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Deepening US-India defence ties and the prospects of an alliance

In June Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama met in Washington for their third major bilateral summit. While breaking little new ground, the talks resulted in the recognition of India as a ‘Major Defence Partner’ of the United States. Notably, President Obama promised that the United States would make efforts to bring the sharing of technology between the two countries to a level on par with its closest allies.

This raises an important question: what are the chances the US and India will step up their partnership and enter into a formal alliance? Questions to this end have emerged particularly in response to India’s receptiveness to a proposed logistics exchange agreement that would allow the militaries of the US and India to share supplies, spare parts and facilities for refuelling. While such developments suggest that India is becoming less apprehensive at the idea of alignment with Washington, it is perhaps a bit hasty to assume that such an agreement signals a mutual defence treaty in the near future.

Although the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was finalised in June this year, it’s important to remember that this agreement, along with two similar foundational defence pacts pushed by Washington, have met with consistent hesitation from New Delhi and have been delayed for over a decade as a result. While the inking of the LEMOA is expected before the end of the year, the same cannot be said of the remaining two agreements: the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement – the terms of which will not be finalised any time soon.

Although the prospective conclusion of the LEMOA will entrench a measure of cooperation and will, perhaps more importantly, build trust between the two partners, that it has taken this long for just one of the agreements to approach conclusion is a reminder that there are enduring limits to the relationship.

There are also strategic considerations to keep in mind. Pakistan in particular presents an obstacle to more formalised security ties between Washington and New Delhi. Washington must be particularly careful to balance the interests of both countries. Indeed, Pakistan remains an important partner for the United States in the ongoing fight against transnational terrorism. Joint counterterrorism initiatives and funding has been a staple of the relationship post-9/11. For instance, Washington is set to provide 865 million dollars in aid to Pakistan this fiscal year, a large portion of which is earmarked to fund counterterrorism efforts.

Yet the smooth implementation of joint counterterrorism strategy relies on good bilateral relations between Washington and Islamabad. When relations have soured, such cooperation has suffered. This hurts the security of both nations.

Border skirmishes and firing exchanges along the line of control in the disputed region of Kashmir, occurring as recently as last November, also echo more serious conventional escalations such as the Kargil War and serve as a reminder of the enduring tensions between India and Pakistan. With this in mind, any formal security assurance given to India by the US would be perceived in Pakistan as a signal that Washington prioritises the interests of New Delhi over those of Islamabad, which could only hurt this important bilateral relationship.

Finally, any notions of a new US alliance must be seen in the context of the informal trend in American alignment policy. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been eager to emphasise informal marriages of convenience on specific issues rather than formal, treaty-based military engagement. Notably, the strategic partnership has emerged as the US’ preferred tool of alignment, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.

One clear reason for this informal preference is the ease with which informal alignments are made. In contrast, treaty agreements typically face the risk of costly congressional obstructionism and may consequently take years to ratify. The 1979 treaty governing criminal extradition between the United States and Turkey, for example, took over eighteen months to approve and demonstrates that even uncontroversial treaties can be subject to drawn out ratification processes.

On the other hand, informal alignments such as strategic partnerships fall under the President’s power to unilaterally establish executive agreements. This way, informal agreements are able to bypass protracted democratic processes and facilitate alignment in a timely way.

Informal alignments also offer a pragmatic way to develop a measure of bilateral cooperation—strategic or otherwise—without running the risk of antagonising third countries. This is a particularly valuable advantage in a globalised world built around trade.

The coming months will reveal whether the much delayed LEMOA will be signed into effect. This appears most likely to happen when the Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar visits Washington in November. However, it’s important not to assign too much significance to this agreement. Rather, it must be placed within the context of broader strategic considerations and the patterns of the US-India relationship. This considered, even if the agreement should pass the sniff test, the creation of a new military alliance is unlikely to be added to Washington’s menu of strategic choices.

Henry Overton is completing a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) at the Australian National University in international security studies.

Image credit: Narendra Modi (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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