Foreign Pulse: Indo-US reunion

India-US partnership is geared not merely towards generating bilateral gains but for sustaining the whole global order

Update: 2014-08-12 06:00 GMT

The beeline of top American officials in New Delhi ahead of a summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama in September suggests that the India-US relationship is headed for a reset. Frayed nerves over American cyber surveillance on India and the tabloid-style ruckus about the ill-treatment of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade had soured bilateral ties and produced laments of a fundamental drift.

Realising that India is getting alienated, the Obama administration has decided to pull out all the stops to make up and start afresh. Just after secretary of state John Kerry and commerce secretary Penny Pritzker did the rounds, defence secretary Chuck Hagel made his appearance in the national capital last weekend. The dapper former Senator and decorated Vietnam War soldier went out of the way to convince Indian leaders and strategic elites that America supports “India’s rise as a global power” and wants to partner with it to shape a “new world order”.

True to the Thomas J. Miles’ Law in political science, which posits that “where you stand depends on where you sit”, Mr Hagel’s brief for India differs from that of Mr Kerry or Ms Pritzker, even though all three are loyal Obama team members. Representing the Pentagon, Mr Hagel is in charge of building defence relationships with crucial countries to promote a version of international security that benefits American military industries and advances American geostrategic positioning. In Delhi, he shilled for Boeing-made Apache gunships and Chinook helicopters, while toasting India’s “potential as a security provider from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.”

Last year, the US displaced Russia to become the largest exporter of military hardware to India in dollar value terms, accounting for $1.9 billion out of our total import bill of $5.9 billion. Russia is still miles ahead of the US as the biggest supplier of materiel and equipment to India’s armed forces, but American manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are trying to capitalise on New Delhi’s desire to diversify and reduce overdependence on any single country. Israel has scored solid inroads into the Indian defence sector over the last decade and America is now hoping to follow in its footsteps.

Prime Minister Modi and defence minister Arun Jaitley have prioritised the long-elusive goal of indigenising our defence manufacturing to shake off the unenviable tag of the world’s biggest arms bazaar. With Israel and European countries wooing India to purchase weapons, India has enough choice to impose preconditions on the US for buying its wares. The bottom line, which Mr Modi reiterated to Mr Hagel last week, is that India seeks long-term self-sufficiency in the military sphere and that we will only give more contracts to the US if it shares knowhow.

Taking the cue, Mr Hagel is highlighting the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) between the two countries as the lynchpin of his diplomacy. In an interaction with academics and think tanks, he mentioned Javelin anti-tank missiles as one among many cutting-edge weapons on which the US is eager to enter into co-production, co-development and technology transfer. For emphasis, he added that this is an “unprecedented offer to India given to no one else” and that the US has “made no similar effort with any other nation.”

Why has America climbed down from its historical reluctance to offer “groundbreaking technology” to India? The fact that there is a business-friendly new regime in New Delhi which has liberalised foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence is whetting the appetites of US military companies. Mr Hagel kept repeating during his India trip that he expects the Modi government to clear the bureaucratic delays and red tape which have frustrated American corporations in the past.

But there is more than pecuniary calculation behind the latest American willingness to part with closely guarded technological secrets. Mr Hagel has been talking about the present juncture in world affairs as a “critically important time”. The incredible rise of China and the relative decline of American power have left American strategists scratching their heads with no rollback mechanism in sight.

Mr Hagel’s repeated references to the complementarity between India’s Look East policy and the US’ “rebalancing” or pivot to the Asia Pacific leave no doubt that Washington wants to coordinate geopolitically with New Delhi on a much broader scale for maintaining a “stable balance of power” (code for checking Chinese expansion). When Mr Hagel says, “We need partners. We need relationships. That’s the kind of world we live in,” technology transfer and joint military exercises with India are being thrown in as baits to fulfill this need.

Conscious that the Chinese would scrutinise every word that Mr Hagel utters in India, he is clarifying that Washington “need not choose between its Asian partnerships with both China and India”, and is reminding Indian audiences that New Delhi too has its own mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing.
But there is one clear red line here that goes unsaid: America has a strict ban on weapons trade and military technology deals with China. Washington also discourages Israel and European governments from assisting China’s defence modernisation. US-China civilian trade and foreign investments are dizzyingly high, but they lack strategic trust to reach the stage of military give-and-take.

For that matter, even India cannot blindly rely on the US for military supplies and knowledge exchange. As a global power with a penchant for imposing economic sanctions and political preconditions on high-technology exports, America is always a high maintenance partner as opposed to Russia or Israel, which do not place policy demands on us.

Suppose the alarming growth in nuclear arsenals of China and Pakistan compel India to resume nuclear testing, will the Americans understand or revert to sanctions such as the ones slapped on us after 1998? If New Delhi does not comport with America’s approaches to Iran, Russia or Brics, could such differences impinge on the US-India defence supply lines? What value are American weapons to India if some of them are also sold to Pakistan?

Mr Hagel and his boss in the White House claim that the India-US partnership is geared not merely towards generating bilateral gains but for sustaining the whole global order. To attain such a pinnacle, America has to walk the talk by offering ironclad guarantees to India, which is not a formal US ally and never will be one.

The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs

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