Report

Trump Looks to Arms Sales to Deepen Ties With India

Border clashes with China have reawakened New Delhi’s interest in deeper defense ties with the United States, and Washington is hoping to deliver the goods.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
U.S. President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a rally at NRG Stadium in Houston on Sept. 22, 2019. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is looking to ramp up arms sales to India in the wake of the country’s deadly border clashes with China, opening a new front of tensions between Washington and Beijing, U.S. officials and congressional aides told Foreign Policy

The Trump administration in recent months has laid the groundwork for new arms sales to India that go above and beyond what previous administrations considered, including longer-term weapons systems with higher levels of technology and sophistication, such as armed drones, according to the officials. 

For senior U.S. officials, better ties with India, including a closer defense relationship, are key to countering China’s emerging superpower role. “It’s important that democracies like ours work together, especially as we see more clearly than ever … the true scope of the challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a virtual address to the U.S.-India Business Council on July 22. “The recent clashes initiated by the [Chinese military] are just the latest examples of the CCP’s unacceptable behavior.”

The new push for U.S. arms sales comes in the wake of deadly clashes between India and China along their disputed border in the Himalayas in June that killed 20 Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese soldiers. Since then, both sides have engaged in diplomatic talks to ease tensions while simultaneously rushing new troops and military hardware to the high-altitude region, a 2,162-mile-long border known as the Line of Actual Control. In recent weeks, senior Indian officials reportedly approved plans to send an additional 35,000 troops to the border region. 

The border clashes were a wake-up call for India on the looming threat of China, experts said, one that could push India to cooperate more closely with the United States on defense. While it’s unlikely that India will shed its historic policy of nonalignment and embrace a fully fledged alliance with the United States, American officials see arms sales as a new avenue to strengthen ties with New Delhi. 

The clashes “opened up a debate in India, a debate I never thought I would see,” said Alyssa Ayres of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Some people actually are advocating for an out and out alliance with the United States. I don’t think it means an immediate alliance with the United States, but it might open up additional closer cooperation short of an alliance,” she said. 

President Donald Trump has sought to increase U.S. arms sales worldwide, viewing it as a blunt instrument of U.S. power around the world and an engine for job growth at home. The administration has even floated plans to end congressional review of U.S. weapons sales abroad to expedite the process, angering some lawmakers who view the review process as an important part of congressional oversight.

Trump officially amended rules that restrict the sale of military-grade drones to foreign partners like India. In late July, the State Department announced a new policy changing how the United States interprets the Missile Technology Control Regime, allowing the agency to consider the sale of armed drones—which had previously been restricted because of their speeds and payloads—to allow them to be considered alongside surveillance drones. 

“They’re going to want to provide India with armed [category-1] Predators,” said a congressional aide familiar with the matter, referring to MQ-1 Predator drones that can carry more than 1,000 pounds of bombs and missiles. The aide said the State and Defense Departments had been pushing for a transaction.

“Part of the calculation behind the policy change was to free themselves up from the international and multilateral constraints so they could increase the sales pitch to India on [drones],” the aide added.  

The United States often had high hopes for its defense relationship with India, only to see them dashed by India’s historic nonalignment. The George W. Bush administration lifted sanctions on India’s nuclear program, which paved the way for more defense cooperation. But India is still carefully balancing its defense procurements with other countries, including Russia and France, which has sold India the bulk of its new fighter jets, including Sukhoi Su-30MKIs and nearly 40 new Rafale jets.  

Part of that is due to India’s cumbersome defense acquisition process. 

“Their decision-making process on weapons acquisition is positively baroque,” the congressional aide added. “It’s very difficult in their system to get to a final and firm yes.” 

American military sales to India have also been snagged over the years by internal spats within the Indian military, experts said, and a desire for generous technology transfer agreements that would allow Indian companies to boost their manufacturing capabilities for high-tech systems. 

“One of the things that is holding it up is that the Indians want a package deal that would suit the Army, Air Force and Navy,” said Dhruva Jaishankar, the director of the U.S. Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, an independent India-based think tank. But the services, he said, “have different requirements for what they’d want to see.”

For many senior Indian officials, nonalignment dies hard, and they bristle at the idea of being forced to pick a side between the United States and China. 

“The U.S. really has to learn to work in a sense with a more multipolar world, with more plurilateral arrangements, go beyond alliances with which it has grown up over the last two generations,” Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said last month. 

“China may have its own issues and problems with the U.S. But to view us through an American lens would be a serious misreading of India. And clearly do the relationship great disservice,” he said in a separate interview with the Times of India on Aug. 2. 

“India works very hard to balance and calibrate its relationships with different sets of partners,” said Nisha Biswal, the president of the U.S.-India Business Council and a former senior U.S. diplomat during the Obama administration. “India has moved by leaps and bounds in closer alignment with the United States, but I also think India is fiercely independent and wants to maintain its strategic autonomy.”

The technical and political roadblocks have made India a frustrating arms customer so far for the Trump administration—even as tremors on the border with China have grown increasingly worse since the border standoff. While the United States named India as a major defense partner during the Obama administration, an effort the congressional aide told Foreign Policy was connected to a failed attempt to boost F-16 sales and move a part of a production line to the country, New Delhi hedged its bets. It risked U.S. sanctions by purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system, before Congress enacted some exceptions to penalties against countries that buy Russian arms.  

Still, India has begun to eye more American platforms with interest, experts and former Trump administration officials told Foreign Policy, including transport and combat helicopters, as well as artillery that could be relevant in another high-altitude skirmish with Chinese forces. 

India has also begun to make structural shifts in its foreign policy, experts said. Efforts to say aloof from the United States and the other members of the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (which also includes Australia and Japan) did nothing to deter Chinese aggression in the border region or Chinese adventurism in the Indian Ocean. The talks were revitalized after a near-decade lapse at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in 2017, and they have since been upgraded to a ministerial exercise. India is in the process of signing new agreements with the Quad nations that allow replenishment at sea and secure communications, and it also regularly conducts sophisticated naval exercises with the United States, Japan, Australia, Russia, and France. 

“If there is still anybody in India who thought that a nice peaceful relationship with Beijing was a possibility, that’s gone,” said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Trump administration.

“It’s going to put a lot of those traditional hindrances farther and farther behind us. This old trope that the U.S. and India is the partnership of the future and always will be—that’s no longer the case.”

Correction, Aug. 4, 2020: India has purchased Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters from Russia. A previous version of this article said that India had bought a different variant of Russian aircraft.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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