Prior to joining the White House, Dr. White was a Senior Associate and Co-Director of the South Asia program at The Stimson Center and, previously, Senior Advisor for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a position he held in conjunction with an International Affairs Fellowship from the Council on Foreign Relations. While at the Pentagon he supported Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in advancing the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative and advised on a broad set of defense issues related to the department’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.
Dr. White has spent extensive time in Asia and has written on a wide range of issues including defense policy, electoral politics, Islamic movements, and nuclear deterrence. He has held short-term visiting research fellowships at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan’s National Defence University, and the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses in Delhi; testified before Congress; and served on U.S.-sponsored election observer delegations to both Pakistan and Bangladesh. He graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa from Williams College with a double major in history and mathematics, and received his Ph.D. with distinction from Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington.
US and India have greatly deepened their defense cooperation. Can you briefly tell us some of the most important steps taken in this area by the two countries in recent years?
When I think about U.S. and India defense and security cooperation, I think about it in five different baskets of issues. Each of these has seen some measurable progress over the past few years.
The first is defense sales–an area in which the U.S.-India relationship has grown dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years, from virtually zero to more than $15 billion. This involves major U.S. platforms, some fixed-wing lift platforms like the C-130 and the C-17, helicopters--big-ticket items. In many ways, the potential of the defense market has spurred the US government into investing more broadly in the defense relationship with India. India has traditionally had a large base of Russian equipment because of its loose alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but in the post-Cold War era it has been diversifying quite rapidly.
The second area is technology transfer and cooperation. The United States and India set up something called the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which focuses on trying to deepen technology cooperation in the defense base. One of the important things that has happened in this regard is a shift within the United States government to giving the presumption of approval for the transfer sensitive technologies. For a long time, India was seen at the Pentagon through the lens of the Cold War, and was not considered a reliable partner to which the U.S. could give sensitive technologies. There was a hangover of sorts after the Cold War, and it took some time before the United States reevaluated that position. It has been a slow difficult process, but today India has been afforded about the same status as most U.S. treaty allies when it comes to authorizing the transfer of sensitive defense-related or dual-use technologies. Now the nature of our system is such there still has to be, in most cases, a private-sector logic, that is, a business case, to undertake these transfers. And so there has been some disappointment on the Indian side that we haven't simply given them the crown jewels of our defense technology, but nonetheless, we are making some progress in this domain.
The third area where things have moved forward is in defense exercises. India conducts more exercises with the United States than with any other country. The interactions between military services are quite strong, particularly Navy to Navy. Our Armies also exercise together and our Air Forces as well. There is a growing mutual interest, particularly in maritime exercises, as India thinks about the capabilities it will need in the Indian Ocean and further afield in the Western Pacific.
The fourth area is in counterterrorism cooperation. This has long been tricky, given the United States’ relationship with Pakistan, which continues — at least on the books — to be a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States. After 9/11 our ability to cooperate with India has become a bit clearer. We see eye-to-eye on the risk posed by India-focused militant groups and have increasingly cooperated at the UN on designations of Taliban affiliated and Al Qaeda affiliated entities. China continues to block some of these designations, but we have found some common cases. There are also ways in which, out of the public eye, we have improved cooperation with India after 9/11, on issues like intelligence sharing, border management, and exchange of airline no-fly watch lists.
The final area where we've moved the ball forward together is on defense and security consultations. This is more at the political level. There has been a process of coming to a common view of the regional security environment. We have stepped up our consultations with India over the last six or seven years on Afghanistan. We don’t always see eye-to-eye on issues like Taliban reconciliation, but in general, we're trying to be much more transparent about how we see the security environment in Afghanistan and the role of regional players. Our consultations regarding China have become much more interesting and candid, as India and the United States have some shared anxieties about China's rise and China's reach. We also engage in discussions on global terrorism in the Middle East and on other parts of the world.
The U.S.–India conversation on Pakistan is still, frankly, a bit stilted. We have a set of internal policies that are sometimes called “friends on friends” restrictions–we don’t talk to friends about other friends on sensitive issues. There's a greater openness in our dialogue with India to talk about the problems that we see in Pakistan and the ways in which the Pakistani state is facilitating some problematic Islamic groups. But that’s still evolving.
If you look at the overall picture of this relationship along these five dimensions, there is growing trust and cooperation. Some of it is public, some of it less public. But the trend continues to be positive.
One of the big events that recently happened between the U.S. and India is the 2+2 talk. I saw a comment in one of the Washington Post articles that you called the military communications agreements signed during the talk “politically tricky but operationally meaningful.” Can you say a bit more about the significance of the 2+2 talk and the agreements?
The United States and India recently held their 2+2 dialogue at the ministerial level, which is something that the United States has been wanting for quite some time. It is always a great idea to get State and Defense, Ministry of External Affairs, and Ministry of Defense in the same room. Additionally, this structure addressed a certain frustrating asymmetry in the relationship: the U.S. Department of Defense has significant influence and resources in decision-making on issues related to India, whereas, on the Indian side, the Ministry of External Affairs tends to dominate decision-making over the Ministry of Defense. In order to help solve this problem, the 2+2 format was helpful.
There were a number of important outcomes from this meeting. The most significant was the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). This was the second of the so-called foundational agreements, which the United States has taken to calling “enabling agreements.” These were a set of agreements that the United States proposed more than a decade ago that would enable closer coordination between the two militaries. The first one of these agreements, often called the “logistics support agreement” or “access agreement,” was a very basic logistics arrangement focused not on strategy or operational issues, but on reciprocal logistics support and accounting procedures. It was quite banal — important but not a high-stake political agreement. It’s the sort of agreement that is typically negotiated by lieutenant colonels. But between the United States and India, it took on a huge political significance.
There was political opposition in India to signing this agreement due to the concern that it would impinge upon India's sovereignty. Some of that opposition was from the Indian government itself. In 2016, it was finally signed. I was in the White House and Prime Minister Modi was visiting and we finalized the details of the agreement just hours before Modi walked into the Oval Office. It was a huge, fraught, effort but it finally happened. That broke the political logjam allowing a follow-up enabling agreement.
The second of those agreements, the COMCASA, is arguably the more important one. It created a framework between the two governments to allow secure communication protocols. It is important for a few reasons. It allows our militaries to communicate securely during exercises or other activities. It also allows the Indian government to take full advantage of the equipment it has bought from the United States. Previously when India bought, for example, their P-8I maritime surveillance planes, the US couldn't provide the full suite of communications security equipment. In those aircraft, they had to put their own in. So this agreement gives India a the ability to take full advantage of platforms purchased from the US.
There was not a lot of political fuss over this second enabling agreement. It shows a growing maturity in the bilateral relationship and India’s recognition that in this kind of agreement the U.S. has to periodically inspect the equipment to make sure it has not been tampered with. It provides the capabilities that India needs if it is going to be capable of dealing with its adversaries in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.
The U.S.-Pacific Command is renamed as the Indo-Pacific Command. Does this change of narrative signal a significant change or improvement in the U.S.-India relationship? What is the main purpose for the U.S. to strengthen ties with India? As you mentioned before, the U.S. and India share this understanding that the rise of China needs to be contained. If one of the purposes is to counter China, then what makes India so important?
Those are two terrific and interrelated questions. To the first question: the renaming of the combatant command is symbolically significant. It reflects a move by the United States government toward a more integrated view of the security environment in Asia. The United States government has historically dealt with South Asia and East Asia as distinct domains. There have been very few offices that have responsibilities for dealing with both regions at the same time. And there have been very few experts who have significant experience dealing with both regions.
When the Obama administration announced the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, it was focused largely on East Asia. There was something we called the “Rebalance within the Rebalance,” which was a prioritization of Southeast Asia within the wider East Asian context. Over time, people started asking questions about whether India had a role in the rebalance. And the answers to those questions were somewhat awkward. There was one school within the U.S. government that argued for the rebalance to be seen through a wider lens to include, at least in some ways, the Indian Ocean. And there were others who were concerned that it would dilute the efforts to direct resources to the Asia-Pacific, by which they meant East Asia. So, in the end, the decision was made to talk about India in conjunction with the rebalance, but not to include South Asia in the rebalance as such. This led to the awkward result of having the rebalance include Myanmar, leap over the Bay of Bengal, and include, in some vague sense, India.
When the Trump administration came in, it recognized the need for a wider conception. It saw several distinct drivers of integration across Asia, some of which we saw in the late years of the Obama administration as well. These drivers included China's Belt and Road Initiative that reaches across Asia, Eurasia and beyond; India's Act East policy; the political changes in Myanmar that blurred the boundary between these two regions; and the economic integration that had accelerated significantly over the course of last 20 years. All of these dynamics made a case for a wider conception of Asia. The renaming of the combatant command is just one piece of that. The United States still hasn’t reorganized itself bureaucratically to deal coherently with the wider Asia environment, although the defense department is ahead of the other American government institutions in doing so.
To the second question about the logic of investing in India in the context of this wider Indo-Pacific frame, I would note that since the George W. Bush Administration there has been a considered strategic view that a strong India will be advantageous to the United States in helping to ensure a favorable balance of power in Asia. India need not be an ally of the United States and it does not even need to be an easy partner to the United States to be useful in this regard. Simply by virtue of being a powerful and capable country it will be useful in supporting U.S. interests. And as a democracy, India of course has a natural affinity with many the values that are important to the United States across the Asia-Pacific. So the United States has for at least 15 years now has something of a bipartisan consensus to invest in India with a certain strategic altruism. There has always been the view that the U.S. should not expect a lot from India. We’ll invest because a strong India is good for us. What is interesting about this moment under Trump is that, in certain respects, he has begun to challenge that underlying strategic logic that has existed since the early Bush Administration. It drives toward a more transactional view of the U.S.-India relationship that is less altruistic and more willing to ask “what’s in it for the U.S. in the next few years? What’s it doing for us as we are looking at our trade deficits and a rising China?”
As you just said, Trump is now trying to challenge the underlying strategic logic and starts to ask what's in there for the U.S. in the U.S.-India relationship. I'm wondering how India will respond to this change. Do you think India will be more committed to this partnership? If so, what are the motivations that will drive them to be more committed? If not, what is holding them back?
Our defense and security relationship with India is key when many other issues in the relationship threaten to pull it down. For many years, we’ve had tension in our trade relationship with India. What's interesting about this moment is that the defense partnership is going strong. We recognized India as a Major Defense Partner in 2016 when I was at the White House, and I was proud to have a hand in that process. It was a new category of partnership that we created for India to recognize our special relationship and its special status. It was a designation that had some substantive dimensions and some symbolic dimensions. And it was designed to encourage India's defense establishment to continue down the road of engaging with the United States, but also to prompt America's defense establishment to continue investing in this important relationship. Those dimensions that I mentioned earlier in our defense security partnership are going quite strong.
What’s different today is that the United States is making a point of publicly highlighting the divergences in trade policies–problems that have existed for some time, for example, market access and intellectual property. There are also things that are not really a problem at all, like our bilateral trade deficit with India, with which the president has formed an irrational obsession. There are real challenges in the economic relationship, but highlighting imaginary problems at the same time that we are moving forward with efforts to constrain India's freedom of action with respect to its relationships with Russia and Iran have sent a message to India that the United States, despite its rhetoric of being a reliable partner, is in many ways unpredictable. It sends a message that the U.S. may not be willing to give India the kind of broad autonomy that it seeks.
I worry that more and more of the bilateral relationship is resting on the defense and security dimensions. Over the longer arc, that's not a sustainable basis for engagement between the two countries. We need to have a broad-based relationship, in which defense and strategic issues form one pillar; commercial and trade relationships form another pillar. A third pillar is our people-to-people contact and perhaps we can think about a fourth pillar being our willingness to cooperate to do big things: to tackle global problems, such as climate and terrorism and the challenges posed by new technologies.
There are two things that the U.S. government doesn't want India to do. One is to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia and the other one is to import oil from Iran. Recently India signed a $5 billion deal to purchase the S-400 missile defense system from Russia and India is still importing oil from Iran. Regarding the missile defense system, the Indian government has recently asked the U.S. to grant it a waiver from the sanctions. Do you think Trump will waive the sanctions? And what are the implications of a decision in either direction for the U.S.-India relations?
Let me address both of those. The CAATSA legislation had many provisions that received bipartisan support. These provisions were designed to punish and constrain Russia and Russian companies on account of that country’s malign behaviors around the world. These were broadly welcomed by the U.S. foreign policy establishment. There was a section in the CAATSA legislation, Section 231, which created secondary sanctions that said, “not only are we going to sanction Russian entities, we are going to sanction those governments, individuals and companies around the world who do business with Russian entities in the defense and security arena.” This provision, I believe, was well intentioned but was poorly crafted. This CAATSA provision netted U.S. partners and countries with whom we are trying to build stronger relationships, such as India, Vietnam, and others. The legislation was recently amended in the National Defense Authorization Act to provide slightly more flexible waivers. But unfortunately, it was written in such a way that the waiver had to be issued by the president rather than the secretary of state or defense. And we all know that President Trump is perhaps not inclined to take a nuanced view of these issues.
India had long planned to purchase a the S-400, which is a sophisticated Russian missile and air defense system. This poses a predicament for the United States and India. One dimension of this predicament is that the United States does not sell a comparable system to the S-400–one that can target aircraft over long distances and also provide a ballistic missile defense capability. So it was difficult for India to “buy ours instead.” It's also a challenge because the United States worries that if India were to purchase the S-400 and connect it up to a wider network designed to see the battle space within India and its neighborhood, it could make it difficult for the United States to provide India with advanced technologies or stealth aircraft in the future — platforms like the F-35. In a world in which the nature of warfare is changing and military platforms are becoming more networked and more integrated, there are some new risks that arise to providing advanced technology to India, and India’s purchase of the S-400 would increase some of those risks.
Another reason why this is challenging is that the United States has spent a lot of time in the last 10 or 15 years trying to convince India that Washington is a reliable partner and a reliable arms supplier. To have a problem of this kind reinforces to some people in New Delhi the perception that the United States might not be so reliable. I don't know what Trump will do about the waiver. If I had been betting on what Trump would do, I would've lost a lot of money by now. But I’d be surprised if he refuses to issue a waiver. It seems more likely that this is an attempt by the United States to gain some leverage over India and to use that leverage not in the defense procurement space so much as in other talks about trade and other deals that are on the table.
Iran is the other difficult topic. You know that Iran is a major oil supplier for India. India imports over four-fifths of its oil from abroad. It's facing additional challenges because of the depreciation of the rupee over the last year. The United States has unilaterally pulled out of the Iran deal and is now asking countries around the world to suspend their economic ties with Iran. India has thus far made significant efforts to decrease its purchases of oil but has not decreased them to zero. And here again, it's unclear what the long game will be. India has in the past made arrangements to purchase oil using rupee accounts. At times it has had some of the facilities from the EU. Those are technical possibilities but they don't solve the strategic problem. Over the longer term India will have to deal with the Trump administration’s effort to ratchet up pressure against banks and those doing trade with Tehran. My sense is that there is a desire in Washington to show some flexibility with India so long as India's imports are moving in the “right” direction, which is down. But this is a very sensitive issue for New Delhi. India's view is that it respects UN sanctions but not unilateral sanctions coming from the United States. It has long and deep ties with Iran. India is worried that this could not only have economic effects, but it could constrain some of India's strategic ambitions, such as its interests in developing the Iranian Port of Chabahar, which would facilitate trade between India and Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia. A strict policy by the United States on Iranian oil can put larger risks on India’s ambitions.
As you mentioned before, the Defense Department is currently leading the development between the U.S. and India. Will the U.S. be inclined to provide India better economic terms to strengthen their mutual security ties? And how would the U.S. do it?
There's something of a paradox in America's economic relationship with India. The U.S. private sector sees a lot of opportunity in India and Indian companies see a lot of opportunities in the United States. There are frustrations, but it's generally a positive relationship focused on market opportunities.
The government-to-government conversations about trade, however, are considerably more contentious. This is not new. These talks were contentious in the Obama Administration as well. India and the U.S. have clashed in the WTO over issues related to tariffs, agriculture subsidies, and a host of other issues. Ironically, under Trump, India and the United States are more aligned on issues related to global trade because the United States has become more protectionist and more disparaging of the WTO. But Trump has introduced a new set of economic and trade-related demands. Some of these are quite reasonable, for example, those related to market access and India's policies on data localization. Data localization requires big firms such as credit card companies to store all of their transaction data exclusively within Indian borders. Some of the U.S. criticism of price controls on medical equipment also seem quite reasonable. However, there are other U.S. demands related to the trade deficit and specific tariffs that are, frankly, a bit bizarre.
There is a chance that both countries in the next couple of months will come to a narrow transactional deal, in which India makes token efforts to appease Trump on certain things that he has highlighted. Then having done so, India can stay off of Trump's radar for a while. That's probably the best case. But one of the real wild cards here is the trajectory of the U.S.-China trade war. The United States is pressuring China on many fronts at the moment and it has many legitimate complaints about China's behaviors in defense arena, on industrial policy, trade, and human rights. It's not clear, however, what precisely the U.S. is trying to achieve out of this trade war. There's a view that the United States wants to intentionally rupture the supply chains that have linked U.S. firms to Chinese industry. It's unclear whether India would stand to gain from that outcome.
India has its own growing trade deficit with China. And a chaotic U.S.-China relationship would trigger worldwide effects that could be unpredictable for India. The best thing that can happen to India is to conclude a narrow deal focused on a discrete set of trade irritants, and then to “duck and cover” and hope that the president doesn't focus too much on India. That is what countries around the world are trying to do, more or less successfully. They're trying to avoid being pressured into a negotiating a broad-based bilateral trade deal. Instead, they want to make targeted concessions and then try to wait until the end of the Trump administration and hope that things change. That may not sound ambitious, but it is a fairly narrow and calculated response by New Delhi to today’s uncertain political environment.
Image: “India, US ink COMCASA after inaugural 2+2 dialogue: Officials,” via the Daily Pioneer.