A U.S.-India Defense Pact Within Reach

China’s growing military assertiveness demands international action, and India and the U.S. are uniquely positioned to respond. The two countries aren’t treaty allies, and there’s no crisis to mobilize popular sentiment in favor of enhanced defense cooperation. Yet the imperative for military collaboration is strong. No wonder U.S. Secretary of DefenseAshton Carter, who returns to New Delhi next month, has vigorously pursued the development of an effective defense partnership over the past eight years.

With India’s vibrant democratic political system, demographic weight, economic power and military potential, a strong Indian military can maintain its country’s sovereignty while helping preserve security in Asia. The U.S.—with its large Indian diaspora, close cultural and economic ties to New Delhi and unparalleled military capabilities—is a natural partner.

But a real partnership requires more than mutual interests and comforting rhetoric. It requires give-and-take for a common goal. George Holding (R., N.C.) has introduced legislation in the House of Representatives that provides a practical roadmap for both sides.

The U.S.-India Defense Technology and Partnership Act underlines the fundamental changes between today’s political environment and that of the 1990s when the U.S. imposed sanctions on India. These sanctions, which contrast with Russia’s consistent military support, engendered deep Indian suspicion of U.S. motivations and reliability.

Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recognizes that a robust defense partnership with the U.S. offers India benefits that no other country or country grouping can provide. But he faces a defense establishment filled with people who personally struggled through the era of U.S. sanctions.

The legislation provides a clear signal from the U.S. that history will not repeat itself. It elevates India to the same status as America’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, as well as its other treaty partners and Israel, for the purpose of arms-sales notifications. This in itself won’t transform U.S.-Indian relations, but it communicates an important message. India is special not because of its past contributions as a U.S. military partner, but because of what the country can contribute in the future. Many countries have sought and been denied this status.

The legislation also emphasizes defense-technology collaboration. Few Americans have worked harder on this than Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall. Last year he established the Defense Department’s India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC), led by Keith Webster, to remove bureaucratic roadblocks to defense trade and technology sharing. Both men will travel to Delhi in early April to continue the momentum generated by the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which aims to streamline governmental procedures that inhibit the defense partnership.

The DTTI has done much to eliminate impediments to U.S.-Indian co-production and co-development projects and defense trade, but the U.S. presidential transition threatens progress. Mr. Holding’s legislation locks in these gains by encouraging the appointment of a senior official mandated to coordinate action across the U.S. government and by strengthening the durability of the IRRC.

The legislation also identifies the actions India must take to justify the transfer of advanced U.S. defense technology. It is in America’s interest to transfer defense technology if the partnership meets certain goals. These include providing capabilities to foreign soldiers fighting alongside U.S. forces, thereby reducing the risk to American men and women; decreasing the cost of purchasing defense equipment; and enabling a foreign country to carry out a military mission that would otherwise be a U.S. responsibility.

India is unlikely to satisfy the first two conditions in the near future. But it can fulfill the third by engaging in combined military planning with U.S. officers. Developing combined military plans of mutual interest, such as humanitarian and disaster-relief contingency plans, counterpiracy operations and maritime domain awareness missions, would be a major step toward sharing the burden in the Indo-Pacific.

India should also sign basic bilateral defense agreements that facilitate military-to-military interactions, and implement mechanisms that verify the security of U.S.-origin technology and defense equipment against third-party diversion. The U.S. has a national security interest in a stronger Indian military. It doesn’t have an interest in strengthening the Russian military, which collaborates closely with India.

New Delhi doesn’t have to choose between sovereignty and dependency. Countries such as Singapore have maintained their full sovereignty while cooperating with the U.S. on advanced technology.

The next few months could be consequential for the U.S. and India. Secretary Carter is making his final push for progress in the DTTI, Mr. Modi will travel to Washington in the coming days, and the Indian military is considering purchasing major weapons systems from American companies. Congress should get behind Mr. Holding’s legislation and raise the bar for the defense partnership.

Mr. Schwartz is the director for defense and aerospace at the U.S.-India Business Council and previously served as director for India in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. This article appeared in the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal on March 28, 2016 and can be accessed here.