When Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar last went to the Pentagon in August, the dates of the visit were not finalised until very late. US Defence Secretary Ash Carter was busy with a conference of top military commanders, besides other engagements, and his staff wondered if he would be able to find the time to host Parrikar.
As it happened, not only did Carter find the time, the Pentagon organised a guard of honour for Parrikar — an unusual honour for a visiting Defence Minister. And the Defence Secretary came to the steps to receive his Indian counterpart, a gesture he has not made to any other Defence Minister. Carter’s actions established what insiders knew already — that Parrikar and he get along very well at a personal level.
While Parrikar must be credited for working on their mutual bond, the fact is Carter was always keen on India. As Deputy Secretary for Defence between 2011 and 2013 — when the UPA was in power — he proposed the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) mechanism which eventually came to fruition under the NDA government. By then, Carter was already batting, in public speeches and writings, for closer defence cooperation with India. When he became Defence Secretary in February 2015, New Delhi was elated. Carter did not disappoint, raising defence cooperation between the countries to an unprecedented level.
When word of Carter’s visit to India — for his seventh bilateral meeting with Parrikar in two years — first emerged a couple of months ago, it was seen as a visit to build a bridge of continuity with what was presumed would be the incoming Hillary Clinton administration. But Donald Trump’s victory has wrecked expectations. The Defence Ministry even refused to discuss the two pending foundational agreements with the Pentagon. Carter’s agenda in New Delhi will thus be more about acknowledging the strengthened defence relationship during his tenure. The two sides have also worked out a plan to ensure that the big gains made during the Carter years are not reversed under the new administration. This is to be done by institutionalising the most important agreements between Parrikar and Carter.
The foremost among these agreements is the Major Defence Partner (MDP) status bestowed on India by the US government during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington DC in June. The two sides have since exchanged non-papers and diplomatic notes, with the final American reply reaching South Block last week.
MDP is a unique designation created for India. While New Delhi wants the US to treat India on a par with its closest military allies such as Australia and the UK, the Pentagon is hesitant. Negotiations have led to a mutually acceptable formulation, although neither side is keen to make a big announcement about it. The MDP status — described as “Enhancing Defence and Security Cooperation with India” — has been made a part of the National Defence Authorisation Act of 2017, which is approved by Congress to allocate funds annually to the US military. This bill is expected to be passed this week, putting the formal, official stamp on the contours of India’s MDP status.
The DTTI programme has been formalised and put into practice by the two bureaucracies, as has been the American help for India’s indigenous aircraft carrier being constructed at Kochi. Even if the political impetus and energy behind these initiatives flags, there is little chance that the Trump administration will reverse any of these programmes.
Indian officials, though, are wary of the President-elect’s choice of Defence Secretary, Lt Gen James “Mad Dog” Mattis who, as head of the US Central Command from 2010 to 2013, courted Pakistan. A senior Indian official said Gen Mattis’s utterances from those years could be interpreted as a function of his role, which focused on Afghanistan, and he can be expected to be different as Defence Secretary.
While no one in New Delhi is under any illusion that Mattis will be another Ash Carter, the India-US relationship can no longer be seen only through the prism of Pakistan. India remains one of the biggest buyers of defence equipment globally, its importance reflected in the keenness of American aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin to sell their fighter jets to India. The US also sees a role for India as a military power in a region where China is growing increasingly assertive.
Defence Ministry mandarins, cognizant of these realities, have chosen to wait and watch until things settle down in the Trump administration. If Gen Mattis had been favourably disposed towards Pakistan, Trump’s National Security Adviser designate, General Michael Flynn, a former Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency — has not minced words in highlighting Pakistan’s perfidy. New Delhi is hoping that at least one among the US Defence Secretary, NSA and Secretary of State would give it the kind of priority that Carter did.
Mattis is known to devour books of military history; Carter is a physics major. During a meeting between the Indian and American delegations at the Pentagon, Carter referred to Zeno’s Paradox as a metaphor to explain the distance travelled by the defence relationship of the two countries, where reaching the final goal is a mathematical impossibility. While the others in the room looked flabbergasted, Parrikar, an IIT graduate, went on to narrate the mathematical formula for the Paradox.
In the words of Aristotle, Zeno’s Paradox states that “which is in locomotion must arrive at the halfway stage before it arrives at the goal”. Parrikar will be hoping that Mattis will keep walking forward on the path of the bilateral relationship without worrying about the impossibility of taking infinite steps to reach the final goal.