Not that long ago, Washington and New Delhi were deeply suspicious of one another. Now, they're talking about collaborating on an aircraft carrier and weapons production.
The growing defence cooperation between India and the US is considered to be the brightest spot on the tapestry of bilateral relations. It appears less burdened by complaints and counter-complaints than, say, the trade and economic relationship.
Both sides see each other as partners in need with basic convergence of views on crucial issues of maritime security, freedom of navigation and the need to maintain the rule of law in the wilds of the oceans—the Pacific and the Indian—where a new power is rising.
The trust between India and the US has grown over the years as have sales of weapons, totalling $9 billion. The two sides have moved from deep suspicion to talking about collaboration on developing India’s next generation aircraft carrier. That’s a long distance to cover in a short span of 10 years.
The visit of US secretary of defence, Ashton Carter, this week is an important opportunity to push the defence relationship further by cementing the trust a bit more, especially by clarifying issues of technology transfer.
Carter takes an interest in India and is more engaged than some of his cabinet colleagues for whom South Asia begins and ends in Pakistan. He is known as a straight talker, a problem solver and a streamliner of processes.
The backdrop to Carter’s current travels is China and the US “rebalance” to Asia. He attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where he confronted China for its unprecedented land reclamation spree in the disputed South China Sea. Beijing has been “creating” new islands out of sandbars capable of supporting men and military.
While other countries have also reclaimed land in the disputed waters and created outposts, China has reclaimed 2,000 acres in just the past 18 months. Carter said it was “more than all other claimants combined and more than in the entire history of the region.”
He announced a new Southeast Asia Maritime Initiative to bolster countries in the region and build their capacities. He then went to Vietnam, a country under pressure from China. The US is considering selling weapons to Vietnam.
India, too, is concerned about Chinese behaviour and felt it necessary to issue a separate joint statement with US in January—the first such joining of voice—on the need to follow rules in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.
On the bilateral front, Carter’s India visit is timed to sign the defence framework agreement, which has been renewed for another 10 years. The latest version reportedly expands the ambit of cooperation beyond the original document signed in 2005. It will also incorporate the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), under which the two countries are exploring joint production of weapons.
During US president Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi in January, India and the US announced four projects for co-production, including the next generation Raven unmanned aerial vehicles and protective gear against chemical and biological weapons.
In addition, working groups were announced to explore cooperation on jet engine technology and aircraft carrier design. Both areas are of immense importance to India, but according to reports in the Indian media, the US is reluctant to part with the latest jet engine technology, which New Delhi wants.
India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation wants to partner with GE on the latest F-414 engine for the future Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. So far the US side has been reluctant despite the scope of future engine deals which may leave India no choice but to consider an international tender, according to Ajai Shukla, a prominent defence analyst.
US analysts agree that Washington is unlikely to part with cutting-edge technology because that’s what gives its defence industry the edge. The DTTI initiative can start at the lower end to test how the two bureaucracies, private industry and other suppliers connect. “You can’t produce a Lamborghini right away,” one American official told me earlier this year.
Also at issue is India’s refusal thus far to sign what the US calls three “foundational agreements” that allow sharing of classified information, logistics and geo-spatial cooperation. While Washington says they are routine and have been signed by all of its partners, New Delhi is uncomfortable.
Prime minister Narendra Modi was reportedly briefed on the agreements and has tasked his senior advisers to take a fresh look. The Indian side is also not keen on the monitoring requirements the US imposes on the technology it sells.
If Carter and his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, can bridge the confidence and trust gap, the visit will have been more successful than most.