NATO ally-like status for India: Natural and inevitable?

Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, NATO, ally status - The Federal, English news website
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump pledged to provide a "strong leadership" to the world to address pressing global challenges like terrorism. Photo: Twitter

The US Senate recently accorded North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally-like status which is a major milestone in India-US relations. The formalization of India’s association with the NATO alliance from an Indo-centric national security and foreign policy perspective amounts to a burial of Nehruvian non-alignment that was against entanglement in collective security pacts. NATO was founded on the principle of collective security that an attack on any one of its member nations amounts to aggression on all of them.

This Indo-US politico-military development shares similarities to US relations with Israel, Japan, Australia and South Korea. To the extent that Washington remains concerned about threats to the national security interests of these allies. Except for Israel which faces an existential threat from Arab Muslim countries on its periphery, the other countries are worried about the classical China threat. Clearly India too falls into the China threat category for its new found alliance with the US-led NATO security alliance.

In a sense India amounts to an eastern NATO member considering the security alliance was conceived as Europe-centric to tackle the erstwhile Soviet threat. The other eastern or Asian ‘NATO member’ country in a loose sense would be Taiwan with whom the US enjoys a special security relationship because it faces an existential threat from China.

India acquires the status of a NATO ally without necessarily becoming a NATO member per se. For instance, Switzerland which pursues a foreign policy of neutrality can still cooperate with NATO. In itself this provides phenomenal possibilities for India, which will unfold over time. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan for example, from 2003 to 2014 brought NATO closer to China’s borders. Perhaps this creates greater possibilities for India-NATO coordination. New Delhi at that point of time keenly looked at the stabilizing influence that ISAF would bring, given India’s strategic and economic interests in Afghanistan.

Evidently NATO appears to acquire a strong Asian dimension and no longer remains a regional security organization confined to Europe, especially in the post-Cold War period which commenced with the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1991.

The same year the two estranged democracies, India and the US came closer together with the Kicklighter Proposals and India-US ‘Malabar’ series of naval exercises. Thereafter India and the US signed the Agreed Minutes on Defence for the Expansion of Defence Cooperation between the US and Indian Defence Departments and Service-to-Service Military Exchanges followed by the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership.

India and the US have conducted joint air exercises since 2004 and pursued a strategic partnership with each other. The same year Washington granted Islamabad major Non-NATO Ally status and also offered New Delhi a similar designation which it declined. Finally, the two sides entered into the “New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship” in June 2005.The latest politico-military development is a culmination to the recognition of India as a major defence partner in 2016. India and the US will now cooperate on national security, counter-terrorism, marine counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance. NATO like ally status will also enable the possibility of India having accessibility to more advanced technologies almost on par with its traditional allies.

For Washington the decision to grant India NATO ally status is also reflective of the desire to strengthen strategic ties with New Delhi. India is today a member many export control regimes including the MTCR, the Australia Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement and is also in tune with the NSG though not technically a part of it. India has been granted ‘Strategic Trade Authorization Status’ (STA-I) by the Department of Commerce. This assumes importance in the context of export control regimes and enhancement of the economic and security ties between the two countries. It is likely to streamline licence rather than individual licences subject to the Export Promotion Regulations. In other words, each and every significant technology sale will not require an individual licence to enable India to gain access to latest defence technologies.

From a US perspective, NATO ally like status would prove useful to export armament technologies to India that would directly benefit the enormous American Military Industrial Complex (MIC). The prosperity and profitability of the MIC has a direct bearing on the US economy. For India, acquisition of American weaponry would help to balance the China threat; while for the US it would improve arms exports. In this context, grant of NATO status would enable Washington to sell arms to India under its Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program as well as through Direct Commercial Sales. In April 2002, the US sold India eight AN/TPQ -37 weapon locating radars that quickly detects and pinpoints the location of adversary long-range weapons under FMS. So much so, this politico-military move blurs the distinction between military and economic interests in the emergent phase of India-US relations.

India’s stakes and interests in the Indo-Pacific region have created new dependencies and relationships and therefore the US Senate’s decision to grant it NATO status gains significance. However, India’s inclination for association with NATO transcends Afghanistan or China’s rise but also due to credible threats like global terrorism, cyber threats, energy security, nuclear proliferation and even fragile states.

Washington’s formalization of this security relationship with New Delhi indicates the prioritization of India in Trump’s larger scheme of things and approach to the region. This is bound to impact on India-US trade ties. The 2+2 dialogue between the Defence and Foreign Ministers/Secretaries of the two countries is slated for the first week of September this year.

It is also a reflection of President Trump’s hard balancing in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in East Asia that constitutes China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. India shares the need for freedom of navigation on the high seas and economic and security interests with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific region. Coordination with NATO in such an evolving strategic environment is perhaps natural and inevitable.

(Vinod is Dean, Faculty of Arts and Professor Department of Political Science, Bangalore University, Bangalore and Chengappa is Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Christ Deemed to be University, Bangalore)