By Rachel Stohl
As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Washington this week, the defense relationship between the two countries is front and center. New U.S. arms sales to India, including an unarmed version of the MQ-9 Reaper drones, are set to be announced as President Trump seeks to strengthen U.S.-India ties. The U.S.-India security relationship, however, has been complicated over the past 20 years and is unlikely to be mollified by a succession of arms deals.
In 1998, the United States cut off military sales to India in response to New Delhi’s tit-for-tat nuclear tests with Pakistan. However, immediately following the events of September 11, 2001, the United States lifted the arms sales prohibitions, to enable India to directly assist in counterterrorism operations in South Asia.
The United States has long recognized India’s strategic importance, despite the imposition of sanctions. In 2005, the two countries signed a ten-year bilateral security cooperation initiative, that — among other things — included terms for defense technology transfers, co-development and co-production of defense systems, and trade and research agreements, which was renewed in 2015. Central to U.S. strategic interests are keeping China’s growing regional ambitions in check, and finding a stable partner to support counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation priorities. In the last two decades, the strengthened defense relationship has opened the Indian market for U.S. defense companies, which has resulted in billions of dollars in arms agreements and deliveries of U.S. transport aircraft, attack helicopters, and other advanced weapon systems. However, despite an eagerness to enter India’s vast market, major defense companies have often encountered difficulties in securing contracts as a result of bureaucratic and procedural hurdles in the Indian system. Prime Minister Modi’s “Make in India” offset requirements and the country’s notorious contract negotiations present a significant barrier to entry for many companies.
Challenges with India will remain despite any short-term successes gained by Modi’s visit. The tensions between India and Pakistan are likely to remain for the indeterminate future and China’s actions in the Indian Ocean continue to put strains on India’s sphere of influence in the region. President Obama once called the U.S.-India relationship, “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” but the Trump administration’s formal views on India and its policy toward the region are largely unknown. One thing is for sure, however, short-term gains from U.S. arms sales are no replacement for a long-term engagement plan with India and the region.
Rachel Stohl is a Senior Associate and the Director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center.