 2012 intended to enhance defense industrial cooperation.[xiv] Since the announcement in 2012, little substantive progress on co-development or co-production has been made despite the upgrade of India to a Major Defense Partner in 2016, a bespoke designation created by the Obama administration.[xv] This focus on FDI at the expense of DTTI is all the more discouraging because defense FDI comprised just $5 million or .002% of total FDI between 2000 and 2016.[xvi]
Secondly, Austin failed to clarify America’s stance on sanctions should India proceed in its acquisition of the Russian manufactured S-400 system. India’s purchase of the S-400 risks triggering sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Austin stated that because India had not yet purchased the system, there was no reason to discuss sanctions at that moment.[xvii] The Biden administration has sent mixed messages regarding a potential Indian waiver and Austin’s refusal to publicly discuss a waiver for India during his visit to Delhi only muddies the water further. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal wrote:
“Austin’s comment on the S-400 keeps the fuse of potential sanctions on India lit when good sense would dictate that the matter should be quietly closed and not allowed to rock bilateral ties just when defense ties are on the upswing and stronger cooperation and understandings are needed to counter the China threat.”[xviii]
The failure of Austin in Delhi to at least clarify American steps going forward or announce a waiver is disappointing. Any form of CAATSA sanctions could deal catastrophic damage to the bilateral relationship at a time when a strategic partnership with India is increasingly vital.
Lastly, Austin briefly and controversially discussed human rights, particularly the rights of Muslim minorities in India. While Austin stated that he did not explicitly mention them during talks with Prime Minister Modi, he did state during a press conference that he “did have a conversation with other members of the Cabinet on this—on this (human rights) issue.”[xix] Human rights are a sensitive issue for the Modi government, especially in the aftermath of a recent report by Freedom House, a US government-funded NGO, that downgraded India’s status to ‘partly free.’[xx] The Indian rebuttal was strong, particularly over social media. Indian government sources later refuted the claim that human rights issues in India were discussed, instead suggesting that respect for human rights was a shared value between the two nations .[xxi] Such a blunder, while not catastrophic, was poorly timed and unnecessary given the visits focus on the security and defense partnership between the two countries.
Austin’s visit to India was not intended to radically move the relationship forward. Rather, it was supposed to be a moment for both sides to appraise the status of the relationship and figure out future steps. In this sense it was successful. Both sides agreed to increase military to military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and operationalize and fully existing agreements like LEMOA. This suggests that the relationship will continue to progress through pre-existing agreements and forums that both sides have previously endorsed. Disappointing but not surprising was Defense Minister Singh’s lip service to defense-industrial cooperation which has made little progress in recent years.
However, the visit also reveals potential pitfalls for the future of the bilateral relationship and India’s larger involvement in American initiatives in the Indo-Pacific, like the Quad, intended to counter China’s rise. The first is unease with India’s longstanding military relationship with Russia, which has been India’s main supplier of military equipment since the 1960’s. India is the world’s largest arms importer and will continue to be for the foreseeable future given the inability of its domestic industrial base to meet its security requirements. Washington needs to get more comfortable aligning with an India that will maintain its strategic autonomy and close defense ties with Russia, including India’s purchase of the S-400 system. Walking this line requires empathy for India’s position and finesse, something missing should CAATSA sanctions, a well-intentioned but blunt instrument, be imposed.
Secondly, the United States must navigate the complex relationship between standing up for human rights (particularly freedom of speech, the democratic process, and rights of minorities) and its security relationship with India. The United States has an obligation to stand up for the fundamental rights of all people. But it must do so tactfully and in the right forum to avoid unnecessarily alienating what is becoming a more and more critical strategic partner. Advancing the bilateral relationship to the next stage, whether it be through the expansion existing frameworks or creating new ones, will require carefully navigating these pitfalls.
[i] Christian Nunley, “Pentagon Chief, Secretary of State announce first trips abroad as Biden looks to reset global relations,” CNBC, 3/10/21, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/10/blinken-austin-reveal-upcoming-international-travel.html.
[ii] Office of Spokesperson, “U.S.-Japan Joint Press Statement,” State Department, 3/16/21, https://www.state.gov/u-s-japan-joint-press-statement/.
[iii] Office of Spokesperson, “Joint Statement of the 2021 Republic of Korea-United States Foreign and Defense Ministerial Meeting,” State Department, 3/18/21, https://www.state.gov/joint-statement-of-the-2021-republic-of-korea-united-states-foreign-and-defense-ministerial-meeting-22/.
[iv] Sreemoy Talukdar, “Lloyd Austin’s human rights, S-400 remarks struck jarring note to US SecDef’s largely successful India visit,” Firstpost, 3/25/21 https://www.firstpost.com/india/lloyd-austins-human-rights-s-400-remarks-struck-jarring-note-to-us-secdefs-largely-successful-india-visit-9462581.html.
[v] Rajnath Signh, “Statement by Raksha Mantri Shri Rajnath Singh after bilateral talks with US Defense Secretary Mr. Lloyd J Austin,” Ministry of Defense, 3/20/21, https://pib.gov.in/PressReleasePage.aspx?PRID=1706248
[vi] Lloyd Austin (@SecDef), “Productive meeting today with @DrSJaishankar. Grateful for the opportunity to discuss opportunities to strengthen the U.S.-India strategic partnership and expand our cooperation with other regional partners to uphold peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and Western Indian Ocean,” 3/20/21 https://twitter.com/SecDef/status/1373311332146110470
[vii] Ken Moriyasu, “US Navy chief wants Indian Ocean ‘1st Fleet;’ possibly in Singapore,” Nikkei Asia, 11/19/20, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Indo-Pacific/US-Navy-chief-wants-Indian-Ocean-1st-Fleet-possibly-in-Singapore
[viii] Jeff Smith, “COMCASA: Another Step Forward for the United States and India,” The Diplomat, 10/11/18, https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/comcasa-another-step-forward-for-the-united-states-and-india/
[xii] Shubhajit Roy, “Explained: BECA, and the importance of 3 foundational pacts of India-US defense cooperation,” The Indian Express, 11/3/20, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/beca-india-us-trade-agreements-rajnath-singh-mike-pompeo-6906637/
[xiii] Singh, “Statement”
[xv] Ankit Panda, “US Implementation of ‘Major Defense Partner’ Perks for India Underway, The Diplomat, 4/14/17, https://thediplomat.com/2017/04/us-implementation-of-major-defense-partner-perks-for-india-underway/
[xvi] Ankit Mukherjee, The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2020), p. 116
[xvii] “Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III Press Conference in New Delhi,” United States Department of Defense, 3/20/21, https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Transcripts/Transcript/Article/2544454/secretary-of-defense-lloyd-j-austin-iii-press-conference-in-new-delhi/
[xviii] Kanwal Sibal, “US Defense Secretary: India-A Central pillar in Indo-Pacific,” Chanakya Forum, 3/24/21.
[xx] “Freedom in the World 2021,” Freedom House, Accessed 3/24/21, https://freedomhouse.org/country/india/freedom-world/2021
[xxi] Rezaul H Laskar and Rahul Singh, “Raised Human Rights Issues says US defense secretary. A strong Rebuttal follows,” Hindustan Times, 3/20/21, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/raised-human-rights-issues-with-indian-ministers-us-defense-secretary-101616256996248.html