India-US 'major defence partnership' must address New Delhi’s strategic concerns

US Ambassador to India Richard Rahul Verma has recently stated that the US-Pakistan relationship is “complex”, while US relations with India are more broad-based.

In saying so, Verma will be acutely aware that the US-Pakistan relationship is already on the trajectory towards becoming far more complex with Pakistan being inexorably subsumed by China, the CIA-ISI relationship notwithstanding. With China gearing up to establish an oceanic front in the Gwadar-Omari-Karachi region, a future US-China Cold War-like situation may be inevitable no matter the pretenses, and how and in what timeframe the transition from lukewarm to cold takes place, which will be resisted by China.

President-elect Donald Trump’s statement that the US may not necessarily be bound with the ‘One China’ policy raised hackles in China with Beijing hitting back that it would help the foes of America. Only time will tell how Trump’s remarks about the ‘One China’ policy are followed through in future. However, in all probability he will act against China’s economic policy of ‘dumping’ goods abroad at the cost of target countries. But if China says it will help America’s foes, it is already doing so through proxies of Pakistan as well as through its own links with the Taliban.

 India-US major defence partnership must address New Delhi’s strategic concerns

File image of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar with Defence Secretary Ash Carter at a joint news conference at the Pentagon. News18

What will affect South Asia most is how the Trump administration deals with Pakistan now that Generals Michael T Flynn (former director of US Defence Intelligence Agency) and James Mattis (former commander of US Central Command) will be the next National Security Advisor and Secretary of Defence respectively. This is particularly so given their firm views about countering terrorism. Notwithstanding the joint statement on conclusion of the recent ‘Heart of Asia’ Summit categorically naming Pakistani proxies operating in Afghanistan, this had already been explicitly brought out in the report of the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) in July 2016. These facts have been ignored by the US in the past despite Pakistani proxies, Haqqani Network in particular, targeting US-Nato forces in Afghanistan

With the US Senate clearing a bill characterising India as a “major defence partner”, India-US relations have taken a leap. The 2017 National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) was passed by the US House of Representatives by 375 votes to 34. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visited Washington in June this year, President Barack Obama had said he looks at India as a major defence partner of the US. The US Senate has now cleared the decks to put an official seal on it before it goes for signatures to Obama, which should be a mere formality. It is significant to note that after the passage of the bill — within 180 days, the secretary of defence and the secretary of state are required to jointly submit to the Congressional Defence Committee, the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives a report on how the US is supporting its defence relationship with India.

The India-US joint statement issued during the visit of Secretary of State John Kerry to India in August 2016 had noted that robust defence ties were the “bedrock” of bilateral strategic and commercial ties, making reference to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) and the title of “major defence partner” for India that Obama envisaged. In December 2016, Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter made an official visit to India for the seventh institutionalised interaction with Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar. The joint statement issued during Carter’s visit finalised India’s designation as a “major defence partner” of the US. This special status is unique to India and institutionalises the progress made to facilitate defence trade and technology sharing with India to a level on par with that of America’s closest allies and partners, ensuring enduring cooperation in future.

The emergence of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative ( DTTI) as an integral and enduring component of India-US security cooperation is a sign that the relationship has matured to a level of strategic importance. The DTTI will strengthen India’s 'Make in India' initiative and both sides committed to convening all-new DTTI working groups prior to the next DTTI group meeting anticipated for February 2017. India-US defence relations in recent years have been on an escalating trajectory. The signing of the Defence Framework Agreement in 2015 was a major signpost.

This along with other agreements laid the blueprint for collaboration between defence establishments of both nations, enabling deeper cooperation. Joint exchange opportunities, in both personnel and training exercises, have expanded and strengthened our bilateral cooperation. The signing of the LEMOA has facilitated additional opportunities for practical engagement and exchange.

What does 'major defence partner' imply?

Logically, it should result in greater sharing of defence technologies (state-of-the-art ones), co-production of armaments as part of ‘Make in India’ and dovetailing defence plans with the US approach through coordination in military logistics, and in strategic and satellite communications and sensors. The US is also looking at early signing of the Communication and Information Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) joint agreements that would complete the trinity of foundational agreements for bilateral defence ties.

File image of Donald Trump and James Mattis. AP

File image of Donald Trump and James Mattis. AP

Admiral John Richardson had visited India in February 2016 coinciding with India hosting the spectacular international fleet review, in which the US Navy also participated. The year 2016 also saw the navies of India, US and Japan participating in the MALABAR exercise in the Western Pacific, much to the chagrin of China. The India-US Maritime Dialogue has been ongoing with strategic interests converging with respect to the Indo-Pacific region.

But while the US interests in the bilateral relationship centre mainly on cooperation on the seas and defence industry cooperation, the 'major defence partnership' must also address India’s concerns in South Asia. These include the China-Pakistan nexus exporting terrorism to India and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s newly appointed DG ISI, Naveed Mukhtar, has called for Pakistan to be more aggressive against Indian interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan is in illegal occupation of PoK and China-occupied Shaksgam and Aksai Chin — all Indian Territories. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor together with Chinese naval vessels and submarines at Gwadar have strategic implications both for India and the region including on future operations in the IOR. Similarly, the PLA's lodgment in Gilgit-Baltistan, and deployment of strategic weapon platforms have serious implications.

Now that President Vladimir Putin has indicated he will work with Trump in countering terrorism, attention must be paid to Pakistan as the epicentre of terrorism which is supported and abetted by China. The India-US Defence Partnership must focus on these issues, particularly targeting the epicentre of terrorism, ensuring stability and economic progress of Afghanistan and connectivity within South Asia.

The author is a veteran Lieutenant-General of the Indian Army

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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2016 13:00:17 IST