India's second shot at ties with US

Last Updated: Sun, Jun 15, 2014 07:16 hrs

Pivoting", or "rebalancing", to the Asia-Pacific or the "Indo-Pacific", as it is now often called, has been the theme song of United States security strategy in the past decade. The stated intent isn't much more than rhetoric, since the US never "left" the region.

With substantial military presence in Japan and South Korea and the powerful 7th Fleet dominating the waters of the Western Pacific, the US has, at least since World War II, been the preeminent power in that region.

Its presence in the Indian Ocean Region is no less substantial, supported by comprehensive base facilities and very credible maritime power. No doubt, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had diverted attention and resources westwards, but the Indo-Pacific theatre remains the focus. With the West Asian nations no longer as relevant as before, the US is "returning" to this region.

This brings us to India. After three decades of close association with the erstwhile Soviet Union both for its military and geopolitical interfaces, India took fresh stock of its security environment when Mikhail Gorbachev single-handedly demolished the monolith communist empire and facilitated the emergence of several independent nations, most leaning towards the West.

The global scenario had changed. Starting with prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-1980s, and followed by prime minister P V Narasimha Rao in the 1990s, Indian thought veered round to the view that in the emerging security scene, in which China and Pakistan presented even greater challenges, an opening to the US was essential without reneging on the existing, though weakening, relation with Russia. As it happened, this coincided with a reassessment in the US that a positive US-India interface would be to its own advantage, given China's inevitable emergence as a power challenging, if not immediately rivalling, its own.

Given the historical suspicions about each other in the US and India, it was correctly surmised that defence cooperation was best suited to lead the way and facilitate a broad spectrum engagement. This is how Indo-US military interfaces began.

In the next two decades, till about 2012, this interface gathered strength. The militaries exercised together and exchange of personnel and ship visits went up; step by step, suspicions on both sides decreased.

This was supplemented in more recent years by sales of military hardware costing about $10 billion, comprising sophisticated weapon-locating radars and including strategic platforms such as P8I, C130J and C17 long-range aircraft with guns and helicopters in the pipeline. Several constraints on the transfer of high-end military equipment to India were also lifted.

In 2012, then US defence secretary Leon Panetta was persuaded that mere sale of hardware was not enough; transfer of advanced technologies and co-production of major equipment had to be the next step. This offer was concretised during his deputy Ashton Carter's visit some months later, when nearly a dozen proposals were made.

On several other fronts - counter-terrorism being one - things seemed to be going well; but, as generally happens, this is when things slowed. India's growth began a downward slide; politically, some suspicions that had almost disappeared began to reemerge as some senior leaders in government were seen losing enthusiasm.

On the US side, the sense was that President Barack Obama was not the strong supporter of India that former president George W Bush was; whether this was mistaken is irrelevant. This, coupled with the fact that US companies lost out on a lucrative fighter aircraft deal and stringent provisions of India's nuclear liability law inhibited sales of reactors, added to the disillusionment.

Then followed the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in an alleged visa fraud, greatly souring the relation and from which both sides have still to recover. Defence cooperation apparently remained unaffected, but it was clear to close observers that it could not be so as the overall relation weakened.

So while some exercises have continued - the naval Malabar series being one - the old enthusiasm is missing. Little progress, if any, is visible on Carter's offer of technology transfer and co-production made about a year ago. In short, the relation is adrift.

Things appear to be moving again after the change of government in New Delhi. The first approaches were made by President Obama, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has responded positively.

It bears mentioning that despite the US-led sanctions on India following the nuclear tests in 1998, it was the National Democratic Alliance government of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that initiated the process of normalisation.

The new government, despite the personal hostility shown to Mr Modi by the US establishment earlier, has signalled it is willing to follow the same route. India's relations with the major players in the Indo-Pacific are key to its security interests and those with the US, Japan, Russia and China merit serious attention; especially those with the US must figure prominently. And once again, defence cooperation is best positioned to start the renewed engagement.

Our military modernisation is way behind what is necessary and the lethargy of the last two years must be set aside. In this same context, we must actively negotiate the proposals already on offer for technology transfer and co-production in public and private sectors.

For the latter, we need to build credible capacities but it is a chicken-or-egg-first argument - the facilitators need to be in place, and one will follow the other. Strengthening, and even more important, focusing our research only towards the most critical technologies is necessary, as also opening the production agencies to increased foreign direct investment, without which the required degree of indigenisation can never be achieved.

Mr Modi's September visit to the US and his meeting with President Obama offers an opportunity to rebalance the relation and give some momentum to a languishing engagement. This should be preceded by interactions between the officials, including the military, involved in the broad spectrum discourse, and equally by those contributing through the Track II process.

Participants in such dialogues have held high positions in government and wield considerable influence in decision-making circles on both sides.

There is a clear need to make some course corrections, because an India-US strategic connect is critical to the evolution of a stable environment in an Indo-Pacific already beset with more potentially serious security concerns than at any time in the past four decades.

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