Analysis & Opinions - The Wall Street Journal

India Can Become a Key U.S. Partner

| Aug. 20, 2018

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last month outlined a groundbreaking Indo-Pacific strategy, highlighting the region’s vital importance to the United States. Ties with India are already strong, and together with the Trump administration’s decision in July to grant India Tier 1 Strategic Trade Authorization status, a designation given only to close allies, these are good steps. But the U.S. should be bolder and seek to transform the U.S.-India relationship into a robust strategic partnership.

This would provide the U.S. with a valuable, democratic ally committed to thwarting China’s intensifying efforts to dominate the region. Already India has been keen to enhance its relationship with America. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the U.S. an “indispensable partner” during his 2017 visit. As India scholar Ashley Tellis put it, Mr. Modi’s “daring decision to collaborate wholeheartedly” with America shows he recognizes that “the U.S. holds the most important keys for India’s long-term success.” Greatly concerned about China’s economic and diplomatic expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, India has turned to the U.S for support. Pakistan’s increasingly anti-American and pro-Chinese policies have also brought the U.S. and India into a closer embrace.

America can begin executing an ambitious India strategy at September’s Two Plus Two meeting in New Delhi between Secretaries Mattis and Pompeo and their Indian counterparts. For this effort to succeed, however, three crucial issues need to be resolved.

First, the resumption of U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports Nov. 4 will pose a challenge. India has no affection for the Islamic Republic, but after China it is the second-largest importer of Iranian oil, bought at a substantial discount. As the U.S. rightly seeks to block Iranian oil exports, it must be adroit in persuading India to join. Washington needs to grant India a temporary waiver from the sanctions and help New Delhi find acceptable alternative energy sources, perhaps by persuading Gulf allies to sell oil to India at prices comparable to Iran’s.

Second, Russia remains a major supplier of military equipment and services for India. While India has purchased weapon systems from the U.S. to the tune of $15 billion since 2008, its use of Russian equipment poses interoperability problems and raises concerns about compromising sensitive technology.

India’s decision to procure S-400 Russian air-defense systems is particularly troubling, since those typically involve substantial service and training components. The presence of Russian personnel at the heart of India’s air defenses, even if only temporary, could hold up future U.S.-India defense deals. If the S-400 sale cannot be canceled, the best scenario would be to persuade India to limit the scope of Russian support services and turn to another country with a strong record of using and improving Russian defense equipment—namely Israel.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration can broaden U.S.-India defense cooperation by increasing the number of joint military exercises and expanding the annual Malabar war games. The members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal dialogue initiated in 2007 by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe among the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, should also be formalized and meet more regularly.

Third, trade tensions need to be resolved. India has issued a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization over U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, and it’s preparing to impose retaliatory tariffs of up to 70% on key agricultural exports. Additional rounds of tariffs are reportedly also under consideration. Given that India sells $48.6 billion in goods and services to the U.S., its largest export market, a good way to proceed would be to grant India a waiver on the newly imposed tariffs and work on negotiating a comprehensive bilateral trade deal.

Dealing with these three challenges will require policy makers from both countries to make difficult compromises. But it’s worth the effort. A true strategic partnership offers tremendous benefits to both nations: India gains an opportunity to become a real global power, and the U.S. gains a mammoth regional ally and counterweight to China, with the potential for greater cooperation on issues of global security. Establishing a lasting U.S.-India partnership would be a game-changing success for President Trump and American grand strategy.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Dobriansky, Paula.“India Can Become a Key U.S. Partner.” The Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2018.