In 2015, the US and India made a landmark announcement in their burgeoning military partnership: they would co-develop jet engines and aircraft carrier technology. India wanted the technology to develop its own jet fighter, one of the projects in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. The US sought to increase its security ties with India to balance against China’s increasing influence in the region.

But after much fanfare, the project was suspended in 2019, with the Pentagon citing US export controls and differences between Delhi and Washington over which technologies would be useful to India. Instead, the two sides agreed to collaborate on drone technology, lightweight small arms, and aircraft support systems – a drastic step down.

In part, such false starts are due to decades of distrust stemming from partnerships with each other’s adversaries – India with Russia, the US with Pakistan.

Despite Delhi seeing Beijing as its biggest threat and Modi’s push for a more assertive foreign policy, India has only cautiously engaged with US attempts to bring it into a network of “like-minded nations” aimed at countering China’s efforts to reshape the international system.

One US initiative on this front that appears to have momentum is the revival of the Quad, its informal grouping with India, Japan and Australia that is widely seen as a counter to China’s influence in Asia. As US President Joe Biden prepares to attend a Quad summit on May 24 in Tokyo, policymakers are looking for signs that an assertive China and a bellicose Russia has convinced the group’s least predictable member to put aside its long-standing policy of non-alignment.

Kurt Campbell, the White House’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, underscored the importance of India to Biden’s overall regional strategy in a speech to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, in which he emphasised the administration’s coordination with Europe on this front.

“One of the things that is clearly underway between the United States and Europe is a desire to engage more fundamentally India,” Campbell said. “In this new strategic context, India in many respects is a swing state, and … it is in all of our best interests to try to work within the over time to bend its trajectory more to the West. "Efforts to recruit India began in earnest under former US president George W. Bush and has continued over three subsequent administrations, both Republican and Democratic.

In 2005, the two nations signed a civil nuclear deal and 10-year defence partnership, which they extended in 2015, and US major arms sales to India shot up from nearly zero in 2008 to more than US$20 billion since. They also signed four “foundational agreements” enabling military cooperation.

In addition to establishing the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012 to facilitate the transfer of American military technology to India, the US named India a “Major Defence Partner” in 2016 and awarded it “Strategic Trade Authorisation” in 2018. Taken together, Washington was finally able to sell Delhi sensitive military technology and software.

Despite that progress, collaboration between the US and India has been slow-moving. Joshua White, who had a hand in crafting DTTI, acknowledged that the initiative had been underwhelming and outlined some theories as to why.

“Some have suggested that the United States has been fundamentally stingy in sharing sensitive technologies or has proposed collaborations that are simply too modest,” said White, who was the director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council in the Barack Obama administration.

Others blame India for seeking the most secret “widgets” and obscure American military technology while also being sceptical of longer-term collaborations that would integrate American and Indian defence supply chains, said White, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

India lacks the capital budget necessary to sustain its ambitions for a home-grown defence industry, White noted. The two countries’ arms industries are also structurally mismatched: private firms dominate in the US, while the public sector commands in India.

That hasn’t stopped the nations from doing business. Boeing and Lockheed are the biggest US players in the Indian market, selling aircraft and missile systems worth billions of dollars. Moscow used to be Delhi’s main arms supplier. But over the past decade, India has been diversifying, becoming the leading importer of major arms globally.

Still, around 70 per cent of India’s arsenal is Russian-made. While French and American equipment are compatible, interoperability – the capacity of different militaries to conduct joint operations – remains a wish, rather than a reality, for US and Indian forces. And there’s the question of whether the US will sanction India for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, which would likely frustrate attempts at further cooperation.

Aparna Pande, director of the Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, said that the invasion of Ukraine offers the US a rare opportunity to reduce India’s dependence on Russian weaponry.

“The US needs to convince the Indians that this is strategic, not economic. They need to offer more,” she said. “Otherwise, the US will miss its chance.”

Despite the obstacles, Washington and Delhi have made progress in deepening security ties. India now conducts more military exercises with the US than with any other country. In addition to signing an agreement laying the groundwork for more cooperation in space at the 2+2 dialogue this month, India joined the Combined Maritime Forces Task Force – a multinational partnership – as an associate partner.

Chief of US naval operations Admiral Michael Gilday praised Delhi’s decision to enter the maritime group, saying it bodes well for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

“I’ve spent more time in India than I have in any other country. I see them as a huge strategic partner in the future,” he said last week at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Given the size of the Indian Ocean and Beijing’s military escalation, India cannot build its navy fast enough to meet the China challenge on its own, Gilday said. “So we are bringing them in along with other countries into that effort.”

In addition to the military sector, China is also posing challenges to the US and India on the technological front, in space, and with its diplomatic and investment activities across South Asia, White said.

“The United States and India have come a remarkable distance over the last two decades and the partnership remains strong,” he added.

“But I have some concern that the pace of that bilateral collaboration, which has been positive and steady for the most part, might not be sufficient tempo or ambition to match what China is doing in the region.”

A major factor limiting the scope of US-India ties is India’s relationship with Russia. Delhi has always regarded Moscow as a more dependable strategic partner than Washington and doesn’t want to drive Russia further into China’s embrace. Those geopolitical concerns help explain why Delhi refuses to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

“On this count, India’s posture today remains fundamentally consistent with its past forbearance in the face of previous Russian aggression,” Ashley Tellis, who specialises in Asian strategic issues at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote recently.

India’s military ties with Moscow are highly valuable to Delhi, Tellis said. In addition to providing cheaper weapons and engaging in co-development and co-production, Russia is more willing than other nations to provide sensitive technology and imposes fewer end-user restraints – advantages Delhi is unwilling to give up.

“To be sure, India will partner with the United States in balancing China because Beijing currently represents the most significant threat to Indian interests,” Tellis said.

“But New Delhi neither seeks an alliance with Washington toward that end nor is comfortable with the idea of the United States being its sole partner in realising that objective.”