New Delhi/Washington, July 2 (IANS) In a move signifying the growing importance of India-US ties, the US Senate has passed a legislative provision that brings New Delhi at par with Washingtons other NATO allies for deepening defence cooperation.
Though the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) or the US defence budget, which contained the proposal for enhancing defence and strategic ties with India, has to be passed by the US House of Representatives to become a law, the move by the powerful Senate is significant, and “signals a vote of confidence in India”, say experts.
The $750 billion defence budget, passed by the Senate last week, wanted the US administration to strengthen and expand the scope of India’s designation as a major defence partner.
The move is “rather symbolic” since India is a non-NATO ally of the US and would give New Delhi access to top rung technology that its other NATO allies and countries like Japan and Australia share.
“But India already has the status of a Major Defence Partner, and has access to state-of-the art technology. It will not make a major difference, but since the Senate is a powerful body, the move signifies a vote of confidence in Indo-US partnership, and should be welcomed,” former Foreign Secretary Lalit Mansingh told IANS.
According to senior former diplomat G. Parthasarathy, the move by the Senate amounts to Congressional approval to further cement India-US defence ties. “Though the bill has to be passed by both the houses, in effect it shows from the India point of view that the US Senate has high regard for the country as a reliable partner,” he told IANS.
Noted defence expert and strategic analyst Commodore Uday Bhaskar (retd) said that the move is an “important endorsement of Indo-US relations by the American legislature and draws attention to the continuity in the ties, which was first envisioned in July 2005 in the Rumsfeld-Mukherjee agreement”.
“The fact that it is being reiterated 14 years later is also an indication of the many constraints on both sides to make this a truly a robust partnership,” Bhaskar told IANS.
He was referring to the 10-year agreement, titled, “New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship” (NFDR), which was signed by the then Defence Ministers Donald Rumsfeld and Pranab Mukherjee. The 10-year agreement was renewed in June 2015.
According to Bhaskar, since 2005 both countries under their then leaders had tried to take it forward, but “barring the sale of inventory not much has happened in terms of sale” of top-end defence items. “We have not been able to implement it in the true manner”, he added.
The NDAA or defence budget passed by the Senate last week said: “It is the sense of the Senate that the US should strengthen and enhance its major defence partnership with India”. It listed six specific actions it wanted US President Donald Trump’s administration to take in the regard.
It wanted the administration to strengthen and expand the scope of India’s designation as a Major Defence Partner. India was accorded this status in 2016 by former President Barack Obama, which was built upon by Trump.
The Senate asked Washington to explore “additional steps to implement the major defence partner designation to better facilitate interoperability, information sharing, and appropriate technology transfers” and to undertake “strategic initiatives to help develop the defence capabilities of India”.
It also urged for “increasing the frequency and scope of exchanges” between senior civilian officials and military officers “to support the development and implementation of the major defence partnership”.
The Senate also urged the US administration to increase joint naval exercises with India and also conduct them in the Persian Gulf. Both countries have been holding joint exercises in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region so far.
The suggestion of expanding joint exercises to the Persian Gulf is significant as the area has emerged as a hotspot amid rising tensions between the US and Iran and attacks on oil tankers in recent weeks. India has independently deployed two naval vessels in the region to protect its shipping interests.
In a recognition of the shared democratic values and commitment to free navigation, another suggestion in the budget document is to increase engagement with India in multilateral frameworks “to promote regional security and defend shared values and common interests in the rules-based order”. It said the quadrilateral dialogue among the US, India, Japan and Australia should be enhanced.
The budget proposals related to India were introduced by the Senate India Caucus Co-Chairs, Senators John Cornyn and Mark Warner.
Hindu American Foundation Managing Director Samir Kalra said the organisation commended them for their “hard work in advancing the US-India strategic partnership.”
“Elevating India to non-NATO status is vital, now more than ever, for the US, for India, and for the entire region,” said HAF Managing Director Samir Kalra.
An amendment along the lines of the Senate provisions for India has been proposed for the House of Representatives version of the defence budget by Representative Brad Sherman and others.
In July last year, the US had upgraded India’s status to a trading partner equal to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, to help open the doors for India to import a range of state-of-the-art defence hardware and cutting edge technologies.