The euphoria surrounding the visit of United States President Donald Trump has only gathered steam after Namaste Trump, the event at Motera Stadium, in Ahmedabad on February 24, where more than a 100,000 people gathered to cheer him and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indians love a spectacle. Apparently they also love defence deals.
The cheers turned deafening as Trump announced that a deal worth $3 billion was going to be signed for a requested MH-60 R armed helicopters and an Integrated Air Defence System for Delhi. The total may rise to more than $4 billion if and when the deal actually goes through — and, there are still some ‘if’s and buts’ to negotiate.
The good news is that the bilateral defence ties has come a long way, in a very short time. The US-India Defence Framework was signed in 2005, but lay pretty much dormant till 2015. This was because the then UPA government was struck by a mix of coalition apathy, leftist accusations, and effects of the sanctions after the 1998 nuclear tests. That irritated US diplomats no end, and it’s no surprise that the state department’s Alice Wells recently welcomed a shift away from a ‘passive foreign policy’ to a more vigorous one.
The progress report is enviable. Since the Modi government came to power in 2014, all but one of the ‘foundational ‘agreements for defence cooperation have been signed. That includes agreements on logistics exchanges, communications and information sharing, with only one left on sharing of sensitive geospatial information.
Detractors are quick to say that India is laying out the mat for a “foreign power”. The truth is more complex. These standard boiler plate agreements have been changed around to suit (many) India’s ‘sensitivities’. Thus a standard Logistics Support Agreement was changed to the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) and the CISMOA (Communications Interoperability and Security Agreement) became the more limited COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security).
The cherry on top was the twin victory of India being designated a ‘Major Defence Partner’ in 2016, and the follow on Strategic Trade Authorization-1, which allows the process of transfer sensitive goods and streamlining of supply chains of the two defence industrial complexes. Not even Israel has such a status. India is also the first non-treaty partner to be offered the Sea Guardian drones. Few in India have appreciated the distance travelled from a technology denial regime of the recent past, to one that actively encourages the two to work together.
There are, however, three barricades that both have to cross. First, all of this is quite expensive as compared to available Russian equipment — an issue that will worry officials dealing with the squeeze on the defence budget. Reports suggest that the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had asked for a re-evaluation of the Integrated Air Defence System for Delhi valued at $1.5 bn and seen as unaffordable under the present budget. The cabinet committee on security also cleared the 22 armed helicopters deal only days earlier, after postponing a decision for months. When this will actually arrive is not yet certain. Further buys are, however, in the pipeline, which includes P-81 anti-submarine aircraft and the Sea Guardian drones. Even without counting these, the total is still considerable, rising from near zero in 2008 to the present $17 bn.
The second issue is that India will still buy from other countries. Non-alignment may be old hat but it’s still around given reservations on the US ability to go the whole mile. This includes Congressional statements on issues such as religious freedoms. That’s a danger that democracies will always face. Only a President Xi can pronounce on a policy and expect that it will continue for a decade. In short, Russian weapons will continue to be inducted, with the S-400’s the most immediate issue. One missile defence that is Russian and another that is American is mixing it up more than most would want. Given the communications security agreements that have been signed, it’s going to create bilateral friction sooner than later. Systems after all talk to one another.
The third is an enduring mistrust of the US, most loudly declared on TV interviews. This perception limits bureaucrats in their turn, which is unfortunate to say the least. Diplomacy and international relations are not founded on trust, despite all the fancy language. It’s based on shared interests.
With China rising, the stars seem to be aligned positively for an India-US bilateral relationship. What remains to be decided is just how close that embrace has to be. Given precedent, probably a loose one.Tara Kartha is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.