The visit of the US Defence Secretary, General Lloyd Austin, to Delhi so early in the tenure of the Biden Administration, and the NDA government’s enthusiastic reception, underline the urgency in both capitals to elevate the bilateral defence partnership. Driven by shared threats from a rising China and united by a new geopolitical perspective on the Indo-Pacific, Delhi and Washington appear set to expand the scale and scope of the security partnership. Engagement between the Indian and American military establishments began in the early 1990s, soon after the Cold War came to an end. Security relations got their first political boost in Washington under President George W Bush (2001-09). Since he came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shed many of Raisina Hill’s entrenched ideological reservations on defence cooperation with the US. As China’s aggressive tactics in the Great Himalayas and the Western Pacific began to strain Beijing’s ties with both Delhi and Washington, it was inevitable that India and America would tighten their defence embrace.
The focus of talks between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Secretary Austin was on intensifying military-to-military engagement, information sharing, cooperation in emerging sectors of defence like artificial intelligence, and mutual logistics support across the Indo-Pacific. While the Indian armed forces want to acquire advanced US weapons, the government is eager to move away from a buyer-seller relationship. Given its current focus on strengthening the national defence-industrial base and reducing arms imports, Delhi is seeking American investment in India’s defence production. If India’s defence reforms do attract large-scale US private investment, the growing strategic convergence will provide a conductive political environment.
The powerful dynamic in favour of the India-US defence partnership faces some political headwinds. There is the looming prospect of legally mandated US sanctions on India triggered by the purchase of the S-400 advanced air-defence missiles from Russia. Austin said he had not talked about sanctions, since India is yet to acquire the missiles. Delhi will hope that President Joe Biden will waive the sanctions when Delhi begins to receive the S-400 system. But the anti-Russia mood is hardening in Washington and has the potential to harm US-India defence relations. In response to a question on human rights, Austin told the press that he discussed the subject in his talks with the Indian ministers. South Block has clarified that the issue came up only as an affirmation of shared democratic values. What matters, though, is not the specific remarks Austin may have made, but the current negative narrative in Washington about Indian democracy taking an illiberal turn. It may not be a problem today, but could become one later.