Even as India shifts, ponderously, into damage-control mode in its neighbourhood to atone for past diplomatic maladroitness, the larger security environment is assuming complex dimensions with a US-China trade-war looming, US-Russia relations taking a nose-dive and China’s Belt and Road masterplan unfolding in the Indo-Pacific. For India, however, it is the emerging Moscow-Beijing axis and Russia’s courtship of Pakistan that should ring alarm bells. Given that nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests, it is perhaps time for South Block to consider an agonising policy reappraisal.
If the end of the Cold War represented an inflexion point for the world order, it was also a traumatic event for India. The disintegration of the USSR saw India losing not only a political ally and sole purveyor of arms, but also the rationale for “non-alignment”. The US, with an excellent sense of timing, reached out with proposals for military-to-military cooperation in 1991. The Indian Navy, keen to shed its isolation, initiated the first Indo-US naval exercises to be named “Malabar” in May 1992. In its 21st edition last July, Malabar became — much to China’s discomfiture — a tripartite exercise with units of the Indian, Japanese and US navies participating.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the professional respect and bonhomie generated by a quarter century of naval engagement has acted as a catalyst in Indo-US relations. A bipartisan consensus in Washington about enlisting India as a strategic partner led to then-President George Bush in 2005 making an offer which New Delhi could not refuse. The unprecedented US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, which followed in 2008, accorded India the “de facto” status of a nuclear weapon state without signing the Non Proliferation Treaty.
Parallel US overtures followed in the defence arena. The 2004 Agreement on Next Steps in Strategic Partnership was followed by a Defence Framework Agreement in 2005 and the 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), envisaging the transfer of advanced technologies to India. In 2016, India was accorded the status of Major Defence Partner by the US Congress.
The DTTI has, however, made little actual progress because of divergent objectives. While India seeks technology, the US remains focused on trade. Thus, despite all the hoopla, India’s defence capability has benefited only from $15 billion worth of hardware — comprising patrol-aircraft for the navy, transports and helicopters for the IAF, and howitzer guns for the army — purchased under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) scheme.
A major impediment in the Indo-US defence relationship has been India’s reluctance to sign the “foundational agreements” required by the US to enhance defence ties. After protracted discussions assuaged India’s justifiable apprehensions about a compromise of strategic autonomy as well as the security of military information, the Logistical Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was signed in 2016. Two others — the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement — still hang fire due to bureaucratic reservations. A delay in signing these will deprive India of high-tech equipment that should accompany US hardware, and prevent the sharing of useful geospatial information between the two militaries.
While the warming of the Indo-US relationship brings comfort in unsettling times, Indians must beware of hyperbole obscuring reality in the bilateral discourse. American offers of “help to make India a great power” and overzealous declarations that India is “.not just a regional power, but a global power”, should arouse scepticism. Undoubtedly, India is destined to assume its rightful place in the world order but a reality check will tell us that our time has not yet come.
The tantalising vision of a “Super India”, offered by the promise of its growing economy, illusory “demographic dividend” and a nuclear arsenal, is gradually receding in the face of harsh domestic realities. On the other hand, China, with five times India’s GDP, is surging ahead to attain economic, military and technological parity with the US. Aiming to be Asia’s sole hegemon, China has armed Pakistan and enlisted it as a surrogate, thereby containing India within a South Asian “box”.
For India to attain its full economic and strategic potential, it will need a breathing spell and some insurance against hegemony. This respite must also be used to boost its military muscle by urgently modernising the armed forces and acquiring advanced technology for its defence-industrial complex. The choices before India are few and a partnership with the US appears a pragmatic and realist option at this juncture.
In a statement issued after their meeting in November 2017, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to enhance their cooperation as major defence partners and resolved that “two of the world’s great democracies should also have the world’s two greatest militaries”. This is where we need to separate rhetoric from reality. India’s military, in terms of size, capability and professionalism, is no doubt third or fourth in the world pecking order. However, one would hesitate to call it as the “world’s greatest” because it lacks a military-industrial support base and is abjectly dependent on imported weaponry.
While hardware purchases from the US, under the FMS scheme, offer an expeditious (and corruption-free) route for our stalled military modernisation, the DTTI must serve to bolster design and production capabilities in defence. Instead of pursuing symbolism and arcane schemes, the DTTI should facilitate a transfer of technologies that have eluded our engineers and scientists. Some examples: Design and production of infantry weapons, turbo jet engines for fighters, diesel engines for battle tanks, electric propulsion for ships, advanced drones, artificial intelligence and modern nuclear reactors to drive ships and submarines.
In order to elevate the Indo-US relationship to a strategic level and resolve many outstanding bilateral issues, Trump and Modi had agreed to establish a “2+2” dialogue between the respective defence and foreign ministers. Scheduled for mid-April, the parleys have had to be postponed; awaiting the confirmation of a new US Secretary of State.
As and when the “2+2” dialogue does take place, the Indian side would do well to remind their US interlocutors that in the past three decades the USSR and Russia have, amongst other items, leased two nuclear submarines, sold an aircraft-carrier, and transferred technology for a supersonic cruise missile to India. So, if the US is to deliver on tall promises, some serious re-thinking may be required on Capitol Hill.