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A respected Washington-based think tank released a report on Tuesday, entitled ‘US-India Military Engagement,’ which reflects the American strategic community’s growing — if incredulous — realisation that New Delhi is not as enthusiastic as Washington about a high-profile military partnership between the two countries.
The Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) report, authored by the Pentagon’s former South Asia director, Sahibzada Amer Latif, describes the period from 2004 to 2008 as “a heady time for bilateral security and strategic cooperation.” But the “stymying of deeper military contact” since 2008 has been ascribed to: India’s policy of strategic autonomy; the Indian defence ministry’s (MoD’s) inability to discuss policy and strategy; and the Indian military’s “capacity challenges.”
According to the report, “the Indian civilian bureaucracy has been the main obstacle to deeper military engagement, despite the Indian military’s desire for greater bilateral cooperation.”
The US strategic community has earlier contrasted India’s “professional” and “highly capable” military, with its relatively slow-moving and cautious bureaucracy. But this report sharply questions the military’s capabilities. It notes “the Indian military is facing capacity challenges through a combination of arms modernisation, serious personnel and discipline matters, and complex national security challenges that will tax the capacity of the Indian armed forces to engage the United States.”
“India, as a strategically developing country, has yet to develop a comprehensive and long-term concept of how and when to employ its military beyond its immediate neighbourhood or on missions other than peacekeeping,” the report says.
The report recommends “the United States needs to maintain reasonable expectations of India as a potential security partner over the near term to midterm, given its reluctance to partner too closely with the United States, which is rooted in a combination of (India’s) foreign policy orientation and capacity limitations.”
Mirroring Washington’s disappointment at Indian reluctance to play a more visible security role in the Asia Pacific, the CSIS report states: “Aside from Washington, the rest of Asia is also waiting for India to wade into the complex security scenarios that confront the Asia-Pacific region… Many Asian countries feel there has been episodic engagement and little demonstration of New Delhi’s intent to exercise more decisive leadership in the region.”
This would be a reality check for US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, who described India during his visit in May as a “linchpin” of America’s pivot to Asia. The report quotes Panetta, who said: “Defense cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy (of rebalance to Asia). India is one of the largest and most dynamic countries in the region and the world, with one of the most capable militaries.”
The CSIS report, unlike several earlier American reports, highlights the concerns that impose caution on New Delhi in engaging Washington. Amongst these are: Indian concern at the US-Pakistan relationship; domestic politics and the opposition of the Left; India’s impression of US unreliability stemming from “a past history of sanctions”, and the still unknown ways in which “the growing influence of state-based parties” will affect India’s national policies.
Given these constraints, the report recommends formulating a realistic long-term vision; dialogues about issues like Afghanistan and China’s military power; and multilateral cooperation with Asia-Pacific powers like Japan, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and South Korea. It advocates joint patrolling of the Indian Ocean with the navies like those of Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh. And, perhaps, most controversially, it recommends that the US and India share Indian Ocean bases like the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Diego Garcia.