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Thanks to Modi, a new symphony in India-US defence partnership

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  • June 10, 2016

    The newspaper headlines highlighted the shedding of the "hesitations of history" from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outstanding speech to the joint session of the US Congress. The TV networks waxed eloquent on the number of standing ovations and the rounds of applause he received from the spellbound members of Congress. The photos showed some Congressmen seeking the PM’s autograph.

    Only a few gave much footage or column inches to perhaps the most important policy pronouncement contained in the joint statement issued at the end of the visit: "Noting that the US-India defence relationship can be an anchor of stability, and given the increasingly strengthened cooperation in defence, the United States hereby recognises India as a major defence partner."

    According to the statement, this recognition means that the US will give India "license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies" and that the US will support the PM’s "Make in India" initiative by facilitating "the development of robust defence industries and their integration into the global supply chain" under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) launched in 2014.

    The "hesitations of history" had stymied India-US relations for a long time. The thaw began during the Clinton-Vajpayee years. The relationship was given a fresh impetus when PM Manmohan Singh and President George W Bush signed the Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in July 2005 and the US accorded de facto recognition to India as a state armed with nuclear weapons that led to the lifting of most 30-year old sanctions.

    The two countries also signed a ten-year defence framework agreement that enabled much closer defence cooperation. This agreement was renewed in 2015.

    Since then, PM Modi and President Obama have taken defence cooperation to a much higher path. Joint military exercises designed to build confidence and enhance interoperability have been substantially increased.

    In fact, the annual Malabar maritime security exercise, that now includes Japan besides India and the US, is being held in the South China Sea this week (June 9-16, 2016).

    India has acquired over $10 billion worth of hi-tech weapons platforms and equipment; plans are being finalised for the US to help India with the design of an aircraft carrier and jet engines.

    Notably, there has been no transfer of technology (ToT) yet, and India’s quest for state-of-the-art defence technology remains unfulfilled. It will take some time before India gets "license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies".

    While the key policies underpinning the recognition of India as a major defence partner are not yet clear, it appears certain that defence cooperation between the two countries will be gradually broadened and deepened.

    India and the US will join other strategic partners to formulate a cooperative security architecture for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Such a joint venture is necessary for the security of the global commons, including the freedom of navigation in the sea-lanes of communications that carry a large part of the world’s trade, security of airspace, unfettered use of cyber space and weapons-free outer space.

    As a major user of the global commons, should China be willing to join hands with the nations of the Indo-Pacific as a partner in the joint efforts that are likely to be made for cooperative security, it should be welcomed. However, a militarily assertive China, afflicted with the middle Kingdom Syndrome, prefers to go it alone and is seeking to acquire primacy in the Indo-Pacific.

    Logically, given the current as well as emerging threats and challenges and the mutuality of interests, the defence cooperation element of the India-US strategic partnership should be gradually propelled to the next higher orbit.

    This will involve joint threat assessment, joint planning for likely contingencies and joint operations to overcome dangerous threats when the vital national interests of both countries are threatened.

    India would like to limit such military interventions to its area of strategic interest extending from the South China Sea in the east to the Horn of Africa in the west. And, India would join a "coalition of the willing" only if a United Nations Security Council resolution cannot be obtained. However, even as India draws closer to the US, it must maintain its strategic autonomy.

    Prime Minister AB Vajpayee had said that India and the US are natural allies. President Obama described the growing Indo-US relationship as the defining partnership of the 21st century. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had called it as India’s principal strategic partnership.

    Quoting Walt Whitman, Prime Minister Modi said in Washington that "the baton had given the signal" and, "There is a new symphony in play." And, perhaps it is, but it will take some time before the orchestra plays in harmony and its music resonates across the Indo-Pacific.

    The article was originally published in Daily O