During his recent visit to India, President Obama said all the right things and touched Indian hearts with his sincerity and humility. Was the appealing vision of his pleasing words symptomatic of glib political rhetoric from an accomplished speaker or an indicator of genuine American warming up towards a rising – or risen – power with shared values and interests? The answer depends upon the standpoint of the analyst concerned. Those who approach Indo-US relations with a cynical mindset see the achievements of the visit quite differently from those who approach it from the prism of pragmatic optimism. Looked at dispassionately, short of a ‘big idea’ like a nuclear deal, the visit was eminently successful in taking the India-US strategic partnership to a much higher trajectory.
Perhaps the most important though understated aspect of the visit was the forward movement on almost all facets of defence cooperation. Defence cooperation has many dimensions today. It includes the sale, purchase and joint development of military equipment; transfer of military technology; intelligence sharing; cooperation on counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation; jointly providing relief and succour after natural calamities; coordination in transnational anti-drug trafficking activities; joint patrolling of sea lanes of communication against piracy and terrorism; and, joint military exercises. It also includes working together to maintain regional and international peace and stability under a cooperative security framework.
Recent achievements on the India-US defence cooperation front have been truly remarkable. Hi-tech weapons and equipment will now be provided or offered to India by the United States. Advanced dual-use technologies will give an edge to India over China, both in security-related and civilian sectors. The decision to transform the existing bilateral export control framework for hi-tech exports will put an end to the discriminatory technology denial regimes which India was subjected to. The proposal to lift sanctions on ISRO, DRDO and Bharat Dynamics Limited is a welcome step forward and perhaps the Department of Atomic Energy will also be taken off the list soon.
Joint patrolling of the sea lanes (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean is already being undertaken under the garb of joint naval exercises. Other military exercises have led to a broad understanding of each other’s military capabilities and many interoperability challenges have been ironed out. In future, joint military operations are possible if India’s national interests are at stake. Of course, there will be many caveats to such cooperation as it is not in India’s long-term interest to form an alliance with the US.
The proposal to undertake joint development of future weapons systems is also a welcome development as it will raise India’s technological threshold. However, no transfer of technology has occurred yet. Transfer of technology of the Javelin ATGM is being discussed and will be a test case. Inevitably, doubts about the availability of future technological upgrades and reliability in supplies of spares will continue to linger in the Indian mind. The case for spares which is pending with the labyrinthine US bureaucracy for long in respect of the AN-TPQ37 Weapon Locating Radars has left a bad taste. The notion that the US cannot be trusted to be a reliable supplier was not dispelled convincingly during President Obama’s visit.
India’s reluctance to sign the CISMOA and BECA agreements will lead to denial of many items of on-board technology even while platforms are still offered and sold. This issue requires dispassionate analysis. The major criterion for the decision to sign or not to sign these agreements, which have already been signed by a large number of countries, should be whether or not the operational capabilities of India’s armed forces will be adversely affected if major avionics and communications equipment is not supplied by the US. Indian defence planners should carefully evaluate the emerging threats and challenges vis-à-vis the technology required to meet them. If India continues to shun certain equipment simply because the country does not wish to sign the CISMOA and BECA agreements, it might amount to a self goal in the long run, indeed many self goals.
Massive US conventional military aid to Pakistan militates against India’s strategic interests. While US compulsions and constraints in dealing with the failing Pakistani state are understandable, beyond a point the supply of military equipment that cannot be used for counter-insurgency operations by any stretch of the imagination will inevitably invite a strong Indian backlash. This was conveyed unequivocally to the US President.
Several issues listed for future cooperation in the joint statement point towards recognition of the adverse implications of China’s increasing assertiveness and the need to work in unison with the international community to uphold the unfettered use of the global commons like the sea lanes through which commerce passes as well as space and cyberspace. Clearly, it emerged without being explicitly mentioned that both the United States and India think of their strategic partnership as a hedging strategy in the case of two major eventualities: should China behave irresponsibly and should China implode. In either case, both countries will need reliable partners to restore order and harmony.
Finally, the Obama visit has consolidated the India-US strategic partnership and it will gain momentum in the decades ahead, despite many potholes on the highway. If both sides play their cards astutely, this partnership will shape the geo-political contours of the 21st century in a manner that enhances peace and stability the world over.