A week after the World War II-era North Atlantic Treaty Organisation celebrated its 70th anniversary, US lawmakers led a bipartisan attempt to elevate India as a NATO ally, reintroducing key legislation in the House of Representatives.
The Bill will have to first pass the House and Senate, before the President gives the final go-ahead. However, if enacted, the legislation will ensure that the US State Department treats India as a non-member NATO ally for the purposes of the Arms Export Control Act.
Here’s what happened
A group of half a dozen influential Republican and Democratic Representatives came together in a bid to advance the US-India strategic relationship, a news report said Friday.
The original co-sponsors of the legislation are Congressman Ami Bera, the longest-serving Indian-American in the US Congress, along with the House India Caucus Co-Chairs, Congressmen George Holding and Brad Sherman. Congressman Ted Yoho and Congresswoman with a 2020 running ticket Tulsi Gabbard were also among its sponsors.
On Monday, April 8, the Bill HR 123 was introduced by Republican Congressman Joe Wilson, who is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. It seeks to send a powerful signal that defence sales to India should be prioritised, as per the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, which has worked on this important legislation.
This comes a few days after a US House Armed Services Committee hearing, where Assistant Defence Secretary Randall Schriver deemed India’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 air defence system as “an unfortunate decision”.
Schriver added, “We are very keen to see them (India) make an alternative choice… we’re working with them to provide potential alternatives.” The S-400 has become a thorn in the US’s relation with seven-decades-old NATO ally Turkey as well, as Ankara is openly defying US wishes on the Russian-made weapons purchase.
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) are only involved in strategic working partnerships with NATO countries, not in a mutual defence pact with the US. This would enable India access 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.
“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,” he said, introducing the Bill on Monday.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.