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USA–India strategic continuity in the Biden administration transition

Vice President Biden Delivers Remarks at a Luncheon in Honor of Indian Prime Minister Modi's Visit (2014)/U.S. Department of State Flickr
Vice President Joe Biden Delivers Remarks at a Luncheon in Honor of Indian Prime Minister Modi's Visit (2014)/U.S. Department of State
Dr Lora Saalman

Following the declassification of the United States’ National Security Council’s (NSC) US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, and the transition from Donald J. Trump’s administration to that of President Joe Biden, USA–India relations have once again emerged at the forefront of US security policy. Even though the NSC framework was issued by a departing office, it is noteworthy for both its continuity with the strategies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and likely carryover into future policies under the Biden administration. 

Despite views that the Trump administration has entirely upended US foreign policy, the NSC framework’s emphasis on expanded arms trade and technology transfer harks back to the Bush era, while the label of India as a Major Defense Partner dates back to the Obama era. Further, the focus on India as a counterbalance to China, as well as prioritization of Indo-Pacific collaboration and maritime security are hardly new and will likely endure. To explore this strategic continuity, this SIPRI Blog relies on USA–India agreements and 20 interviews with US military, political, nuclear and South Asia experts to identify obstacles and opportunities to bridge the gap between USA–India security and nuclear engagement.

Continuity

In charting a path for USA–India strategic engagement, key members of the Biden administration have already made it clear that the USA will continue to elevate the USA–India security partnership. At the same time, they have agreed in principle to the Trump administration’s ‘tougher approach’ towards a more ‘aggressive and assertive China’. Antony Blinken, the incoming Secretary of State, has emphasized that USA–India relations are ‘very much a bipartisan success story’, advocating strengthened and deepened ties for the future of the Indo-Pacific region. 

Further, Kurt Campbell, the incoming Coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs at the NSC, was a principal architect of the Obama-era pivot that reserved a central role for India in this strategy. William Burns, the incoming Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has also advocated ‘shaping the environment into which China rises, taking advantage of the web of allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific’ to include ‘a rising India’. While couching these nominations as a departure from the Trump administration, particularly in terms of restoring alliance networks, the Biden administration’s early attempts to engage India appear to remain largely consistent with earlier efforts. 

Yet even if there is continuity of vision, obstacles persist particularly in terms of nuclear engagement. While some early advances came from Bush- and Obama-era USA–India agreements on civil nuclear cooperation and nuclear security, when it comes to defence, bilateral interactions on nuclear posture and technologies remain limited. Further, despite some USA–India interoperability on security issues, there are indications that this has not translated into bilateral talks on strategic stability. Many of the areas of interoperability and arms trade ushered in by enhanced USA–India ties in recent years have an impact on not just conventional, but also nuclear deterrence. 

Obstacles

While USA–India security and nuclear agreements extend over the past two decades, structural obstacles continue to impede the realization of their stated aims. Interviews conducted by the author in 2020 with US military, political, nuclear and South Asia experts revealed an overarching concern over, and in some cases resignation to, a lack of Indian willingness to engage on strategic stability. Defined narrowly as ‘the absence of incentives to use nuclear weapons first (crisis stability) and the absence of incentives to build up a nuclear force (arms race stability)’ and broadly as ‘the absence of armed conflict between nuclear-armed states’, strategic stability was a part of the US Nuclear Posture Review in both 2010 and 2018. With the Biden administration—which draws heavily from the Obama era in terms of personnel and approach—strategic stability is likely to not only merit mention, but also to play a greater role in enhanced engagement.

Limited exchanges

When it comes to practice, however, there are persistent challenges to USA–India interactions on strategic stability. Even the USA–India Strategic Dialogue and USA–India Strategic and Commercial Dialogue, initiated in 2010 and 2015 respectively, are so wide-ranging in their coverage that any nuclear discussion has largely been limited to civil cooperation or broad non-proliferation pledges. In addition to India’s position outside of the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, US nuclear experts repeatedly cited during interviews the lack of robust dialogues with India on such issues as nuclear posture and technology. Noting the relatively small size of the nuclear community in India and the USA, combined with Indian reluctance to engage, US nuclear and political experts stressed the difficulty of finding those with whom they could interact. And even in cases in which Indian officials or former officials were willing to meet, many US experts lamented the lack of transparency and in-depth exchange.

Escalation manipulation

Citing these impediments to mutual understanding, several US nuclear experts noted that this lack of access could lead to ‘escalation manipulation’ in which US official and unofficial bodies drive nuclear discourse on South Asia. As one example, they referenced the US debate over whether India may be shifting towards a counterforce doctrine, which maintains that a limited nuclear war could be ‘fought and won’ through targeting of an adversary’s military infrastructure with a nuclear strike. US experts questioned whether the relative lack of access to official Indian insights could trigger the US creation of scenarios based on an incomplete understanding of India’s nuclear policies and shifts. While in part fuelled by strategic ambiguity within India’s nuclear posture, such opacity colours how South Asian escalation and crisis management are viewed. Further, it exacerbates complaints among Indian experts that US scenarios often misinterpret India’s nuclear developments, as with India’s disputed counterforce shift.

Fractured alignment

In addition to India’s non-aligned status and unusual position as an outlier in the US network of allies, the majority of US experts stressed the inability of the USA to engage in meaningful and concrete discussions on nuclear posture and technologies with India. Moreover, as one US military expert noted, ‘latent animosity towards US officers’ within South Asia results in them being ‘partially blind about each other’. This expert noted that this opacity has been compounded by the historically fractured US treatment of South Asian affairs, which demanded that regional military engagement included visits to former US Pacific Command, renamed in 2018 as US Indo-Pacific Command, US Central Command and US Africa Command. While this interaction has been streamlined to a degree through some of the security agreements outlined below, US nuclear experts suggested that barriers to engagement on strategic stability remain.

Opportunities

Despite the aforementioned obstacles, interviews conducted by the author revealed a desire among US military, political, nuclear and South Asia experts to more actively engage India on strategic stability. In particular, several former US officials advocated incorporating both India and Pakistan in future multilateral nuclear dialogues. In doing so, they stressed that such meetings would likely first occur between China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the USA arguing that, if successful, these meetings could be followed by participation by India and Pakistan. Further, their level of interest was highlighted by the high-level and active US participation in SIPRI’s South Asia multilateral nuclear workshop, which meant attending at midnight in their respective time zones.

Building blocks

In light of author interviews and official statements from the Biden administration, indications are that the momentum of USA–India collaboration will accelerate. Given its composition of Obama-era officials, the Biden administration is likely to seek to expand both multilateral and bilateral track 1, as well as track 1.5 and track 2, nuclear dialogues and strategic stability initiatives with more than just China and Russia. In developing this nuclear dialogue framework, the following range of concrete security agreements and forums could provide a platform, or at least the potential, for greater and more practical USA–India interaction on nuclear posture and technologies.

From the expansive deals signed under the Bush administration for the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership and the USA–India High-Technology Cooperation Group to the Obama administration’s USA–India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region and Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), there has already been a steady growth in USA–India exchange, expanded even further by the Trump administration with its elevation of USA–India relations to a Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. These provide a strong basis upon which the Biden administration can build, as well as potential mechanisms to include engagement on related nuclear issues.

Intelligence and acquisitions

Among the recently established mechanisms that may also be ripe for expansion, India and the USA instituted the first annual 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in 2018 between India’s Ministers for External Affairs and Defence and the US Secretaries of State and Defense, which focused on strengthening bilateral strategic, security and defence cooperation. With the most recent iteration of this dialogue in 2020, India and the USA signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), which provides India with real-time access to US geospatial intelligence. As some have pointed out, this intelligence could enhance the navigation and targeting accuracy of missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in both the border and the maritime domains.

As such, BECA is of crucial importance to strategic stability, since even if these platforms are used for surveillance or are armed with conventional payloads, they are still wielded by nuclear powers. In addition, the USA is reportedly adjusting its Missile Technology Control Regime policies on the supply of unmanned vehicles—including armed UAVs—to treat these platforms more as aircraft than missiles. In India’s case, this expanded interpretation will have a longer-term impact on its lease and acquisition of such platforms as the Predator and Sea Guardian UAVs. Such platforms are suited to surveillance at the Line of Actual Control with China and in the Indian Ocean. Further, the opening up of integration of future armed UAVs promises to impact both conventional and nuclear stability. 

Communications and interoperability

Beyond USA–India arms trade, the India-tailored Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement concluded in 2018, allows for sharing of high-end secured and encrypted communication equipment. The agreement complements the Obama-era Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which allows for US and Indian militaries to reciprocally refuel at, and access supplies, spare parts and services from, each other’s bases. Secure data links and interoperability are integral for streamlining US encrypted information sharing on platforms supplied by the USA to India such as the Sea Guardian UAV and C-130J, C-17 and P-8I aircraft. And as surveillance is an integral part of early warning in both the conventional and nuclear realm, this enhanced connectivity will be integral to anticipating escalatory activities. 

Another example of USA–India information sharing is the Industrial Security Annex. This agreement—concluded during the second 2+2 dialogue in 2019—expands on the Bush-era General Security of Military Information Agreement and facilitates the exchange of classified military information between not only government entities, but also the Indian and US arms industries. Further, the inaugural meeting of the Indian Defence Innovation Organization and the US Defense Innovation Unit in 2020 expanded on the Obama-era DTTI’s goal of shifting USA–India security ties towards co-production and co-development. As US and Indian intelligence and platforms are increasingly intertwined, this has natural spin-off effects in terms of both conventional and nuclear command and control and deterrence. 

Bridging obstacles and opportunities

While obstacles remain, the range of USA–India agreements that cover everything from information sharing to weapon platforms indicates that there are opportunities for enhanced nuclear engagement, founded upon the pre-existing building blocks of the Bush, Obama and Trump eras. China has remained a significant driver of US Indo-Pacific strategy throughout all of these administrations. With recent confrontations at the Line of Actual Control and future potential tensions in the Indian Ocean, China’s presence in these calculations is only likely to increase. India’s access to geospatial intelligence, better secured data links and more capable weapon platforms via stronger ties with the USA suggests that the US contribution to India’s ability to address incidents at the border and at sea will also grow.

Thus, even though there have been reports that the Biden administration may sanction India following its purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia or may resume Obama-era pressure on India over the ongoing Kashmir dispute, the overall security trajectory of USA–India ties has been and will likely continue to be towards greater interoperability and exchange. Translating this into engagement on nuclear posture and technologies under the umbrella of strategic stability would be the next logical step. Without it, misunderstanding and miscalculation may complicate the growing interoperability between India and the USA. The communications, intelligence and platforms on which India and the USA seek to collaborate have an impact on strategic stability dynamics not only with China, but also with Pakistan and other states in the Indo-Pacific region. Without addressing the USA–India obstacles to nuclear engagement, agreements between the two countries may be undermined in the longer term. 

This means there is a necessity for US streamlining of its official interactions with India, as well as greater willingness on the part of Indian counterparts to engage. Expanding on the opportunities—while addressing the obstacles to exchanges on nuclear issues—would strengthen not only continuity in security relations, but also the realization of longer-term collaboration. While China will likely continue to be a catalyst, USA–India security ties based solely on its role as a driver may not be sustainable if nuclear transparency is lacking. Thus, to bridge some of the gaps in USA–India security relations, enhanced engagement on nuclear postures and technologies, whether under new or pre-existing dialogues and mechanisms, is essential.

This is the fourth in a series of SIPRI WritePeace blogs that will explore nuclear narratives surrounding nuclear dynamics in South Asia.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Dr Lora Saalman is an Associate Senior Fellow within SIPRI’s Armament and Disarmament and Conflict, Peace and Security research areas and a Senior Fellow in the Global Cooperation in Cyberspace Program at the EastWest Institute.