Premvir Das: Indo-US defence co-operation at a crossroads?

Discussion in 'Defence & Strategic Issues' started by AVERAGE INDIAN, Jan 19, 2014.



    Sep 22, 2012
    Likes Received:
    Detroit MI
    There is this interesting exchange in Alice in Wonderland when Alice comes to a crossroads and asks the Mad Hatter, who is standing there, what road she should take and the latter, philosophically, replies "Depends on where you want to go". That seems to be the question that is, increasingly, getting asked of the India-US relationship and despite things having cooled down with the return to India of an Indian diplomat indicted by a court in New York, the incident is not something that is going to easily go away. It is time, therefore, to reflect on why and how we have come where we are and how easily things can go wrong unless the fundamentals of the engagement are understood and their sanctity preserved, more so under conditions of stress. Since defence cooperation between the two countries is not a standalone and will, inevitably, be impacted by the overall relationship, there is need for some thought.

    Through several decades of the Cold War, both the US and India viewed each other with great suspicion. For India, all Pakistani hostility against it was made possible only because of the patronage extended by the Americans; for the US, India was a country clearly aligned with the Soviet camp even as it professed to be nonaligned. American military maps showing Soviet bases in the Asia-Pacific had the 'hammer and sickle' flag of the erstwhile Soviet Union planted at Visakhapatnam (leave aside the fact that this was just rubbish), alongside such other places as Haiphong in then North Vietnam and Socotra in the Gulf of Aden. Mistrust, on both sides, dominated the little interaction that there was between defence agencies of both countries. And then, Mikhail Gorbachev came on the scene and soon the USSR became history. Even before the advent of the 1990s, a well-known US General visited India with a set of ideas for interaction between the militaries of the two countries which came to be known as the Kicklighter Proposals, but things barely moved given the prevalent mindsets in the respective bureaucracies, civil and military. In 1994, then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao went to Washington and one of the fallouts of this visit was a clear missive from his office: we must forget the past and explore possibilities of engaging the US military more positively. Prime Ministerial diktats to the 'system', then as now, are not as forceful as they are thought to be and, not surprisingly, forward movement, if any, was not much more than a crawl.

    In January 1995, the US Secretary of Defence, William Perry, visited New Delhi to conclude a three-page (in double spacing) Minute of Defence Cooperation between the two countries. Prior to his visit, the draft, quite general and non-controversial, was analysed threadbare in New Delhi by a ten-man inter-ministerial team chaired by the Director General of the Defence Planning Staff, probably the first time that such wide-ranging discussion has been headed by a military official. Every sentence, every full stop and every comma of the draft was examined under a microscope, literally, as if the very sovereignty of the country was at stake. The level of suspicion was very high and had it not been for frequent interventions from the Prime Minister's Office, broad agreement on the contents of the document may never have been reached. However, after days of haggling, a consensus emerged. This was only Step 1. When Perry's negotiating team arrived, the then infamous Robin Raphael being a member, it had its own entourage of 'nay sayers'. It took two full days of playing around with language and grammar and, finally, we had the Minute, duly signed.

    But paper remained paper and even turned to waste as India became a nuclear weapon state with the Pokhran tests of 1998. Sanctions followed and defence cooperation was dead. Despite the war in Kargil in 1999 and the pro-India position taken by then US President Bill Clinton, it was not until his successor, George W Bush, came on the scene in 2001 that US-India military engagement took a positive turn. Mr Bush had a vision of the world in which India had an important place and despite America's own preoccupations with the calamities of September 2001 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he persuaded his team to work out closer ties with this country. Successive governments in India, the NDA and UPA, recognised the need to respond positively. A revised new agreement on defence cooperation was concluded in 2006 that was far more comprehensive and supportive of our interests than that of 1995 and negotiated with less than half the effort. It has been a continuing proactive and positive engagement since then and while doubts have not entirely disappeared, they have not inhibited India's purchase of sophisticated US military hardware with strategic content (exceeding $10 billion at present and counting), a range of increasingly advanced exercises between the three wings of the two armed services, ship visits and exchange of personnel, and most recently, offers of cooperation in co-production of high-technology items in India. Several bureaucratic constraints which had earlier prevented this have been removed and today, availability of platforms and systems to the Indian military, broadly speaking, is not any less than what it is to the British forces. For taking the relationship to this stage, credit is due not only to those working in and for governments but also to those in the non-governmental sector, both in India and in America.

    More than other forms of engagement, meaningful defence cooperation between any two countries can only flow from a convergence of strategic interest. So, it is logical that America sees India as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean Region and even more important, India has begun to understand that it cannot shy away from this responsibility. Continuing and positive interface between the militaries of the two countries is as much in India's interest as that of the US. And yet, it is precisely this interface that was, possibly has been, put in serious jeopardy and all because not just a US District Attorney but equally, and especially, the State Department, failed to see the 'Stop' light when it began to flash. The issue is whether the US continues to see India in the same strategic terms as it has done over the last ten years. At an international security forum held in Halifax, Canada, in November 2011, former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice had this to say: "If the US ever finds itself in the trenches in Asia, India is the one country it would like to have by its side". Both sides need to get themselves back into play if America still holds to that view. They have the ball.

    Premvir Das: Indo-US defence co-operation at a crossroads? | Business Standard

Share This Page