From once being an aggressor force to now being one of the most trusted strategic partner, the United States of America has in the past few decades effortlessly sailed ever closer to India. The Indo-US partnership, viewed as one of the most robust bilateral relationships in the world, has been solidly built upon mutual trust and common values. A time tested relationship, it has traversed through the most treacherous times, being it during the cold war era or during the numerous instances of Indo-Pak aggressions.

It is yet another watershed moment in the relations as Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Washington D.C. for a scheduled meet with President of United States of America Donald Trump.

The diplomatic circle, which has been instrumental in setting up the meet, is addressing it an introductory platform for the leaders. But, however, it is perhaps for the first time that the leaders of the world’s largest democracies meet with largely undefined foreign policies. With these missing policies, top diplomats quip that not much can be made out of PM Modi’s visit to the US.

Be it the democrats or the republicans at power, in the past decade, India has been a nation they have stoked regardless in an effort to sustain America’s efforts in the region. Ever since Mr. Trump came to power, there has been a lull in the bonhomie. Even though, PM Modi and President Trump have had several telephonic conversations and National Security Advisor (NSA) to India, Ajit Doval, has visited Washington twice, not much ice has been broken between the administrations.

For America, India is at the epicentre of its efforts to stabilise the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. With the third largest standing army, the fourth largest air force and the fifth largest navy, India, an emerging economic and military power in the Asian region, has the right characteristics to counter the growing Chinese influence in the strategic Indo-Pacific waters.

As PM Modi walks along the corridors of the White House at the centre of his agenda, during the maiden meet with his American counterpart, will be to extensively boost the defence co-operation between the countries. America, in fact, is at the core of India’s drive to modernise its armed forces to answer the growing tensions along its border.

From a defence trade partner, who in the past decade amounted to only $1 Billion to a strategic partner catering to about $15 Billion, USA currently ranks in as the second biggest defence hardware supplier to the Indian Armed Forces.

From sensitive and crucial Weapon Locating Radar (WLR) to the lightest and the most mobile howitzers, the Indian forces have received some of the most advanced battlefield technologies from US. Strategic equipment such as the C-17 Globemasters and the P8Is have greatly helped Indian forces ramp up their preparedness levels.

P8I Neptune ASW aircraft of the Indian Navy. Source – Boeing; Source – Boeing.

The strategic and technological handshake shared between the countries has ushered in a new level of bonhomie. It is through these handshakes that the defence co-operation between India and US has transformed from a simple seller-buyer relationship to a robust partnership, where the partners are actively involved in co-development and co-production of cutting edge battlefield technology.

As Modi and Trump meet in Washington, it will not be about the sale of the Guardian drones or the F-16 single-engine aircraft that will take the centre stage, but, the measures to be taken to introduce a roadmap to enable the sale of these strategic war making or enabling platforms.

Under the presiding Obama administration, the relations according to experts were at its zenith, as both the administrations strived hard to induce traction. Even though the previous Obama administration succeeded in classifying India a ‘major defence partner’, not much has moved forward ever since.  As the leaders, later today, chalk out the course for opertionalising the partnership, it will also set the contours for taking forward the defence co-operation.

Another key point expected to figure in Modi-Trump dialogue or at least in the delegation level talks is India’s necessity to sign several foundational agreements. Termed the COMCASA/CISMOA and BECA, the Pentagon says these agreements, which stand as tamper-proof guarantees to transferred US technologies, are instrumental to leverage greater co-operation under DTTI.

For decades, successive Indian governments had steered away from committing to these agreements. The NDA government, however, in August, 2016 signed the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), an India specific version of LSA. While the CISMOA (Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement) is aimed at enabling interoperability in regard to sophisticated communication systems, BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement), if signed according to Pentagon, will boost Geo-Spatial co-operation.

Asserting Trump Administration’s Strategic Policy and India’s Role

As PM Modi prepares for his first face-to-face dialogue with the leader of one of the most powerful countries, he will try hard to ascertain the broad contours of President Trump’s strategic policy. Throughout the campaign period, Mr. Trump had largely termed China and North Korea as one of the biggest threats to USA and its regional allies in the Indo-Pacific region.

What emerged following his election to the Oval Office took many policymakers in New Delhi largely off-guard. From beating a rhetorical, Mr. Trump considerably softened his stance towards a communist China. This turnaround by the POTUS experts say is a volley of diplomatic efforts to force North Korea towards total nuclear-weapon disarmament. The increasing US-China tango has left India largely uncomfortable, as experts fear India’s diplomatic stance in Washington may perhaps be eroded as US marches closer to China.

A US Navy Super-carrier sails alongside an Indian Navy stealth Frigate. Source – US Navy.

US Defence Secretary, Gen. James Mattis, has in the past said that his country recognises India as a major defence partner because of its indispensable role in maintaining stability in the strategic Indian Ocean region (IOR). He fell shy of defining India’s role in the region but however, signalling departure from the Pivot to Asia policy, the General said that his administration was exploring new ways to address the maritime challenges in the Southeast Asian region.

Admiral Harry B Harris, the Commander of the Pacific Command, which oversees the IOR, speaking at an OROF hosted event when asked about India’s role under the Trump administration had said, “There will be more of a continuation of US policy towards the Indo-Pacific. The Trump team fully understands the importance of the region as the most consequential region for the future of the U.S.”

On the ground level however, India, a country which was once at the centre stage of the Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, has been largely left clueless about its position in Trump’s policy to the East Asian region. Mr. Trump himself had strongly condemned the Pivot throughout his campaign period. Further, USA had recently elevated its delegation to China’s Belt and Road Forum summit in Beijing. In India, the Silk Road initiative of China is largely viewed as an effort by the dragon to claw deep into the Indian Ocean Region.

It is on this note that PM Modi and his delegation will work hard with Trump’s administration to set the tone and tenure for India’s role in a long-term strategic policy. This will also further help in adding traction to the robust defence co-operation shared between the countries. Policies and frameworks drafted during the meet are expected to lay down a well defined roadmap for America’s race towards becoming the biggest military hardware supplier to India.

© Karthik Kakoor