Trump Policy Shift Pushes Closer India, U.S Defense Ties

  • Defense Secretary Mattis to discuss India role in Afghanistan
  • New Delhi pursues advanced military technology from U.S. firms

U.S. Seeks Closer Defense Ties With India

Defense deals and closer military ties will be under discussion during U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s visit to India this week -- a mission that comes just a month after Washington called on New Delhi to take a more active role in the 16-yearlong conflict in Afghanistan.

The first cabinet-level visit to India from President Donald Trump’s administration follows his newly-announced South Asia policy, which includes an open-ended troop commitment in Afghanistan and deepening criticisms of Pakistan for providing shelter to Taliban fighters striking in Afghanistan. It also comes as India seeks more advanced defense equipment from U.S. companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

Although no significant defense purchases or policy announcements are expected on this trip, Mattis will likely discuss some of the deals on the table, such as India’s planned purchase of surveillance drones and potential U.S. assistance in building an aircraft carrier. The U.S. defense secretary will also meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and try to build momentum in bilateral ties, while establishing a working relationship with New Delhi’s newly-appointed defense minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

India’s increasing role in Afghanistan is expected to feature prominently during Mattis’s visit, said K. V. Kuber, a New Delhi-based independent defense analyst and retired Indian Army colonel. "The joint fight to counter global terror and eliminate the terror havens in the immediate neighborhood, including naming and shaming terror outfits, will find mutual consensus."

Political Tone

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"There’s a lot of agreement between how the Trump administration sees things and how the government in India sees thing on larger strategic issues" such as China, North Korea and maritime security in the Indian Ocean region, said Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow with the Brookings India think-tank in New Delhi. 

However, there is "a bit of a mismatch" between how both countries are looking at this visit, he added. "The US side will be looking at quick wins," such as signed agreements or defense deals, he said, while "on the Indian side, I think this is really about setting a good political tone between a new defense minister here and her American counterpart."

Sitharaman was shifted to defense from her previous post as Minister for Commerce and Industry in a recent cabinet reshuffle. The move was seen in India as a way to boost Modi’s plan to increase defense manufacturing in India, one of the world’s largest arms importers.

Military Technology

In recent years, the U.S. and India have overcome a frosty history to develop a close defense relationship, including holding joint military and naval exercises and signing a key agreement on the transfer of valuable military technology. However, despite New Delhi’s attempt to diversify the sources of its arms imports, there is a sense the two countries could cooperate more closely on the joint production of U.S. military technology in India. That would allow U.S. firms to sell more arms while creating high-quality jobs through Modi’s "Make in India" program that aims to promote local manufacturing.

"India-US defense ties, despite best efforts and intents, have not reached the level of expectations, as too many procedural, administrative and legal hindrances are yet to be sorted out, especially in the field of military-industrial cooperation," said Deba Mohanty, a New Delhi-based defense analyst who heads Indike Analytics, a research firm. "Both sides must engage each other more deeply to sort out such bottlenecks."

India is "clearly a pillar of regional stability and security," Mattis told reporters en route to India, according to a U.S. Department of Defense transcript. "U.S. and India defense cooperation has steadily expanded in recent years, underpinned by our common objectives and goals in the region. This cooperation will benefit both economies, while reducing any legacy, trust issues between our two democracies."

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