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America’s great plans for India, and why New Delhi’s jumpy

By Syed Nazakat in Delhi

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is a politician by profession and a military conjurer by necessity. He served briefly in the military, half a century ago, but his reputation has been built, almost entirely, in politics. For 16 years, he was the Democratic Congressman from his hometown, Monterey in California. Perhaps it was there that he sawIndia emerging. California was home to Gobind Behari Lal, the first Indian American to win the Pulitzer Prize; Bhagat S. Thind, the first Indian American to serve in the US Army, and Dalip S. Saund, the first Congressman of South Asian descent. Then there were the thousands of Indian immigrants inSilicon Valley.

Today, as the US is reviewing its defence policy after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, India has become, in Panetta’s own words, its strategic priority. Panetta’s forthcoming visit toIndia, his first as defence secretary, is part of Pentagon’s new policy to seek closer defence ties withIndia. Significantly, the visit comes just a week before the India-US strategic dialogue in Washington,D.C.

“This [India-US] partnership is top priority for theUSdepartment of defence,” George Little, assistant secretary of defence for public affairs, told THE WEEK, before Panetta’s visit was officially announced. “In just one decade, there has been a rapid transformation of the US-India defence relationship into a strategic partnership between two of the pre-eminent security powers inAsia.” During his two-day visit, starting June 6, Panetta will meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Defence Minister A.K. Antony and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon.

Panetta knows the complexities of the US-India relationship. The paths converged first after 9/11, and then the nuclear deal became the fulcrum of the changed relationship, though the process was politically painful. Today, the US identifies Indiaas a long-term strategic partner; President Barack Obama famously described it as one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.

Dr Amer Latif, former director for south Asian affairs at Pentagon, said, “The military ties have developed into one of the most important and robust aspects of the US-India bilateral relationship. The priority towardsIndiawas overdue.”

The US has identified some key areas for cooperation, such as homeland security, intelligence sharing, a joint working group on counter-terrorism, computer emergency response teams and a range of military engagements. To wooIndia, theUShas removed laboratories of the Defence Research and Development Organisation from the entity list. So, the DRDO can almost freely procure weapons systems from theUS, though a control regime still exits. 

THE WEEK has learnt that, at a recently held defence policy group meet inDelhi, Jim Miller, Panetta’s close aide and Pentagon’s chief policy maker, proposed closer operational engagement with the Indian military. The US has proposed joint military planning exercises up to brigade level with the Indian Army and has askedIndiato place a senior liaison officer with the US Central Command and US Pacific Command. 

As DPG meetings shun headline-grabbing rhetoric, no one, except those in the defence strategy network, paid attention to Miller’s words. “The US looks at India as an important strategic partner in the region as well as as a big and unexploited market,” said Jayadeva Ranade, former additional secretary, Research & Analysis Wing, who had a diplomatic posting in Washington, D.C. “Strategically, in the region, it would like to draw India into a partnership,” he said. “It realises that India would recoil at any suggestion of an alliance, which helps further the US strategic agenda, including retarding China from emerging either as a potent threat or as a rival to US strategic interests.” 

The US Pacific Command wanted to have joint operations with the Indian Navy in humanitarian and disaster relief missions. Despite repeated American requests since 2008,Indiahas been reluctant. A senior Indian defence ministry official said thoughIndiawas ready to boost defence cooperation with theUS, it was unwilling to ink operational military pacts. This time, Panetta may seek fresh discussions on the three pending military pacts—the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). 

The US has been arguing that CISMOA and BECA guarantee the use of US-made aircraft and communications systems before they hit the market. It would also give India access to sensitive C4ISR technology and increase the interoperability of Indian and American forces during joint exercises and missions.India, on the other hand, thinks the agreement is intrusive and that theUSwould use it to examine Indian equipment under the guise of interoperability.

More than CISMOA and BECA, it is the LSA on which both countries have sharp differences. The LSA forIndiais designed to give Indian and US ships and aircraft access to each other’s facilities, such as ports and airfields, for refuelling and refurbishment through a barter system. But many in the defence and political establishment suspect that the LSA will provide bases to theUSmilitary, turningIndiainto a subordinate ally.

And, the list of contentious issues is not limited to the military agreements. The US military aid to Pakistan, cooperation withIran, the use of military to topple regimes inWest Asiaand nuclear disarmament are some of the other issues. “Indiais cautious about developing operational cooperation with the US because of its political implications, both in terms of domestic politics and India’s external ties,” said Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary. “Indiawants to develop broad-based, mutually beneficial relations with various global power centres rather than being seen as excessively leaning towards one power centre.”

So sensitive isIndiathat an off-the-cuff remark made by the US Pacific Command commander Admiral Robert F. Willard, about the presence of US Special Forces inIndia, was raised in Parliament. Antony had to reassure Parliament on May 7 that the “US has neither sought nor has the government of India approved stationing of US Special Forces personnel in any capacity in India.”

Within the defence ministry, there is growing consensus that it is inIndia’s interest, too, to forge a close defence partnership with theUS. The Indian Navy has benefited from the Malabar exercises with the US Navy.Indiahas been conducting numerous naval exercises with theUS, and, today, the exercise is no more limited to boarding operations.

This year, both navies were armed with guided-missile cruisers, destroyers and submarines during the 10-day long exercise in theBay of Bengal. Air defence and anti-submarine warfare was part of the exercise. TheUSfleet included the USS Carl Vinson, the Nimitz class supercarrier which carried Osama bin Laden’s body to be buried at sea.Indiaand theUShave organised over 50 military exercises in the last seven years, most of them aimed at building anti-terrorism and counter insurgency capability. With no other country has the Indian military engaged in so many joint exercises. The push in the defence trade is also a sign of growing trust and partnership.

India’s defence trade with theUShas risen from virtually nil a decade ago to nearly $9 billion today. Since 2002, India has signed more than 20 deals for defence articles and services such as amphibious transport ship INS Jalashwa, UH-3H helicopters worth $92.5 million, Lockheed Martin C-130J aircraft worth $962 million (the first US military aircraft sale to India in half a century), P-8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft worth $2.1 billion, Harpoon Block-II anti-ship missiles for $170 million and C-17 Globemaster-III strategic airlift aircraft worth $4.1 billion.

More recently, the defence ministry has cleared procurement of 145 ultra-light howitzers worth $647 million for deployment on the China border. The M777, the lightest 155mm artillery gun ever, will be the first such gun to enter service with the Indian Army after the Bofors guns 27 years ago. Negotiations are now being finalised for acquiring six more C-130J, four more P-8I aircraft, Javelin anti-tank guided missiles, Jaguar aircraft engine upgrades and as well as AH-64D attack helicopters.

“Defence cooperation is not just about sales, it is about creating new linkages between our technology and business sectors,” Geoffrey R. Pyatt, principal deputy assistant secretary, bureau of south and central Asian affairs at the state department, told reporters in Washington, D.C. “Our scientists and military personnel are increasingly asking not only what they can buy, but what they can co-produce and co-develop.”

At present, the technology cooperation between India and the US is mainly in collaborative projects like naval materials, command and control technologies and material search for aeronautics. “The DRDO and theUS, at present, are not pursuing the development of any hi-technology weapons platforms,” said Gopal Bhushan, director (international cooperation), DRDO. “However, both sides are keen to gradually co-design and co-develop some systems which have strategic relevance to both countries.”

Three ventures in Hyderabad show how the defence relationship is blossoming. Some 48km from the city,USmultinational DuPont, a leading provider of armour, has an integrated ballistics facility. The first such DuPont facility inAsia, it will develop and test protective gear for Indian defence and security forces. Aviation giant Lockheed Martin and Tata have a joint venture that makes aerostructure parts for C-130 aircraft. Mahindra & Mahindra has a joint venture withUScommunications equipment major Telephonics Corporation to produce radars, surveillance systems and communication solutions.

The Pentagon’s shift towardsIndiacomes amid increasing concern in theUSoverChina’s strategic aims, as it is investing in newer and better weapons, missile defence systems, submarines, an aircraft carrier and the development of a stealth fighter jet.

India, as a deterrence effort, is building roads, infrastructure and military capability along theChinaborder.Indiahas also deployed its front-line fighter aircraft Sukhoi Su-30MKIs in forward airbases, and has raised two Mountain Divisions there.

Former national security adviser Brajesh Mishra said that a US-India strategic partnership, though feasible, would take some time to mature and would need an organic change in the bureaucracies of both countries. And, he had a word of caution: “The Chinese are extremely worried about the growing Indo-US strategic partnership, which is necessary to safeguard our national security. The closerIndiaand theUScome, the more hostile the Chinese attitude towards India would be.”

Before his India visit, Panetta hostedChina’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie. It was the first visit to Washington by a Chinese defence minister in nine years.Chinais expected to figure prominently in Panetta’s talks inDelhi. There will also be discussions on Afghanistan, where theUSis winding down the war. Both India and theUS have signed strategic partnership withAfghanistanand the intelligence agencies of both countries are working closely onAfghanistan, though no one wants to talk about this.

Panetta, like many in the Indian defence establishment, agrees that Indian and US interests converge and collide on terrorism, China and uncertainties about the end-game in Afghanistan, in particular the deal with the Taliban brokered by Pakistan. The agreement, however, is to build a long-term relationship which will give options in the event of fundamentalists taking over the Af-Pak region, or a turn for worse on the China front. Neither of these developments is likely, but insurance policies are worth having anyway.

BOX

Pentagon’s new military strategy

On January 5, 2012, President Barack Obama unveiledAmerica’s new strategic document at the Pentagon. It outlined the country’s defence and strategic priorities in 21st century. The gist:

Reduce ground forces inEuropeand elsewhere. Make the military smaller and more diffused.

Beef up deployments and naval facilities in Asia-Pacific. Begin with stationing 2,500 Marines inAustralia.

Long-term strategic partnership withIndia, to support its ability to provide security in the broaderIndian Oceanregion.

Contain China. Have greater clarity of its strategic intentions.

Defeat al-Qaeda and preventAfghanistanfrom ever being a haven for them again.

Move away from land invasions and ground occupations.

Interview of Dr. Amer Latif

Sometimes Pentagon misunderstands India’s foreign policy aims

Within the Pentagon, Dr Amer Latif is known as one of the best strategists onIndia. Formerly director in the office of the undersecretary of defence for policy, he was a part of the team which formulatedUSdefence policy onIndiaand advised both the secretary and deputy secretary of defence on how to build a close defence partnership withIndia. He was earlier deputy director of operations at the Joint Warfare Analysis Center, Virginia. At present, Dr. Amer is a visiting fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S. India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Excerpts from an interview:

What is a common misconception in the Pentagon about India?

Sometimes in the US, in Pentagon as well as in state department and the Capitol Hill, people misunderstandIndia’s foreign policy aims. After the civil nuclear deal the people [in theUSadministration] thought the deal is going to open number of cooperations in other areas.  I think people need to understand that the civil-nuclear deal was one initiative, a one area of cooperation and that does not mean thatIndiawill change the whole foreign policy. There is no sort of broad-brush approach to Indian foreign policy. Each decision is taken in keeping in viewIndia’s interest first. That is why the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft deal should not have frustrated us. The decision was taken byIndiaon merit and its operational requirement.

Why has India’s strategic importance suddenly increased for the US?

In the years to come, as Indian military capacity grows, and theUSis facing decreasing defence budgets, it is going to look for capable partners that can provide security inAsia.Indiawas one of the few countries which were mentioned in the recently released strategic document. Long-standing Asian allies such asAustralia,Japan,Koreaand others were lumped under the label of existing alliances, butIndiawas singled out and identified as a key partner country.

How do you see the prospect of Indo-US defence relationship?

The prospects of the relationship are tremendous. We are two large democracies with common interests in important issues. We both stand for democracy, stability in the region and inAfghanistanand how to deal with risingChina. InWashington, we expect that, as big democracies,Indiaand theUSare going to disagree at certain issues at certain times. We had a different point of view onLibyaandIran. But what is important is that we do agree on the policy outcome. This is going to be a very important relationship of the 21st century.

Why has India’s strategic importance suddenly increased for the US?

In the years to come, as Indian military capacity grows, and theUSis facing decreasing defence budgets, it is going to look for capable partners that can provide security inAsia.Indiawas one of the few countries which were mentioned in the recently released strategic document. Long-standing Asian allies such asAustralia,Japan,Koreaand others were lumped under the label of existing alliances, butIndiawas singled out and identified as a key partner country.

What are the areas where Pentagon is keen to strengthen its ties with India?

The ties are going to be more widespread and strong, particularly in the maritime area. FromWashington’s perspective, they would like to have a seamless relationship with Indian military. We want to have interoperability between our forces. We want secure communication between our defence forces. But there is reluctance on Indian behalf to sign such agreement.

 (THE WEEK, June 10, 2012)

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