One handshake among many

India-U.S. defence cooperation has grown enormously in the past decade — but it should be seen exclusive of India’s outreach to other countries.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:01 pm IST

Published - April 21, 2016 12:43 am IST

On the eve of his visit to India earlier this month, U.S. Defence Secretary > Ashton Carter indicated that his ambition was to bring the two countries ever closer in the sphere of defence cooperation through a “handshake” that was both strategic in its quality and technology-driven in its accent.

After his > three-day stopover in Goa and New Delhi amidst visible bonhomie with Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, the mutual proximity of the two countries’ militaries appeared greater than ever, and a clear signal of both sides’ cooperative intent came in the form of an announcement that the > Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) would be signed in the forthcoming weeks or months.

Yet, in the relatively opaque world of government-to-government defence deals, it is sometimes what is not said, or not signed, that is the more eloquent elucidation of where this “defining partnership of the 21st century” truly stands.

Long arc of bilateral defence ties Lest there be any doubt, India-U.S. defence cooperation has witnessed an unprecedented boom for well over a decade now, rising from being “as flat as a chapati” in 2002, in the words of former U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, to the present day, with the aggregate worth of defence acquisitions from Washington exceeding $10 billion.

Yet if burgeoning trade volumes have historically represented the upside to growing convergence within bilateral defence ties, then the paucity of actual, production-line-based collaborative initiatives under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) — which in a hypothetical world would tie in neatly with Prime Minister > Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative — is a testament to the need for more trust and willingness to be accommodative towards a partner.

For example, while he was in India last week, Mr. Carter spoke of his desire to advance consultations on cooperation over the joint development of aircraft carriers and jet fighter technology. In addition to LEMOA, two “pathfinder projects” were announced, to co-develop a Digital Helmet Mounted Display; and so was a Joint Biological Tactical Detection System.

However, going by the plodding pace of four other such “pathfinder projects” outlined during U.S. President > Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015 , it may be unwise to expect the two announced during Mr. Carter’s visit to result in actual production kicking off any time in the near future.

Of the initial four pathfinder projects agreements, only two were signed in August 2015, the Next Generation Protective Ensemble (NGPE) protective suit for soldiers confronted by nuclear, chemical or biological warfare, and the Mobile Electric Hybrid Power Source.

The other two projects, a micro-drone that soldiers could hand-launch for battlefield surveillance, and roll-on-roll-off kits for the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, appear to have fallen off the table or at least placed on the shelf for the moment.

While some discussions under DTTI have slowed or stalled owing to Washington’s inability, for a variety of reasons, to meet India’s hopes and expectations for sharing sensitive technologies and others have paused to come to grips with India’s offset rules under the latest > Defence Procurement Procedure , there appears to be rising frustration all round at the crawling pace of progress.

Some connected to the defence industry believe this is in part driven by mounting anxiety over the need to institutionalise mechanisms within both governments that will keep them frequently in contact with each other and firmly fix political and bureaucratic attention on opportunities for meaningful engagement.

In the U.S. it is manifested in concern over the fate of bilateral defence cooperation with India after the presidential election, and this may have been one factor driving the U.S. Department of Defence’s effort to establish the first ever country-specific unit, the >India Rapid Reaction Cell , aimed at hastening progress with collaborative defence projects of co-development and co-production for initiatives such as aircraft carriers and jet fighter engines.

Further signalling the high level of priority accorded to collaborating with New Delhi, the U.S. Congress introduced a resolution last month, the U.S.-India Defence Technology and Partnership Act, which places India on a par with its NATO allies in terms of trade and technology transfer, specifically elevating its status as a defence export market.

Nevertheless, if there is one area of cooperation that warrants a relatively sanguine approach, it is the >r ealm of maritime security cooperation, in which space the Carter visit saw the announcement of numerous steps forward, including India’s sustained multi-year commitment to participating in the RIMPAC multilateral naval exercise; a promise to expeditiously conclude a “white shipping” technical arrangement to improve data sharing on commercial shipping traffic; and an agreement to commence Navy-to-Navy discussions on submarine safety and anti-submarine warfare.

If India is guided by its “Act East” policy and the U.S. by its “Asia-Pacific rebalance”, then it should hardly be a surprise that both countries converge strongly on the question of safeguarding maritime security in the South China Sea.

Indeed, similar to last year, the joint statement by Mr. Carter and Mr. Parrikar this time reaffirmed the commitment of both Foggy Bottom and South Block to “ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, including in the South China Sea,” adding that the two nations “vowed their support for a rules-based order and regional security architecture conducive to peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean.”

The unspoken C-word So far as such statements go, the proverbial 500-pound gorilla in the room is the force posture of China in the region, and more broadly, its presumed intention to seek ever-expanding economic and strategic linkages across the continent, including with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar to India’s northeast; Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Malaysia to India’s southeast; and Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia to India’s northwest.

In this context, it is significant that after visiting India Mr. Carter’s next stop was in the >Philippines , which not only came on the heels of the U.S. announcing new military aid to the Manila despite protests from Beijing but also included a visit by the Defence Secretary to the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier afloat somewhere in the South China Sea.

Enough ink has been spilled on India’s troubled but largely stable relationship with China, and also on its strategic compulsions in a post-non-alignment world, so it suffices to note in the context of Mr. Carter’s visit that any move to draw India into a closer embrace of defence ties with the U.S. to the exclusion of other nations is not likely to succeed anytime soon.

No analyst in Washington would have missed the significance of the sequential timing of > Mr. Parrikar’s visit this week to China, to which nation “India attaches highest priority,” in his words; nor indeed >statements made by Indian officials that in the proposed signing of LEMOA “there is no dilution of India’s position and no military alliance” implied.

It is probably a universal truth that not only the U.S. but every other nation seeking to partner with India must appreciate that India may gladly offer a strategic handshake, but it will only be one handshake among many.

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