What Next for US-India Military Ties?

By Alyssa Ayres

September 7, 2018

This week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis met with their Indian counterparts, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, reaching a number of new defense-related agreements.

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Despite major remaining hurdles on trade and Indian defense purchases from Russia, it’s a step forward for the U.S.-India security relationship.

In New Delhi, the “two-plus-two” dialogue was at long last able to complete an agreement to enhance communications sharing on defense platforms—something called the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, or COMCASA. It will allow India access to more advanced communications technology for defense equipment purchased from the United States, and as a result will also make it easier for India and the United States, as well as U.S. allies with similar equipment, to coordinate more fully in real time (or, in defense speak, enhance interoperability). It’s been under negotiation for years, so this achievement deserves praise.

Naval exchanges, counterterrorism cooperation, and North Korea

The two plus two produced several other important advances:

Also of interest in the joint statement is the brief paragraph on North Korea, which included a pledge “to work together to counter North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs and to hold accountable those countries that have supported them.” North Korea has not traditionally been an area of significant U.S.-India cooperation, so it will be interesting to see where this leads.

Missing pieces and next steps

Absent from the statements were any details on U.S.-India trade frictions, but given the security focus of the two plus two, this should not surprise. The U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum, which will meet in November, is a more apt venue for technical discussion of trade issues.

Also absent were any resolutions on two thorny issues: first, whether President Donald J. Trump will provide a waiver to India for its long-in-the-works purchase of a Russian air defense missile system, thus avoiding sanctions that could result from the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) legislation focused on Russia, and second, what will happen with U.S. sanctions and India’s oil procurement from Iran. Despite the dialogue’s progress, these questions will continue to hover over the security relationship for the time being.

This piece, first published by the Council on Foreign Relations, is used with permission.

By Alyssa Ayres // Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served most recently as deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia during 2010–2013, covering all issues across a dynamic region of 1.3 billion people (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives, and Bhutan), and providing policy direction and support for four U.S. embassies and four consulates.

September 7, 2018