13 May 2016

US-India Defense Ties: How Far Can They Go – Analysis

By Pramod Jaiswal and Kimberley Anne Nazareth*
MAY 12, 2016

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Carter arrives at the prime minister's residence to discuss matters of mutual importance in New Delhi, April 12, 2016. DoD photo by Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
Ashton Carter, US Secretary of Defence’s visit to India this April was a call on his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar among many other diplomatic parleys that came along with this Indian stoppage. This was Carter’s fourth visit to India as Secretary and his second one in less than a year, thus underscoring the importance of India as a strategic partner. It could also very well be his last visit on behalf of the Obama administration. In an attempt to end his Presidential tenure on a positive note with India, the outgoing President of the US, Barack Obama by sending members of his cabinet, is trying to make up for any damage that was done to the Indo-US bilateral relations during the course of his reign. Added to which, the Obama administration is trying to leave no stone unturned in the process of bringing much needed global closure on issues that had been lingering for long.

While it still has many cases pending- such as the closing-down of the Guantanamo Bay, and many have once again cropped-up on its agenda courtesy deteriorating security situation- Afghanistan and Iraq, the current US administration has been able to meet success on many other fronts. For instance, having struck a nuclear agreement with Iran in July 2015, which thereby brought the country out of international isolation and diminished the prospects of a nuclear global showdown that had been looming large, the US Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Iranian foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif during the UN Summit late in April 2016, highlighting the consistency with which the US has been approaching what it had promised to deal with.

Carter’s visit took him to the coastal region and home state of the Indian Defence Minister, Goa and then on to New Delhi to meet with the Prime Minister. The agenda was tightly planned into a three-day visit between April 10-12, wherein they visited the INS Vikramaditya aircraft as well as the USS Blue Ridge, indicating that the Pentagon has altered its attitude from a presumptive ‘no’ to a presumptive ‘yes’ on issues of maritime cooperation with India.

For the first time on a public platform, Secretary Carter used the term ‘strategic handshake’ to describe India-US ties. It marks a testimony to the budding strategic partnership that is forming between the two nations by indicating the growing convergence of India and US’s interests in the region. Carter called the US-India relationship as the “defining partnership of the century”. However, Indians should not over read this as the Americans are looking to head into in the Asia-Pacific with full force and need a strong base of allies to support them which includes among others, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

On the agenda of this meeting was the renewal of the persuasion to sign the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) defence agreements. While the US has signed these with most of its strategic partners, the LSA would however be problematic for if the US were to get militarily involved in the Middle East and require logistical support, then India would have to provide it.

Added to which, if India were to sign these agreements, they would be bound to the US and this could create problems with China. According to Parrikar, India has agreed ‘in principle’ but not on paper. India and the US have been trying to finalize with these agreements for a long time but not to much avail. They are yet to put their signatures on them. Not only are these agreements about technology transfer, but they involve other aspects as well. These also include furthering logistical exchange in terms of military cooperation in Asia, as also in terms of other material support such as food and fuel.

Though India may not have signed the above mentioned, it has however shown interest in the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) which would make India a co-developer and could very well boost India’s ‘Make in India’ strategy in the defence sector. However, even as a number of projects were announced at the time of the 2015 Presidential visit by Barack Obama, not all of them have been able to move forward.

Reiterating their shared vision and ideals, the main reason for the visit was to reaffirm the convergence of the US rebalance strategy and India’s ‘Act East’ Policy. Though this is not the specific mandate of India’s ‘Act East Policy’ to contain China, it could very well be seen as a check on China’s posturing in the region. India’s ‘Act East’ aims at strengthening ties with regional nations who fear China’s activities. In a wider regional scenario, the visit initiated by India could nevertheless be a signal to China of the emerging India and US alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore. However, Beijing is countering these through Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, etc. The US and India signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which signals a closer mover towards the US. However, India is not looking to freeze or contain China as they have to balance the relationship with both.

Prior to his visit, the Secretary stated that the US was looking for stronger relations but not ‘anything exclusive’. Though progress was made in terms of logistics and technology transfer, joint military exercises with Japan and MoU on this will be signed in the coming weeks. The talks cantered round the modernisation of the Indian Navy.

From the looks of it, it seems to be business as usual that the US and India will continue to engage and maintain their strategic partnership; the only difference is that the wordings have been tweaked. India is still reluctant to commit and rightfully so. Should India sign the CISMO, BECA and LSA or continue to exert its autonomy? Will the next American President push India harder which would be problematic for India? The dilemma is that while India is trying to assert itself in the region, it also wants to retain its autonomy vis-a-vis the US. How far the two would go to accommodate the interest of the other is left for time and their strategic interests to tell.

*Dr. Pramod Jaiswal and Kimberley Anne Nazareth are associated with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. They can be reached at: editor@spsindia.in

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