Washington, DC – Defense Secretary James Mattis will travel to India in late September for his first bilateral summit with his Indian counterpart, Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. No area of US-India partnership has as much momentum as defense cooperation. Yet several US initiatives to deepen defense cooperation further have been rebuffed or remain stalled. With the recent India-China standoff in Bhutan, it is abundantly clear that South Asia faces a serious Chinese threat. What is less clear is whether in the immediate aftermath of the Doklam confrontation Delhi will be more interested in deepening its partnership with the United States or seek a pause as it stabilizes its tense relations with China.
At the political level, both the United States and India are starting this new phase of our defense relationship with new leadership. Apart from the US change due to the recent national election, India had a cabinet shuffle in early September that elevated Sitharaman, who had been running the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, to the key role of Minister of Defense. Her engagement with Secretary Mattis will be one of her first bilateral summits in the new role. As minister of commerce and industry, she did not have much opportunity to offer her views on India’s strategic relationships or her perspective on defense ties with the United States. Since taking over the Defense Ministry, she has articulated a few priorities, namely increasing the Indian military’s preparedness and expediting acquisitions; augmenting the “Make in India” campaign for defense materiel; and ensuring the welfare of military members and their families.
Since taking over the Department of Defense, Secretary James Mattis has reiterated India’s importance in our Indo-Pacific security architecture. While he has pledged to continue with vital programs like the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), he has a very new team helping to shape the agenda, both on policy and technology. The main element of continuity is the “India Rapid Reaction Cell,” which helps expedite technology transfers to India.
There is merit to the notion of deliberately slowing the pace of new agreements and projects and focusing on making the existing projects successful. These existing projects include six specific DTTI projects and working groups on aircraft carrier technology and jet engine technology. Several potential US defense equipment sales are already in the works: a transformative proposal from Lockheed Martin to shift the entire F-16 production line to India; potential orders for carrier-launch fighter planes for which Boeing plans to make a bid; additional transport and patrol planes; and maritime surveillance drones. Concluding major defense deals is aligned with both nations’ interests: the Trump administration wants to even out the trade balance, while India wants better equipment for its forces.
Still, signing new agreements and joint projects is a tangible marker of progress. Two of our defense foundation agreements remain in limbo. There is a chance to add more DTTI projects to the mix or announce some specific work projects from the aircraft carrier working group. There is a growing chorus of voices that would like to see Australia participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise and for the United States and India to create a wider, more complex range of military exercises and perhaps engage in joint patrols.
India’s recent military intervention in the border dispute between China and Bhutan was a powerful signal that India is stepping into a more prominent role as a responsible security partner. Indian soldiers stood firm in defense of Bhutan’s land claim, despite constant public antagonism and blistering threats from Beijing. Eventually China backed off its road-building program in the disputed territory. India would understandably want to play a magnanimous role following this flare-up. But, at the same time, the incident may make Delhi more open to deepening its defense ties with the United States.
With all the senior personnel changes, we should not expect any dramatic outcomes from this first defense summit. But as we have seen, this relationship still relies on regular political-level engagements to make tangible progress—following through on past agreements and forging new ones. Developing a personal rapport, on top of the obvious shared security concerns, will set the table for further evolution.