Indo-US relationship: India must avoid the American trap

Last Updated: Tue, Dec 05, 2017 14:53 hrs
An Indian Navy sailor stands guard on the deck of the INS Shivalik during the inauguration of joint naval exercises with the United States and Japan in Chennai on July 10, 2017.

The Doklam standoff between India and China kept the Indian strategic community busy for almost three months. There were a few statements from the US Congress/Senate, Trump administration and US Generals/Admirals that went somewhat unnoticed. All these statements show that the United States is more eager than ever to Strengthen relations with India - especially in the Defence and Security field and to give India `a greater role in Afghanistan`.

They even saw us having the influence or potential to defuse tension with North Korea!

Here is what they said:

Commander of the US Pacific Command or PACOM Admiral Harry Harris said, "it is for India to decide on what kind of role it wants to play. I think India's voice is a loud voice, that people pay attention to. So, I think that India could help North Korea, perhaps, understand the seriousness by which the United States views that threat."

He also said that "I believe that together we will be able to improve India's military capabilities in significant and meaningful ways." On joint US-India naval patrol of Indian Ocean Region, he said, "I'm not disappointed. This is on the patrols... I'm not disappointed at all, I'm encouraged that we were able to have a discussion about it, and I hope that that discussion remains open," (India is against any such joint patrol of IOR)

Senate Armed Services Committee in a recent report last month pulled up the Pentagon for not appointing its point person for America's "key security partner" – India. The Committee said, "As a rising economic power and key security partner, it is the committee's judgement that India deserves a seat at the table as the US works with our other key allies ……."

Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan moved a resolution as part of the National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA-2018) and it was passed unanimously by the Senate Armed Services Committee in June this year. Later Senator Dan’s office issued a statement that said, "This provision encourages the Department of Defence to identify ways that India can play a larger role in providing increased and coordinated defence-related support to Afghanistan, a critical part of overcoming the current "stalemate" in the fight against the Taliban,"

In his speech in Fort Myer in Sep 2017, President Trump said,

"We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the United States, and we want them to help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development. "

Most recent example is the ASEAN Summit, after while the White House issued a statement that states "They pledged to enhance their cooperation as Major Defense Partners, resolving that two of the world's great democracies should also have the world's greatest militaries,"

There are more such examples where the US has advocated India’s involvement in international issues. To understand the reason behind in a better way, let us take a brief look at the increased harmony in Indo-US relations in recent past. India and the US have been enjoying decent diplomatic relations for the last seven decades, where there have been ups and downs. But mutual cooperation in the fields like education (setting up IITs), agriculture etc kept going on. The United States remained the best attraction for higher studies and a brighter future for the best brains in India and Indian students have been making a great contribution in different technological fields in the US. Economic ties saw a surge in the 1990s when IT started showing the way forward.

But the defence cooperation was almost non-existent. This was because of our Non-Aligned approach in the beginning and later in the late 60s onwards, we had close diplomatic ties with the erstwhile USSR but we never became a part of the `Soviet Bloc`.

The Indo-US defence cooperation started during UPA-1 government rule with the acquisition of INS Jalashawa (Formerly USS Trenton) along with 6 SH3- Sea King helicopters for $90 million in 2005. That started a series of other acquisition programs – C-17 Globe master III, C-130j, Boeing P-8i, CBU-97 Sensor Fuzed Weapon, Apache gunships, Chinook, M777 howitzers etc. In total, India has signed defence deals of more than $15 billion with the US in last 12 years. There was other important cooperation as well like 123 Nuclear deal, India’s entry into Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), lobbying for India’s entry into Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) and may be a permanent seat in UNSC in future.

Admiral Harris and others who share his opinion, need to understand that among all these weapon platforms, there are just a few like C17, M-777, CBU-97 that have no known proven competitors. Rest have their European or Russian rivals, that we could have chosen but American route was far easier and safer for UPA government, because all these deals were Government to Government deals. Hence no chance of any kickbacks. UPA1 and UPA2 government just did not want to take the chance of any repetition of a Bofors-like scandal.

Surely these platforms helped us bridging the operational gap but Indian armed forces were not outdated technologically. Indian Air Force and Indian Navy are technologically very advanced. They have been integrating equipment from different origin/countries into one platform to make the platform formidable. That was the reason in 2004, when Indian and American air forces held air exercise `Cope India` in Gwalior, General Hal Hornburg (head of the air force's Air Combat Command) termed it as an eye opener. Because he saw that improvised Mig-21s of IAF were shooting down F-15s! So much so that a US congressman advocated to buy more aviation fuel for USAF pilots instead of acquiring costly F-22.

In nut-shell, India is not dependent on the US for Armed Forces’ modernization. We have our limited and very well defined objectives for our forces – to be well prepared to defend India against any aggression by our neighbouring countries. We had been doing fairly well in defence modernization. The only problem was the red tape-ism, orthodox ways of procurement and the ghost of past scandals. Hence slow procurement process was hampering the modernization and the present government has been doing extremely well to address this issue.

American Interests – Economic and Geo-political

Weapon industry has been a great engine of US economy for last 80 years and President Trump has been marketing for American weapons very openly. Americans know about our intention to spend about $100-150 billion on defence modernization and the importance of energy needs of 1.3 billion people, they are not leaving any stone unturned to exploit our market.

The US also see us as a potential ally (with a great strength and a good reason) against China. The invention of the term `INDO-PACIFIC` replacing the standard term `ASIA-PACIFIC` appears to be another attempt to woo India. In his first tour of Asia where he visited five Asian countries, President Trump used this term extensively and called for a "free and open Indo-Pacific,". China has strongly reacted to the usage of this term.

In January 2017, Australia requested to send its warships to take part in the Malabar Naval exercise. India declined the request while allowing Australian Naval officers to observe the exercise from the ships of the participating countries. The US has been making continuous efforts to form a quadrilateral alliance of India, US, Japan and Australia - to which China has serious reservations. The proposal of joint patrolling of Indian Ocean region by the US and Indian Navy was an effort in the same direction. We wisely rejected the joint patrolling back then.

Growing economic challenges appear to have made Donald Trump cutting down military expenses overseas and finding a new market for American weapon industry. This is the reason he is less interested in NATO and more in Asian Quad. Roping in India will serve a lot of purposes. It will give them a huge market for American weapons and lessen the economic/military burden of America to control this part of the world.

Indian Interests

I would disagree with PM Modi’s statement in ASEAN Summit that the growing US and Indian relationships are not just for mutual benefit but for the interest and future of Asia. Gone is the time, when this world was divided into blocs.

Today’s world is of economic interests. During the peak of globalization, almost every country opened its markets for trade. It was a win-win situation for both investor country and the market country. Investment generally came from big corporate houses of developed countries (the US, Japan, South Korea or Europe). Developing countries, who provided market, received foreign investment and jobs opportunities. Now Developed countries are facing high Unemployment rates and making policies to discourage outsourcing of services and business. In a way, they are now moving towards `De-Globalization`.

During such tough economic times, we must protect our national economic interest. It is our need to get more investment in India and the present government is doing well to make the country as business friendly as possible. This is very much clear from the recent ranking published by the World Bank on `Ease of doing Business`. Indian jumped 30 places to the rank 100. We still have a lot more to do to make India a manufacturing hub. This is our need of the time – to create enough jobs for our ever growing population.

But the `Making in India` is not just our need. We have a great deal to offer to the world. China is already finding it hard to keep the production cost under control. Due to less labour and electricity rates, we can produce goods at a better cost. Profit of US companies sky-rocketed when the manufacturing moved to china in the early 90s. Same thing happened when Outsourcing business came to India in the late 90s. Their profit will again go high when India start producing the stuff at a cheaper rate. It will be a win-win situation for the west and India. All this should be done while keeping our foreign policy independent. That can only be done when we are not a part of any bloc.

India should keep the Indo-US diplomatic relationship as bilateral. We must not fall into any trap and must not become part of any bloc. Though we were close to the erstwhile USSR and they had helped us immensely after 1962 Indo-China war and during 1971 Bangladesh Liberation war, we never supported their Afghan invasion and never allowed them to use Indian soil, resources or soldiers. This was possible only because we played our cards well and we must continue doing the same.

We neither want nor can afford any conflict that serves some other country’s interest. The US might want to contain China but we have no such desire or need, for that matter. We must be ready to answer any military challenge given by China or Pakistan or both together. Keeping good relations with the US, Russia and rest of the world at the same time will help us answer that challenge in a better way.


Sumit Walia is an IT Specialist, based in Germany . He is also a military history buff who continues to explore & research various facets of the Indian Military history in his spare time.

More columns by the author: 

Why the Indian Armed Forces should not be forced into doing civilian tasks

Who made North Korea a nuclear power: Dr A Q Khan or Pakistan?

Capt. Bharat Verma and his 'Make in India' dream for Defence

Are F-16s a good choice for the Indian Air Force?

The economics of CPEC: What are the options for India? BrahMos Missile: Why China is nervous

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