How to Build an Alliance

U.S.-Indian Defense Cooperation and the Rise of China

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama watch India's Republic Day parade from behind rain streaked bullet proof glass as they stand in the rain together in New Delhi, January 26, 2015. Jim Bourg / Reuters

In January last year, U.S. President Barack Obama made a historic trip to India to celebrate Republic Day as the chief guest of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. During the visit, the two countries announced six “pathfinder efforts” for the eventual joint development and manufacturing of defense weapons. Since then, Washington and New Delhi have made quick progress. Although the current projects are relatively modest, they could soon lead to bigger ones involving the critical technologies India seeks to shore up its defense industry and, in turn, make India the strong partner that the United States needs in its rebalance to the Asia Pacific.

For its part, India can speed things along if it signs on to the three “foundational agreements" that the United States requires of all of its defense partners. Signing these agreements would signal India’s commitment to defense cooperation and help sustain it well into the future. Meanwhile, the United States should keep in mind that success for previous U.S. cooperative defense projects has depended on consistent management and a comprehensive strategy underpinning the cooperation. With that in mind, the United States will have to signal to India that it is more than just a fair-weather friend—the United States is in it for the long haul—while managing expectations at home about the pace and character of the new strategic ties. 


Ever since U.S. President Bill Clinton was in office, the United States has pursued closer ties with India, which India's prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, called a “natural ally.” It is a rising, democratic power that shares the United States’ strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

But India’s responses to these overtures have been, by and large, lukewarm. New Delhi has hesitated to align itself too closely with any superpower, and it has had concerns about U.S. support for Pakistan and Washington’s reliability in the long term. After all, it was

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