Reality check on India-U.S. ties

Even if the McCain bill had passed, it would not have had a profound impact on the relationship.

Indians who closely follow U.S. politics have been experiencing some whiplash over the past few weeks, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington DC was followed by a mixed week for India in the Congress. The intense disappointment over the failure of Senator John McCain’s bill on U.S.-India defence ties is misplaced, however. The bill, even if passed, would not have had a profound impact on the U.S.-India relationship.

Conversely, the failure to pass the bill does not represent a serious setback for the relationship, nor is it a referendum on Congress’s attitudes towards India. Looking beyond this particular piece of legislation, however, it shouldn’t be expected that the right bill, if passed, would permanently place the relationship on a sound footing. The future of the relationship depends instead on a continued convergence of national interests and on India’s willingness to break away from its historic posture of strategic autonomy and fully engage with the U.S.

Mr. Modi made a successful visit to DC. Highlights included the declaration that India would be considered a “Major Defence Partner” of the U.S. and a speech before a joint session of Congress that received a number of standing ovations. The next week, however, rising hopes that India was about to be showered in American largesse were dashed when the Senate failed to vote on Senator McCain’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA-17) that encouraged the President to treat India as a major ally and to loosen export controls on military technology.

The stir was so great that the Ministry of External Affairs even issued a comment urging a “wait and see” approach. Some cheer was restored when the Senate passed yet another India-centric amendment to the NDAA, this one focussing on military-to-military exchanges. Excitement (or disappointment) over these bills, as over the earlier amendment to the House’s version of the NDAA rests on the mistaken conception that when it comes to foreign policy the U.S. executive branch is bound to do exactly what the U.S. Congress tells it to do.

The truth is that while Congress holds the power of the pocketbook, it has very little power over how the President carries out foreign policy: not only which goals he embraces but also which strategies he employs to achieve them. Years of Supreme Court decisions have created a strong presumption in favour of the presidency in foreign policy, even when the executive is overriding the express wishes of Congress. Where the U.S. Constitution is less clear on the division of authority, the courts have tended to class the dispute as a non-justiciable “political question”, something that the President and Congress need to work out for themselves.

An examination of the text of one particular bill shows how modest the stakes are for India. Senator McCain’s amendment to the NDAA expressed the (totally non-binding) “sense of Congress” that improved U.S.-India ties were desirable and then moved on to a list of “Required Actions” that would actually ‘require’ very little from the administration. Many of them, such as strengthening the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative to further U.S.-India technology cooperation, are things that the administration is already trying to do. Others, such as the directive “to resolve issues impeding defence trade, security cooperation, and co-production and co-development opportunities between the United States and India”, are so broad as to be essentially meaningless. There’s no way Congress can force the President to resolve these challenging issues, or that Congress could hold a future President accountable if he or she fails to do so — beyond grilling administration officials the next time they testify before Congress.

The clauses in the amendment that attracted the most attention in India were the ones encouraging the President to modify the export control regime to allow for increased arms transfers to India. But even these sections would have limited impact. The U.S. is already working to remove the remaining barriers to defence exports to India. And the text limits export of advanced technology to “the context of” relatively peaceful operations such as humanitarian assistance and maritime domain awareness. Translation: Congress is not encouraging the President to sell India weapons that it can use against Pakistan. Finally, even if all export barriers were removed, India would still need to allocate the money necessary to purchase expensive American arms.

White House’s call

None of the many labels currently being thrown around to define the U.S.-India partnership — whether Major Defence Partner, as in the joint statement, or “global strategic and defence partner,” as in the McCain amendment — has any force under existing law, which means they are only as valuable as the President wants them to be. Their true purpose is to indicate to bureaucracies on both sides that the White House takes India seriously, and is intent on increasing the pace and depth of cooperation. Congressional support for this trajectory is certainly an added bonus. Neither Congress nor the White House, however, will continue to place such stress on the relationship if they don’t see results: increased Indian investment in its own military; Indian requests to purchase military technology from American firms; and, ultimately, Indian willingness to take an engaged, proactive stance on joint U.S.-India operations in the Indo-Pacific.

The flurry of pro-India legislation is a sign that the U.S. is more open than ever before to treating India as an ally. But whether or not a particular bill passes Congress is much less important than whether India seizes its moment in the sun.

Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

Keywords: India, US Senate, bill on special status, National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Narendra Modi, Modi five nation tour, Modi US visit


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