India is now on par with America’s NATO allies: Here’s what it means

In a huge boost to India-US defence relations, the American Senate has passed a binding legislation to accord India the same status as its other NATO allies — South Korea, Japan and Australia.

The legislation paves the way for improved maritime security and advanced technology transfer between the two countries, arriving on the heels of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to New Delhi and the G20 summit in Osaka where Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US president Donald Trump met on the sidelines.

The US lawmakers who made it happen

A week after the World War II-era North Atlantic Treaty Organisation celebrated its 70th anniversary, US lawmakers in April led a bipartisan attempt to elevate India as a NATO ally, reintroducing key legislation in the House of Representatives.

The recently approved proposal, however, happens to be a part of the National Defense Authorisation (Amendment) Act or NDAA for the current fiscal 2020. It was appended by Senate India Caucus Co-Chairs Senator John Cornyn and Senator Mark Warner.

Another bill to amend the NDAA and containing similar aims was introduced in April by House India Caucus Co-Chair Brad Sherman, along with Congressmen Joe Wilson, Ted Yoho, George Holding, Ed Case and Raja Krishnamoorthi. The original co-sponsors of Bill HR 123 were Congressman Ami Bera, the longest-serving Indian-American in the US Congress, along with the House India Caucus Co-Chairs, Congressmen Holding and Sherman.

Congressman Ted Yoho and Congresswoman with a 2020 running ticket Tulsi Gabbard were also among its sponsors. It needs to pass both chambers of the US Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — to be signed into law.

Strengthening defence collaboration

The NDAA contains the proposal to increase US-India defence cooperation in the Indian Ocean in the areas of humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism and counter-piracy. Upon enactment, the NDAA will thus ensure that the US State Department treats India as a non-member NATO ally for the purposes of the Arms Export Control Act.

Once processed, both amendments will be drafted into a reconciled version and await final ratification by the President.

Within 180 days of enactment, the Secretary of Defence needs to submit a report on US-India defence cooperation to the Congress. Regular joint military training, operations and other activities in the Western Indian Ocean also need to be conducted.

Details of those cooperation activities, relevant geographic combatant commands and how they coordinate these activities with the Indian military will form the crux of said report.

According to Senator Cornyn, India’s status as a NATO ally would also authoritise the US Defence Secretary to enter into military cooperation agreements with the Asian country. The upgrade would also ensure a smooth passage of high-end US military hardware to New Delhi. The US has already given India Strategic Trade Authorisation-11 (STA Tier-1) status, thereby designating the nation as one of US’s Major Defence Partners and facilitating the exchange of high technology.

India-US defence relations

India already enjoys a special status as a Major Defence Partner to the US, by virtue of the National Defence Authorisation of 2017. The proposed legislation follows the NDAA, which, when taken together, would reflect the long way that India-US relations have come since the Cold War.

The first step came in the form of the nuclear trade agreement signed in 2008, following which India finally shed the negative image it had garnered for its defence trade with the erstwhile USSR and now Russia. The countries even entered into a new nuclear deal last month, which will see India developing, stocking, and trading in civil as well as military nuclear technology in no time.

Today, New Delhi is one of the top buyers of US military hardware and a major partner of the US in Asia, often getting more preference and support than Pakistan, the US’s traditional all-weather ally in the region.

Where India fits in NATO’s scheme of things

While NATO’s raison d’être shifted radically after the fall of the USSR, its future was never as seriously questioned as it has been since the arrival of US President Donald Trump, who has called the alliance “obsolete”, casting the future of US involvement in the group into doubt.

He has also complained about the bulk of NATO’s budget being funded by the US, resulting in a landmark resolution to withdraw the US from the organisation, put to a vote that lost 357-22.

Meanwhile, the alliance itself has grown—from 12 countries in 1949 to 29 members in 2019—with approximately 20,000 military personnel deployed across the world at present.

NATO’s defence commitments overseas have evolved from fighting Communism to Islamist extremism, with its paws in conflicts like Kosovo, Afghanistan, Mediterranean waters and Iraq, especially after 9/11. But with talks of demilitarisation of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan on the table, NATO is quite possibly eyeing bigger fish.

The unprecedented challenges now facing NATO, and global security at large, include a shifting balance of global power, artificial intelligence and innovations in cyberspace that aid terrorism.

In his rousing address to Congress on the eve of the treaty’s 70th anniversary, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called out Russia’s military aggression, its overt and covert activities that Donald Trump downplays.

“We see a pattern of Russian behaviour, including a massive military build-up from the Arctic to the Mediterranean and from the Black Sea to the Baltic; the use of a military-grade nerve agent in the United Kingdom; support for Assad’s murderous regime in Syria; consistent cyber-attacks on NATO Allies and partners, targeting everything from parliaments to power grids; sophisticated disinformation campaigns; and attempts to interfere in democracy itself,” he said on April 3. Tensions with Russia are definitely returning to Cold War-era levels, Al Jazeera corroborates.

At such a critical and uncertain juncture, Stoltenberg said, “It’s good to have friends.”

How does this benefit us?

As opposed to member nations who have to fork out a part of its gross national income to fund NATO, major non-NATO allies (MNNAs) and NATO allies are only involved in strategic working partnerships with NATO countries, not in a mutual defence pact with the US.

This gives India access to a lot of military and financial advantages otherwise not available to non-members.

The designation would make India eligible for entry into cooperative research and development projects with the Department of Defense (DoD) on a shared-cost basis, participation in certain counter-terrorism initiatives, purchase of depleted uranium anti-tank rounds, priority delivery of ships and military rations, and possession of War Reserve Stocks of DoD-owned equipment that are kept outside of American military bases.

India will also be able to take equipment and research material for development projects as loans, use American financing for the purchase or lease of certain defence equipment, and receive expedited export processing of space technology.

It is also significant that the US in 2017 downgraded regional rival Pakistan’s status as an MNNA, citing the harbouring of Osama bin Laden and financing of terror, besides suspending $1.66 bn worth of military aid. As China ramps up its alliance with Pakistan, having the perks of a NATO ally can help advance India’s national security and defence commitments.

“India is the world’s largest democracy, a pillar of stability in the region, and has shown strong commitments to export control policies,” a PTI report from Washington quoted Joe Wilson as saying in April.

Several lobbying groups on both sides have worked to deliver this upgrade. “This adjustment to US law will further allow the US-India partnership to flourish in line with our security commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. I am grateful for the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, led by Mukesh Aghi, and their support for this legislation,” Wilson said introducing the Bill HR 123.

However, critics are concerned about the US playing a fickle ally interested only in using New Delhi as a regional counterweight to Beijing, as it has tried time and again, most recently by reviving Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) with India, Japan, Australia. This might also make India which has traditionally imported most of its military weapons from Russia, a dumping ground for American hardware.

Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius