Heating Up: Tensions in US-India Strategic Defense Partnership

US-India relations have always been complicated. The depth of this relationship can only be understood in the context of the two countries having their own distinct geopolitical interests. However, these interests sometimes clash with one another. Despite having an overall positive relationship, tensions between the two countries have risen over issues of national defense.

In September, the US and India signed a security cooperation agreement authorizing the US to sell highly advanced and sensitive military equipment, including defense systems, drones, information systems, and the prized American F-35 Stealth Fighter. While this was a breakthrough for the US and India in terms of shared defense and political significance, the US is still completely outsold in India by Russia. The Financial Times cites SIPRI Arms Transfers Database to illustrate that despite Russian arms imports of India’s total going down from 90% in 2012 to around 57% in 2017, India is still highly reliant on arms transactions with Russia.

This arms sale rivalry brings about political tensions as well. The US had declared sanctions against Russian arms manufacturers due to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. Recently, China purchased 20 Sukhoi-25 Fighter Jets as well as S-400 missiles. In response, the US government ruled that the transaction directly violated the sanctions against Russia and the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Furthering this, the US levied greater sanctions towards Russia as well as China, increasing the financial tension between the two economic powerhouses. And while Russia and China take a more aggressive stance in rhetoric against the US for its economic pressures to manage their development of arms, India has a unique position in this political complication. Despite the recent signing of the security cooperation agreement and the economic and relationship with the US, India recently purchased S-400 missiles from Russia. This aggravates the matter as it not only acts in direct opposition to US interests, but also it directly violates the CAATSA.

However, despite this violation, the US is likely not to punish India with economic sanctions as they share similar geopolitical interests in regards to China and its foreign policy. What this does cause is a political dilemma for the United States — embrace hypocrisy for the hand of much needed partnership in the region, or slap harsh economic sanctions and potentially lose a powerful ally. The US also has another reason to keep the strategic defense partnership: India is still looking to acquire fighter jets to replace its outdated fleet. While France has been successful in selling part of its new fleet to India, the US has not been able to secure a deal. But the rapid succession of advanced military equipment transfers in the Asia-Pacific region begs us to consider a philosophical question: is the world safer with mutually assured destruction or with no destruction at all?