After Nepal and Japan, the US is the next big destination for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. If the signals from Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel are any indication, defence cooperation alone will ensure the success of the visit. Preparations are in full swing and the Indian community is gearing up for a reception for Modi at Madison Square Garden. Though scheduling problems have come in the way of him addressing a joint session of the Congress, this has been explained to Modi by the speaker of the house.
Among the US secretaries who came to Delhi to prepare the ground for the visit, Hagel made the greatest impact. The uncertainty caused by the nuclear liability issue and the WTO confrontation lifted to reveal a plan of unprecedented cooperation in defence, including trade in advanced weapon systems as well as co-production, co-development and technology transfer. Whether the other issues are resolved or not, the visit will be a resounding success if defence cooperation is opened up.
India began to have contact with the Pentagon after the nuclear tests, but this was basically to receive briefings on nuclear command and control systems. A defence group was also set up but did not go beyond protocol issues. The US nominated a mere assistant secretary to the group and, as a result, our defence secretary thought it inappropriate for him to lead the Indian delegation. It is a sign of the changed times that the US will be represented by its under secretary for defence for acquisition, technology and licencing in the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative and India by its exact equivalent, the secretary for defence production.
After the sweet and sour visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry, which was marked by India’s tough stand on snooping and the WTO — one analyst even concluded that “America gets neither strategic nor a fair economic opportunity from India” — Hagel came to Delhi with irresistible offers that were tailored to the vision articulated by the Modi government. The focus has shifted from the nuclear liability act and trade issues to Javelin missiles and Apache and Chinook helicopters. Words like “co-development”, “co-production” and “free exchange of technology” are music to Indian ears. These have been heard only in the context of Russia, France and Israel so far.
Hagel seems to have secured an agreement from India to renew the nine-year-old New Framework for the India-US Defence Relationship. Back then, there was speculation that the US was more interested in arms trade than nuclear trade with India. With Modi enthusiastic about indigenous defence production using imported technology and the liberalisation of FDI, the US has found the right moment to make its move.
But Hagel went beyond offers of equipment and technology transfer, and presented a vision of cooperation between India and the US on security, stability, freedom of sea lanes, economic development and energy. He spoke of military exercises together with India and Japan and higher studies in defence. Delving deeper into the political arena, Hagel assured India that there should be no fear that the US and China would form a G-2 to administer the world. He was referring to the impression created during a visit of the former US president, Bill Clinton, to China that the two countries would partition the world between themselves, leaving China to take care of South Asia. India had not made a secret of its extreme concern on that occasion. Then President K.R. Narayanan had said at his banquet for Clinton that though the globe had become a village, nobody should arrogate to himself the role of village head.
Hagel took another precaution. Since Modi had already indicated his intention to develop economic and commercial ties with China, the US did not want to appear to vie for favours from India. So he explicitly said that India should go ahead and develop meaningful relations with both the US and China, without fearing a zero-sum game. The US and China were competitors, not rivals, he said. At the same time, he called for a US-India-Japan alliance and referred to the danger to maritime security in the South China Sea.
India’s response to these offers is not yet known but nothing was rejected out of hand. Even with the best intentions, it may not be possible to conclude agreements during Modi’s visit to Washington in September. India’s involvement in arms deals with Russia is still substantial. The shift from Russia to the US will take time.
It is not clear whether the new offers from the US will automatically resolve the many issues that have plagued India’s defence cooperation with it. Conflicts of interests with Pakistan have always been a dampener. The reluctance of the US to part with the most modern technology may also be hard to break. But the interests of the two sides converge on this issue and success is assured weeks ahead of the visit.
The writer, a former ambassador and governor for India at the IAEA, is executive vice chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council