By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 23rd May 16
In 2008, the US Congress passed an innocuously titled legislation --- the “Naval Vessel Transfer Act” --- that has committed Washington to providing Israel a “qualitative military edge” over every potential adversary.
That act bound every US president to ensure Israel always has the “ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors, while sustaining minimal damages and casualties.”
Now, in similar fashion, the US Congress is binding future American presidents, whatever their alliances or foreign policies, to nurturing US-India defence ties.
On Thursday, the US House of Representatives passed the “US India Defense Technology and Partnership Act”, as an amendment to the National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) --- which authorizes the US military to spend Budget allocations. Initiated by Representative George Holding, and supported by most of the House, this highlights Congress’ dramatic swing towards India and away from Pakistan.
The US Congress often passes important, but potentially divisive Bills, by tagging them as amendments to larger, compulsory Bills like the NDAA. A stand-alone Bill would be extensively debated, allowing potential opponents to oppose them. It is easier to pass them as an amendment to another less contentious Bill.
The passage of the Bill has not been without tension. Pro-India lobbies have worked discreetly to tamp down opposition from Congressmen disappointed with the tardy pace of India’s defence and economic reforms. There is also ire in Washington about New Delhi’s continued stonewalling of bilateral “foundational agreements”, even though American and Indian officials have agreed on the drafts of two --- the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). Anti-India critics complain that India has never fought alongside the US, the way allies like the UK and Australia have.
Even so, the growing pro-India mood in the House ensured the Bill comfortably passed. Congressional practice now requires the upper house, the Senate, to pass a similar “companion” Bill. On May 9, Senators Mark Warner and John Cornyn, introduced such a Bill, entitled “Advancing U.S.-India Defense Cooperation Act”. Senator Warner, a democrat; and Senator Cornyn, a republican, co-chair the Senate’s bipartisan, 35-member India Caucus which promotes Washington’s relations with New Delhi.
After the Senate passes the Warner-Cornyn Bill, as appears likely, the House and Senate versions of the Bill must be reconciled. This is done either by a formal committee, or through a series of Amendments in each chamber until the Bill looks the same in both. This would not be difficult, since the Senate and House versions are already close to identical. The agreed joint version would then be signed into US law.
American legislators are increasingly conscious of the Cold War divergence between India and the US; and Washington’s continuing support for Pakistan, which makes New Delhi regard the US as a potentially fickle partner. The new Bill aims at reassuring New Delhi of American strategic commitment.
Towards this, the House Bill (just passed) and the Senate Bill (under process) require the US president to “formalize India’s status as a major partner of the United States.” It remains unclear what this status would be. New Delhi’s historical non-alignment rules out a formal treaty, like the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) that binds the US and several European countries into a mutual defence arrangement. New Delhi might also be hesitant to be designated a “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) --- which does not automatically include a mutual defence pact, but which permits Washington to extend a range of defence and financial benefits. The US currently has 15 designated MNNAs, including Australia, Japan and Pakistan. In 2014, Israel was elevated from an MNNA into a higher category and designated a “major strategic partner”.
For now, US-India defence ties are covered only by a 2015 executive agreement entitled “Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship”, which is valid for a decade. This follows previous, less comprehensive agreements signed in 1995 and 2005.
The new bill also requires the president to strengthen the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, and the India Rapid Reaction Cell --- a Pentagon department that irons out wrinkles in defence ties.