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ANALYSIS

US-India ties likely to remain strong under Trump, experts say

Visit, board, search, and seizure team members from the Indian Navy and the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay stack up in a passageway during joint training aboard the Indian Navy Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti during Malabar 2016.

RYAN BATCHELDE/U.S. NAVY

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 13, 2016

Supporters of a plan to build F-16 fighters in India hope that improved relations with a country once close to the Soviet Union will overcome President-elect Donald Trump’s opposition to sending U.S. manufacturing jobs abroad.

Lockheed Martin — competing with Boeing’s F/A-18 and Sweden’s Gripen fighter to replace India’s aging fleet of Russian jets — has offered to shift F-16 production from Fort Worth, Texas, to India if it wins the contract.

But Trump has threatened to punish firms that move factories overseas.

“What will be the U.S. policy posture now that the new president-elect is in the mix?” an official at a U.S. defense contractor in India told The Washington Post. “Is he going to continue the policy of engaging in India on co-production and co-development?”

The countries have been hammering out details for how they can engage in joint research, investment and production of military equipment, U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma said in an interview shortly before the election. “We are north of $15 billion in defense sales (annually),” said the former Air Force legal officer, whose parents were born in India.

India, the world’s No. 1 arms importer, could be a huge market for U.S. defense firms. A number of projects for joint manufacture of U.S. weapons are being looked at under a recent bilateral Defense Technology and Trade Initiative.

‘Major defense partner’

  • In January, Green Berets assigned to 2nd Battalion, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) conducted the Vajra Prahar training exercise with Indian special forces at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and Camp Rilea, in Oregon.

  • In April and May, 170 Indian air force personnel and 10 aircraft — four Su-30MKIs, four Jaguars and two IL-78 aerial refueling tankers — trained with the U.S. Air Force during Red Flag drills in Alaska.

  • In June, 6,000 sailors, a number of American vessels including the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, several Indian warships — the INS Satpura, INS Sahyadri, INS Shakti and INS Kirch — and Japan’s JS Hyuga helicopter carrier participated in the Malabar exercise in the western Pacific and in Sasebo, Japan.

  • In September, 250 soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the 7th Infantry Division and the California National Guard trained with Indian troops from the 99th Mountain Brigade in Uttarakhand, an Indian state that borders Chinese-occupied Tibet.

The U.S. has elevated India to a “major defense partner,” Verma said.

“It’s a strategic handshake,” he said of the relationship. “We don’t have an alliance and don’t expect to enter into an alliance, but we have a handshake and cooperation on a vast area of activities.”

Under the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, U.S.-based Westinghouse Electric Co. plans to build six U.S.-designed reactors there.

“A decision was taken (this year) to move forward with Westinghouse reactors in India to provide power to 60 million people,” Verma said. “It will create thousands of jobs in India and the U.S. It is one of the largest civil nuclear agreements ever reached.”

Russia is still India’s biggest arms supplier, accounting for 70 percent of its weapons imports in 2011-15, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

However, U.S. defense contractors have established a firm foothold in the market. Lockheed Martin, for example, recently announced the sale of C-130J transport planes to India in what it calls “the first major military contract between the U.S. and India in more than 40 years.” Last month, BAE Systems North America released details of a $750 million deal to supply 145 M-777 artillery pieces to the Indian military.

That’s quite a change from the Cold War years when India sought to remain neutral in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. U.S. support for Pakistan in its 1971 war with India soured relations and pushed the Indians closer to Moscow — until the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years later.

Stronger ties

U.S.-India ties have been growing stronger for years and will likely continue on a positive trend under Trump, said Robert M. Hathaway, a public policy fellow associated with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

An armada of U.S. and Indian warships that prowled the Pacific this summer during annual Malabar drills was a sign of that growing friendship. Supported by 6,000 sailors, the Malabar fleet had a number of American vessels, including the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis, several Indian warships and Japan’s JS Hyuga helicopter carrier.

The sea training echoed land and air exercises in the U.S. and India earlier this year involving Special Forces, Army and Air Force personnel.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited India last week to meet his counterpart for the seventh time — more visits than “any other defense counterpart anywhere in the world,” Hathaway said.

The two governments issued a joint statement Thursday saying there had been “tremendous progress” in bilateral defense ties, and there is “immense promise” for the future of security cooperation.

“Today, we finalized India’s designation as a ‘Major Defense Partner’ of the United States. The designation … is a status unique to India and institutionalizes the progress made to facilitate defense trade and technology sharing with India to a level at par with that of the United States’ closest allies and partners, and ensures enduring cooperation into the future,” the statement said.

Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi share strong views on the dangers of Islamic terrorism, and Trump has spoken highly of the leader, Hathaway said.

“He even tried speaking Hindi in front of Indian Americans on the campaign trail,” he said.

Trump’s pick of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose parents were born in India, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations could be another positive sign.

The president-elect won’t see India as a priority, but there will likely be “continuity, including the stepped-up military exercises and other security and defense measures,” Hathaway said.

During the Cold War, India was part of the “nonaligned bloc” that declined to take sides as other democracies struggled against communist threats.

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‘Still resistance’

In India, there has been debate over whether the warmer relationship with the U.S. constitutes an alliance, with some concerned the country could be drawn into U.S.-led wars, Hathaway said.

“There is still resistance to working too closely with the U.S., but if you look at it in a historical context, it is a closer relationship than it has ever been,” he said.

Modi and Trump share similar views on terrorism, and there’s no evidence the president-elect wants to improve ties with Pakistan, a hotbed of Islamic extremism that India has fought four wars against since the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.

“Clearly, Modi and Trump share similar views on terrorism,” Hathaway said. “That’s another reason to work together.”

Indians will pay keen attention to what happens in Afghanistan next year, he said.

“Trump has shown no interest in Afghanistan. He thinks we need to refocus resources on rebuilding domestically and will be more anxious than (President Barack) Obama to terminate the U.S. military presence,” Hathaway said. “That will lead to regeneration of the Taliban and anxiety in (New) Delhi.”

It’s also unclear how Trump will approach India’s chief rival, China. He has promised to confront the communist nation on economic issues but doesn’t seem interested in defending human rights and democracy in the Far East and expects U.S. friends and allies in the region to do more for themselves, Hathaway said.

“Indians don’t want to be a junior partner in a U.S.-led anti-China group … but they will be happy if Trump stands up to China,” he said.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @SethRobson1
 

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, right, greets India Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Arlington National Cemetery, Va., before a wreath-laying ceremony, June 6, 2016. The U.S. and India have been drawing closer for years, and the good vibes should continue under the new president, said Robert M. Hathaway, a public policy fellow associated with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
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