U.S. House will vote on watered-down version of India defence cooperation legislation

S-400 among reasons for diluted language

July 10, 2019 11:14 pm | Updated 11:29 pm IST - Washington DC

American and Indian flag pair on desk over defocused background. Horizontal composition with copy space and selective focus.

American and Indian flag pair on desk over defocused background. Horizontal composition with copy space and selective focus.

The U.S. House Committee on Rules voted on Tuesday night to send a watered-down version of an amendment to enhance defence cooperation with India to the full House floor for a vote.

The new India NDAA amendment, a part the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) FY 2020, replaces a significantly stronger amendment (the "Sherman Amendment") that sought to place India on a par with the U.S.’s NATO allies by amending the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), a U.S. law that governs the sale of high-end defence equipment to other countries.

Concerns over India’s purchase of the S-400, turf-related issues between the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees and some State Department opposition are likely to have contributed to the watering down of the amendment. Nevertheless, what passed the Senate and what is being considered by the House, provides some direction to the executive with regard to bolstering India-US defence cooperation, although falling short of the original legislative goal. This comes days after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo travelled to New Delhi to push for stronger US-India ties across the board.

The original House amendment was submitted by Brad Sherman, a California Congressman who is co-Chair of House India Caucus and heads the Asia Pacific subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Despite having bi-partisan support and co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, the amendment did not make it to the House Rules Committee – a fate similar to the corresponding amendment in the Senate, submitted by Mark Warner (Democrat, Virginia) and John Cornyn (Republican, Texas) which also sought to give India NATO-equivalent status for arms sales.

S-400 comes in the way

A source outside Congress who had worked on the legislation said India’s plans to purchase the S-400 Triumf missile shield from Russia made some in the Senate (and House) wary and came in the way of the original amendment making it to the final package in both legislative chambers.

This view was supported by at least one person in Congress.

"It’s hard to go after Turkey for the S-400 purchase and allow India a boost in the same bill," a Congressional aide, who did not want to be named, told The Hindu . The NDAA bills (House and Senate versions) limit transfer of F-35 aircraft to Turkey unless Turkey can provide assurances that it is not accepting delivery of the S-400.

"It’s always disappointing when strong bipartisan legislation on India doesn’t get across the finish line. Policymakers should understand that we need to boost India as a counter to China and that we can’t let India’s relationship with Russia get in the way," Mukesh Aghi, President and CEO of the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum told The Hindu .

Turf-related issues , State Department Opposition 

It is understood that the original AECA amendments also became a casualty of turf-related issues between the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Committee on Armed Services and the corresponding committees in the Senate.

AECA is the statute which authorizes the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program through which the U.S. sells arms abroad and the procedure is less complicated if the purchaser is a NATO ally or Japan, South Korea, Israel, Australia or New Zealand. The Sherman amendment in the House and Warner/Cornyn amendment in the Senate, sought to add India to the list of non-NATO allies listed above. The AECA also allows the President to circumvent Congressional notification periods and vetoes in the FMS route.

A US official who spoke to The Hindu on the condition of anonymity said that the State Department had opposed the language in the original amendments – and this too had contributed to the watering-down of the language. The State Department declined to comment.

The House version of the amendment and the amendment that has already passed the Senate say, "It is the sense of Congress/the Senate that the United States should strengthen and enhance its major defense partnership with India" and recommends objectives.   

The "sense of Congress" or "the sense of the Senate" is the House and Senate’s way, respectively, of telling the executive that it is inclined a particular way with regard to a subject (the India-US defence partnership in this case) but not mandating actions through law.

The India amendment in the NDAA that passed the Senate and the amendment that is being considered by the House include identical language about expanding engagement with India in multilateral frameworks including the quadrilateral dialogue with Japan and Australia, helping India develop its defence capabilities and exploring additional steps to implement India’s Major Defense Partner designation "to better facilitate interoperability, information sharing, and appropriate technology transfers." 

The House version of the bill also contains a section on cooperation between the US and India in the Western Indian Ocean. (This section is in the NDAA bill that passed the Senate as per the Congress.gov website but it does not appear in the version linked to a Senate Armed Services Committee press release). This requires the Secretary of Defense to provide a report to Congress on India-US defence cooperation in the Western Indian Ocean, the region from the west coast of India to the east coast of Africa. The sections of the House bill dealing with cooperation in the Indian Ocean are intended to be law (as opposed to advice).

The House and Senate versions of the NDAA will have to be finalised by a conference committee that will reconcile any differences between the versions.

Watered down version just as effective?

There is a view that despite this watering down, given the widespread support for the India relationship on both sides of the aisle as well as across administrations, this sense of Congress/the Senate is likely to achieve what a strong law could achieve.

However, this will depend on how the executive interprets the advice from Congress. "Depends on how the executive branch interprets it. With the current wording, the law says that Congress would like India to be treated as a NATO ally," a Congressional aide told The Hindu , adding that since this is involves Sense of the Senate/Sense of Congress wording rather, it would ultimately be up to the executive branch of government.

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