After nearly a decade of negotiations, India was accorded the status of a Major Defense Partner of the United States. The deal, inked between Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, comes at a time of heightened tensions in South Asia.
Public policy analyst D. Raghunandan elaborates the strategic and political implications of the deal.
Prabir Purkayastha (Prabir): Hello and welcome to Newsclick. This program with The Real News. We have with us D. Raghunandan, who has been studying the Indo-US relationship for quite some time, particularly, the Defense relations. Raghu, we seem to have come across a kind of Rubicon as it were, with this designation of India as a major Defense partner. By all accounts, this is equivalent to being a treaty partner, a part of NATO or a part of what used to be SEATO, CENTO, which don't really exist anymore. What does it really mean in the relationship between the two countries in terms of Defense agreement?.
D. Raghunandan (Raghu): I think it's been a long process, of standing just this side of the Rubicon till a formal declaration was made. I think this was what has been in the offing since the India US Defense framework agreement way back which preceded the Indo-US nuclear deal. This is what it is all been leading up to.
Prabir: But at that point of time India did not sign the Logistical Service Agreement which is a standard agreement as a first step to a defense relationship..
Raghu: Exactly but as I was saying I think this is what all of that has been leading up to. It was an informal bilateral agreement to begin with but with a fairly explicit intention to gradually formalize it as one went along. So, this process of getting India to sign the logistics agreement, the other agreements that would then form part of the architecture which then underpins this present agreement designating India as a major US Defense partner. I think has been some time in coming.
Prabir: You know there is a lot of pressure for India not to designate itself as the US partner, military partner particularly, and that held back India. Now, this government seems to have decided there is no need to hold back. Initially, the sweet talk with China aside, India seems to have now taken a very decisive tilt towards the US side. We saw that in the South China Sea issue also. India issued a fairly gratuitous statement, which finally because Philippines sort of backed off,. Meant thatIndia was sort of an outlier in the way it treated the South China Sea issue, particularly the International Court verdict. Do you see that India in this case is increasingly becoming a part of the US attempt to really ring in China and sort of be a counter power to China in this area?.
Raghu: This is exactly what has been in the offing for some time. It is now come to fruition and actually signing on the dotted line to do this. In fact, one of the many areas or activities mentioned in the agreement between India and the US pertains to the freedom of navigation. We all know what that means, that phrase may not have had the resonance that it does today, ten years ago but being specifically mentioned today, it is very clear where it is headed and what it signifies. The agreement also talks about strengthening the US engagement in South Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, which again we know what it means from a US strategic point of view.
Prabir: Basically getting India, Australia, Japan together. That was always the intention. One part of it is China, we will come back to this equation later. But apart from that in terms of normal Defense agreements, the argument is interoperability of the two forces. Does it mean India is going to be significant buyer of US equipment and is that the implication of the deal?
Raghu: Interoperability to my mind has always meant two things. One, is increased use of Indian military facilities to host US military hardware and the second part, has been this issue of buying US hardware, because how do you ensure interoperability best, which is what the US does with NATO allies. So this has always been the case. But in India, there is this Defense technology initiative that's a very important part of the India-US Defense framework agreement which specifically talks about areas of collaboration between the US and India, both for export of US hardware to India as well as co-development and technology transfer of sensitive Defense equipment.
Prabir: One issue is India has always had sourcing from Russia. Do you think this will replace Israel, US and other NATO partners as a major supplier of hardware in the future? Is that one of the implications?.
Raghu: Absolutely, I think that’s already been happening. India has been increasingly buying US hardware and of course Israeli hardware, particularly missiles and so on. But India has bought significant aircraft from the US. We have got the maritime reconnaissance aircraft. You have got the heavy lift transport aircraft, the globe master and the Hercules aircraft. You are buying Apache attack helicopters. India has just signed an agreement for M777 Howitzers field artillery guns and I think there is very little doubt left anymore that India is soon going to sign up an agreement with the United States, to manufacture in India either the Lockheed Martin F-16 or Boeing F-18 aircrafts. I think one of the reasons for reducing the purchase of Rafaele aircraft from France, from the original 126 down to 36, has been that India had already decided to buy American aircraft so why buy the French aircraft now. This paves the way certainly for acquisition of US aircraft and importantly paves the way for technology transfer and technology transfer therefore, has been specifically also mentioned in the agreement.
Prabir: Coming back to the issue of China, that's really the big one in this mix because India initially under Modi, did initially make a lot of noise with China wanting to be friends. Under Manmohan Singh, was pretty much in love with Bush which he said publicly and did bring India much closer to the US. But, under Manmohan Singh also India had a very good relationship with China. The relations were normalized with China quite considerably. So do you think this in some sense is also playing out of the China Pakistan relationship which India seems to have taken a lot of umbrage to and therefore, in some sense India's reaction to China is conditioned with India's relationship with Pakistan.? Do you see that playing a role or do you see therefore India becoming much closer to form an alternate axis against China?
Raghu: I see that today Pakistan is extremely close to China, its military relationship with China has deepened, technology transfer from China to Pakistan co-manufacture of JF17 military aircraft. All these are proceeding must faster that they had done earlier. Arguably, this has also to do with the closer India has got to the United States, the more compelled Pakistan has felt to deepen its military ties with China. So it's very difficult to say which comes first.
Prabir: Do you think India is making, to me a mistake by actually treating China-Pakistan as a major issue for its moves with China?. So is there a reason for India to hyphenate its relationship India-Pakistan and not look upon China-Pakistan, China-India as a different issue?
Raghu: The more India plays Pakistan card, the more India is limiting itself in strategic terms as a South Asian power rather than the supposed projection of India as an Indian ocean power. You can't be an Indian ocean power if you are constantly obsessed about an immediate neighbor. That's been a part of the problem with the Modi government and its vision. On the other hand, if India has a China fixated vision and that China fixated vision is linked with an Indo-US military relationship that does not bode well for the future. It runs a serious risk of irritating the Chinese dragon.
Prabir: As you said, this doesn't augur well. It's really strategically a wrong move to link India...
Raghu: Yes, to get this kind of India playing its own role in that region bilaterally with countries. Say, for example India is responding to requests from Vietnam, to deepen Defense relationship which is likely to have some repercussions in the South China Sea etc. pursued by itself it won't make such a big impact. But if India is seen to be doing all these as part of chess board moves in tandem with the United States, I think that casts a very different look to what India does strategically in this region.
Prabir: It would be seen as a subordinate ally.
Raghu: One last point I thought I would make is, this particular Defense agreement has now been legislated in the US Congress. Within the American political context, puts the India-US defense relationship a little bit beyond the pale of fluctuations that might have been expected with the new Trump administration because this is now part of US law. So this relationship is now set for the long haul and this is something which I think we in India need to take into account from a strategic point of view.
Prabir: Thank you Raghu for being with us. We will continue to discuss with you these issues and other issues as they develop. This is all the time we have for Newsclick today. Please keep watching Newsclick for future episodes. Do visit our website and also our Facebook page.