PERSPECTIVES: India and U.S. Partners in Arms

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By Ernest Corea

WASHINGTON DC - The Obama Administration’s much touted "pivot" to Asia extends a trend that began with President Barack Obama and Mrs. Obama inviting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Mrs. Singh to the US as the first state guests of the Obama Administration.

Since then, whatever went on elsewhere in the Asian region, the bilateral India-US relationship has expanded and grown stronger in many sectors including commerce, culture, education, investment, trade – and defence.

"Today, US-India relations are strong and growing. Our military-to-military engagement has increased steadily over the past 10 years and now includes a robust slate of dialogues, military exercises, defence trade, personal exchanges and armaments cooperation," says the Defence Department’s (Pentagon) Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Southeast Asia Bob Scher. He was briefing the media on the Pentagon's November 2011 Report to Congress on US-India Security Cooperation.

A major finding of the report is that the value of defence sales from the US to India has risen from zero to $6 billion in less than a decade.

Key Component

The India-US New Framework Agreement (2005) provides the structure for the bilateral defence relationship. Additional framework agreements guide developments in areas such as counterterrorism and maritime security.

The Defence Policy Group which combines the top military leadership of both countries "sets priorities for defence cooperation, reviews progress annually, and directs adjustments as necessary," says the Pentagon report. Sub-groups set up under the Defence Policy Group umbrella deal with "defence trade, service-to-service cooperation, technical cooperation and technology security."

Within this broad structure, security cooperation has included:

--Joint exercises which have "grown dramatically in size, scope and sophistication." They have involved the air force, army, coast guard, marines, and special operations forces of the two countries.

--Training and preparation for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the Indian Ocean region.

--Operational cooperation such as counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, naval security for US ships transiting the Straits of Malacca, and disaster relief following the tsunami of 2004.

--Exchange of science and technology information and collaboration on projects. Areas of current cooperation include power and energy, micro-aerial vehicles, and "human effectiveness."

The Pentagon considers "armaments cooperation" to be a "key component" of its relationship with India's counterpart organisations. Defence sales to India have included C-17 ND C-130J aircraft, TPQ-37 radars, self-protection suites for VVVIP aircraft, specialized tactical equipment, Harpoon missiles, (and) sensor-fused weapons. Sales of more sophisticated material are expected.

No Irritants

Not surprisingly, when Obama and Manmohan Singh met in Bali on November 18, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, the Indian leader confirmed that "there are no irritants between our two countries." This assessment was consistent with Obama's view, expressed in New Delhi last year, that the India-US relationship is "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century."

Hillary Clinton laid it on thick when she said during a visit to India as Secretary of State. She was "very excited", she said, and explained why: "I was thrilled to go to India for the first time as First Lady and to begin a process that has led us to this point with the contributions of many along the way that really demonstrates that the world’s largest democracy and oldest democracy have so much more in common than perhaps was first recognized."

The "full Monty" of lovey-dovey outbursts is a far cry from the state of affairs in past years when tensions often intruded into a relationship that always should have been one of comity, given the many features – democracy, federalism, domestic diversity, among others – that are common to both countries.

Lowest Point

The relationship reached perhaps its lowest point during the Nixon administration. House files and tapes contained in the State Department's Foreign Relations of the US series released by the National Security Archives in 2005 showed that in 1971 President Richard Nixon and national security adviser Henry Kissinger considered India to be a "Soviet stooge".

The Pentagon implicitly acknowledges the existence of past frictions. "Over the past decade," it says, "there has been a rapid transformation of the US-India defence relationship. What was once a nascent relationship between unfamiliar nations has now evolved into a strong strategic partnership between two of the preeminent security powers ion the area."

"Nascent" would not have been everybody's choice of description. The prevailing disposition of the two countries towards each other was summed up by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Senator from New York, when he wrote in 1971 that "the term 'estranged' nicely captures the sense on both sides that affection has not been returned, or has somehow lapsed, or has found new outlets."

Now, affection has been returned and has found new outlets. As the Pentagon report asserts, US-India defence ties are strong and growing. To quote Scher again: "We will continue to focus on relationship building and establishing the foundation for this long-term partnership. We view India and the development of our strategic and security relationship as instrumental to our long-term vision for the region."

Arms Trade

Critics of India-US closeness, particularly in the security arena, will no doubt argue that India has turned its back on non-alignment while remaining a respected member of the Non-aligned Movement, that current developments could lead to situations in which India might find it necessary to line up with the US on issues that are of no direct concern to India. The expanding security relationship could also be faulted as encouraging the lucrative global arms trade which is at the heart of so much bloodshed and misery in the world.

Policies are not cast in stone. Circumstances change and, with them, so do national interests and policies. Moreover, India's commitment to "strategic autonomy" is a potential safeguard against being drawn into quarrels irrelevant to its own interests. It is almost impossible to imagine India voting with the US at the UN on the continuation of the US trade ban against Cuba.

The end of the cold war and, with it, the end of entanglements and estrangements of that time, new foreign policy imperatives that diminished the significance of ideological approaches to policy, changes of leadership and leadership style in both countries, the reorientation of economic policies that forged new and unusual links, and the emergence of China as an economically resurgent regional power with global ambitions were among the circumstances that shaped the current policies which sustain the India-US bilateral relationship.

Looking Ahead

Senators Joe Lieberman and John Cornyn at whose request the Pentagon prepared its report have expressed their satisfaction at the burgeoning bilateral relationship, and look forward to even closer collaboration.

The Pentagon appears to be committed to moving ahead along the path it has hewn. It would like to sell more military aircraft, including the US Joint Strike Fighter which the Pentagon describes as "the best in the world" to India.

The Pentagon also looks to the day when "co-development of armaments (will) become a reality."

Times do change. [Global Perspectives]

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