India and the United States Sign Landmark Defense Agreement
China’s rise compels Washington and New Delhi to work through decades of mistrust
by KEVIN KNODELL
The United States and India have greatly strengthened their military ties. On Aug. 29, the two countries formally signed the so-called “Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement,” which allows their respective militaries to use each other’s land, air and naval bases for resupply and repair operations.
This is a big deal.
The United States has similar logistics agreements with other countries, of course, but for Washington and New Delhi the deal is especially significant. The two countries do not share a mutual-defense treaty. All the same, they have grown closer in recent years through joint military training and arms deals. The memorandum deepens and formalizes those ties.
“This framework will provide to facilitate innovative and advanced opportunities in defense technology and trade cooperation,” the Indian and U.S. governments stated following the signing of the logistics memorandum. “To this end, the U.S. has agreed to elevate defense trade and technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with its closest allies and partners.”
The United States and India share many national interests. Both are wary of China’s rapid military modernization and aggressive moves in the Pacific region. Plus there are the usual worries over unstable states, terrorism and natural disasters.
But the two countries haven’t always been close. Their shared history is a long and complex one.
Not long after achieving independence early in the Cold War, India became a leading country in the nonaligned movement, meaning it didn’t consider itself an ally of the United States or the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless the administration of U.S. president John F. Kennedy backed India in its 1962 border war with China. But then Indian overtures toward the Soviet Union led officials in Washington to view New Delhi with suspicion. Particularly after Kennedy’s death, the United States boosted its support for India’s most bitter rival, Pakistan.
When Pakistan and India went to war in 1971, the United States openly backed Pakistan with generous political and military support. In the late 1970s, anti-Soviet Janata Party leader Morarji Desai became India’s prime minister, leading to a thaw in relations with Washington. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that either country made real efforts to really strengthen ties.
There were hiccups. After India tested a nuclear weapon in 1998, the United States briefly imposed sanctions. They proved ineffective. Most other countries continued business as usual with India, and Washington quickly eased the sanctions.
After 9/11, Indian intelligence agents shared information with U.S. forces entering Afghanistan. For years, India had backed the Northern Alliance in its war with the Pakistan-backed Taliban. In September 2015, War Is Boring was present for the annual U.S.-Indian military exercise Yudh Abhyas at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.
Soldiers swapped war stories at the exercise. The Americans shared experiences from Iraq and Afghanistan, while the Indians recalled their experiences as peacekeepers in Africa and fighting insurgents in their own country.
“In the future, we’ll have to work with other armies more and more,” Lt. Col. Teddy Kleisner said near the close of the exercise. “That’s basically a requirement these days.”
The U.S. and Indian armies have conducted joint training in peacekeeping, counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. American special operations troops have done training events in both the United States and India with Indian army and police commandos.
Meanwhile, as the United Nations struggles to meet peacekeeping commitments, India is one of the chief contributors of troops. The United States provides the bulk of funding for those operations.
But perhaps the most important developments have been on at sea. During an April visit to India, U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter discussed the possibility of sharing technology with Indian engineers as they develop their new domestically-produced aircraft carrier, INS Vishal. New Delhi wants Vishal to be nuclear-powered — and hopes to complete the vessel as early as 2028.
Not long after signing the logistics memorandum on Aug. 29, Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar told reporters the agreement will allow the Indian and U.S. navies to more seamlessly work together in providing humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of natural disasters.
The 2005 Indian Ocean tsunami and the earthquakes in Nepal in 2015 in particular have alarmed New Delhi.
But Parrikar also noted that security concerns at sea play a huge role in the burgeoning U.S.-Indian partnership. “India and the United States have a shared interest in freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded commerce as part of rule-based order in Indo-Pacific,” Parrikar said.
Parrikar didn’t specify who exactly has threatened freedom of navigation, but it’s not hard to guess. The United States and India have not been shy about calling out China’s aggressive moves in the western Pacific and, to a lesser extent, transnational criminals and pirates.
But despite the increase in cooperation, there’s still some distrust between the United States and India. In 2013, Indian officials demanded the United States respond to revelations that the CIA had bugged both India’s mission to the United Nations in New York City and the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C.
The next year, India’s ministry of external affairs summoned American diplomats following allegations that the National Security Agency had spied on politicians and businessman in India.
Additionally, WikiLeaks has released documents revealing that Western intelligence agencies have posed as foreign aid workers and staff at NGOs, prompting Indian officials to more closely track aid workers.
In turn, some American officials remain suspicious of India. They worry that any technology the United States shares with India could make its way to Russia, with which India still cooperates closely.
However, as China continues flexing its military muscles — and as instability in Pakistan and Afghanistan persist — New Delhi and Washington’s new relationship will likely continue to deepen.