Wednesday, August 24, 2011

India-US Defence Co-operation.


(Lecture at the Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. Aug 24, 2011)

I have seen the days, not long ago, even after the cold war, when India and the United States virtually had no defence co-operation at all. I had spent a year in Washington as a senior Indian diplomat without ever entering the portals of the Pentagon. I remember spending the first few weeks in Washington to rescue a nominal Defence Policy Group, which had got embroiled in some protocol problems. The first time I stepped into the Pentagon was after our nuclear tests of 1998 when we were invited for a briefing on nuclear weapons command and control. The purpose of the briefing appeared to be to show how complex, complicated and hazardous the upkeep of nuclear weapons could be.

Needless to say, India’s dependence on the Soviet Union for most of its military hardware and the perceived Indian tilt towards Eastern Europe was the reason for the lack of any defence cooperation during the cold war days. More than any ideological obsessions, what drove India into a Soviet arms embrace were the rupee payment arrangements, lower prices and manufacturing licenses. That legacy, further complicated by the US entanglement with Pakistan, continued well into the early twenty-first century.

India has, however, been a user of US defence equipment since the 1960s. The massive shipment of US arms following the Chinese aggression of 1962 cannot be forgotten. Subsequently, the US made several proposals in 1984, 1987, 1991 and 1995 and India was not unresponsive to them. These were mainly of commercial in nature and they had no strategic underpinnings. Differences over the NPT and CTBT and the nuclear tests of 1998 complicated matters. It was only when the Bush Administration recognized India’s potential as an emerging power in Asia and engaged in a genuine dialogue on cooperative security issues that defence cooperation, in the strategic sense, was ever considered.

We have come a long way since then. Today, it makes world headlines when India decides not to purchase a particular aircraft from the United States. It is no news at all when India and the United States stage joint exercises in the Indian Ocean. Indian defence officials, including the Defence Minister himself, make working visits to Washington and the top brass of the US army are seen in the corridors of the South Block round the year.

The changes in strategic thinking in the US and India culminated in the signing in June 2005 of a bilateral Framework Defence Agreement just before the announcement of the nuclear deal. The commotion in the two countries over the nuclear deal eclipsed the Defence Agreement, which looked like a purely commercial deal, but today the Defence Agreement has assumed greater significance than the nuclear deal in terms of mutually beneficial cooperation between the US and India. It also has great implications for India’s standing in its tough neighbourhood and in the world.
We should recognize that there is a fundamental disconnect between the aspirations of the US and India in fostering defence cooperation. The US envisages India as a partner in their own scheme of things in Asia, friendly to US interests and balancing China in the long term. The US would like India to be its partner in the Indian Ocean region to address regional contingencies. The US is seeking collaboration in “multinational operations of common interest”, ranging from humanitarian and disaster relief activities to interdictions and even a “coalition of the willing” in the absence of a UN mandate. India, on the other hand, is seeking to have high technology to equip itself to strengthen its defences, without mortgaging itself to another power. We are looking for commercial deals with no strings attached. We would also like to have licenses to manufacture these weapons in India to avoid the vagaries of supplies at crucial moments. In other words, India wants arms length cooperation as opposed to integrated defence links.

The divergent views of the two countries on the ultimate objective of defence cooperation have led to India holding back from some of the links necessary for smooth defence dealings between the two countries. For instance, even after ten years of consideration, India has not posted a mid level officer on a permanent basis to the US Pacific Command. We do not allow unsupervised contacts between the armed forces. Even after joint exercises, India has not signed a Memorandum of Agreement for Tactical Communications System Interoperability. Though a navy to navy fuel arrangement was in place during the Malabar series of exercises, India has stepped back from a Mutual Logistic Support Agreement.

Though the US arms sales to India and joint military exercises have proceeded, India has been reluctant to sign some of these agreements that the US considers necessary to safeguard the technology transferred through these sales and to ensure that the arms are not used against the interests of the United States. But in July 2009, the two countries announced in New Delhi that they had agreed on an “end-use monitoring” arrangement that would provide safeguards for the sale of sophisticated US weaponry to India. The arrangement was for a provision to be written into future defence contracts, guaranteeing that sensitive equipment will be used for its intended purpose and not transferred to a third party.

The list of defence equipment India has imported since 2002, which is available in the public domain, is really impressive, given the reservation that India has about a strategic involvement with the US. These include counter battery radars, an amphibious transport dock along with 6 helicopters, C130 transport planes, 24 Harpoon Block II missiles, C17 Heavy transport planes, P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft, VVIP planes equipped with advanced electronic warfare suites and others. Other orders for attack helicopters and light howitzers are on the anvil.

India’s decision in April 2011 to eliminate the top two US contenders from its short list of suppliers for the Indian Air Force’s fourth generation of advanced combat aircraft came as a rude shock to the United States. American officials and many analysts had given the impression that this was a done deal for the US, not only because of the suitability of the aircraft for Indian conditions, but also because it was seen as a reward for the nuclear deal. With the adoption of the nuclear liability law, it became clear that the nuclear trade that was envisaged in the nuclear deal would not materialize in the near future. In fact, there is a school of thought in Washington that the US should not sell nuclear reactors or material to India as long as India stood outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Instead, Washington should press for more defence deals from India. The US leadership, including President Obama himself, lobbied for the aircraft order at all levels and made it clear that the order would be a demonstration of India’s readiness to give substance to its strategic partnership with the US. The US sought the contract at the technical as well as at the political level.

The disappointment over India’s decision to exclude the US aircraft from consideration received disproportionate attention in the US and the Indian action was portrayed as a negative signal on the strategic relationship. The sudden resignation of the US Ambassador Timothy Roemer was also linked to the failure of the US to bag the contract, for which he himself had staked his personal prestige and influence. “India has bought a plane, not a relationship”, screamed the headlines, as though this deal alone would have ensured perpetual friendship, while the other defence deals were ignored as insignificant. India has taken the position that the decision was purely technical in nature, though it was known that, among other things, India was hesitant to put all our aircraft eggs into the US basket. Pakistan had already obtained fighter aircraft from the US and it was considered imprudent to acquire the same aircraft for our fleet. At the same time, India signaled its disinclination to upgrade the strategic dialogue to a joint 2+2 (foreign and defence ministers) format, as the US has with Japan, in turn, leading to postponement of the Strategic Dialogue.

The matter of the aircraft deal was set aside by the time Secretary Hillary Clinton visited India for the second Strategic dialogue, but the shadow of the aircraft deal and the nuclear liability law cast a shadow on the conversations she had with the Indian Minister of External affairs. The decision of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to strengthen the guidelines on transfer of reprocessing and enrichment technology also led to a war of words.

After a period of extraordinary warmth during the days of the nuclear deal, India-US relations have moved to a more realistic level, with suspicions on the Indian side and disappointments on the US side showing up. Those who have witnessed the roller-coaster nature of the history of India-US relations will not be surprised by these developments. A stable strategic relationship can be built only on mutual trust and identification of a common strategic agenda. The time for it has not yet come and both the countries need to strive for it.
Thank you.

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