A key bill to accord ‘real teeth’ to India’s recently designated status as a ‘major defence partner’ and grant it the same access to defence purchases as America’s closest military allies such as NATO members, Israel, Australia and a few others, passed a crucial stage in the US Congress on Wednesday.
But its route to final passage remains uncertain, according to an administration official who declined to be identified.
The legislative measure was moved by Eliot Engel, the senior-most Democrat on the foreign affairs committee of the House of Representatives as an amendment to the International; Security Assistance Act 2018, which was a among bunch of bills reported to the full House in a process called mark up.
“The bill adds real teeth to the designation (of India as a major defense partner) at a time when our relationship with India is more important than ever,” said Ami Bera, Indian American Democratic Congressman, in remarks supporting Engels amendment. But Bera also expressed concern at the lack of progress on the issue since the first move, the designation, in 2015 and its subsequent codification into law in 2017.
The next stage in the legislative process is a vote on the floor, which, according to officials, was a decision for the Republican leadership to take. There have been missed opportunities in the past despite bipartisan support for India, as recently as last month when a similar measure had failed for unrelated reasons.
The amending bill requires the President to add a country designated as a ‘major defense partner’, which is India as no other country has been accorded that status by the US yet, to a list of countries afforded speedy clearance of certain defense purchases under the Arms Export Control Act by the state department.
That list specifically and only includes member countries of NATO, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and New Zealand.
Former President Barack Obama declared India a ‘major defense partner’ of the US in 2015 to pave the way for speedier and smoother defense trade ties between the two nations. In 2017, the US Congress codified that administrative decision into law, by including it in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the defence budget.
But there has not been much progress on it since. The law had mandated, for instance, the appointment of a senior official at the level of a political appointee to manage and oversee defense trade ties, across agencies. That hasn’t happened.
Bera pointed out in his brief but blunt remarks that even the limited purpose of securing an agency-wide definition of ‘major defense partner’ that was hoped, has been elusive.
In the meantime a perception gained ground that the NDAA designation was a well-meaning and wholesome expression of intent but lacked specificity and “teeth” and that something else such as a concurrent provision for the state department which is the final authority in clearing the export of sensitive defense technology was needed to complete the circle.
The amendment by Congressman Engel, who is a long-time champion of stronger Indo-US ties, is yet another attempt to fix that gaping hole.
He has support in his party. Congressman Joaquin Castro pledged himself to strengthen ties with India. “The US-India defense and security relationship is an anchor of our engagement in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “This should be welcomed and I look forward to greater cooperation o with India that this act will enable.”
But Engel would need Republican support for his bill to go through. That should not be difficult if the Republican leadership were to look at this issue as one about India only, unencumbered by myriad other Congressional issues.
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