Ashton Carter, who has concluded what was most likely his last trip to India as the US secretary of defence, described it as a “strategic handshake”. That would mean an attempt to raise the bilateral defence partnership above tactical dissonances on the ground to realise the goals set out in the joint strategic vision statement of January 2015 and the framework for bilateral defence ties put in place last year. Carter’s second visit in less than a year, following soon after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s US trip, came amidst a deepening debate in the Indian strategic community over the so-called American embrace — the reported US attempt to draw India into a closer partnership, an alliance for all practical purposes, ultimately ranged against growing Chinese military might in the Asia-Pacific. By all accounts, however, Parrikar refused to match the US enthusiasm by categorically stating that there are no plans for joint patrols — a policy stance stemming from New Delhi’s reluctance to be seen to be closer to one side against the other.
However, the agenda and imperative of a more purposeful Indo-US defence partnership remain unchanged. Carter is the chief architect of the bilateral Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which ties in with Make in India and seeks to elevate the defence relationship to co-development and co-production. India’s plan to procure $100 billion worth of arms over the next decade is driven not only by its growing conventional gap with China and the need to rapidly modernise its military but also by the more fundamental need to replenish depleting fleets, as in the case of the air force’s ageing fighter squadrons. While US firms like Boeing and Lockheed Martin promise full technology transfer, US export control legislation and Congressional oversight remain barriers. Indian reluctance to sign the three “foundational agreements” has also stood in the way. What came from Carter’s visit was an agreement to conclude a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (Lema), by which India and the US will provide refuelling and supplies to each other’s armed forces but American troops can’t be stationed on Indian soil. The Lema is a rejigged LSA (logistics support agreement), the first of the foundational agreements, tailored for India since Delhi saw the LSA as an undeclared alliance.
Other takeaways from Carter’s visit include the new bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue, the enhancement of the navy-to-navy discussions and two new pathfinder projects under the DTTI. As a rule, Indo-US defence dialogues don’t match intent with achievement, but Delhi needs to stay the course in order to raise its military profile in the long term.