The growing convergence on military and defense matters between Washington, DC and New Delhi has been one of the highlights of bilateral ties under President Barack Obama and nationalist PM Narendra Modi.
Ever since Modi's right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, there has been an unwavering focus on bolstering defense ties with the US, with the latter swiftly emerging as the country's preferred supplier of arms and weapons systems. This marks a radical shift from India's earlier policy of military collaborations for over three decades with Russia, a country which accounted for a whopping 79 percent of India’s arms imports till the 1990s while the US trailed with a meager 2 percent.
Analysts say India's change of heart is largely attributable to shifting geopolitical power equations currently playing out across Asia. The region has emerged as a hotbed of tensions between Beijing – whose military modernization and territorial expansion are alarming all regional players – and Washington, which is seeking to keep Chinese adventurism in check. With Moscow drifting towards the China-Pakistan axis, India is increasingly seeking military and strategic collaboration with the US and Japan.
The US's Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), which drives bilateral security ties between the US and India, is aimed at strengthening cooperative research, co-production and co-development of capabilities. It also seeks to “transform the bilateral defense relationship into one that is limited only by independent strategic decisions, rather than bureaucratic obstacles or inefficient procedures.”
Under DTTI, three bilateral “foundational agreements:” the Logistics Support Agreement, the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation are also being initiated. If signed, the pacts will take the military relationship to a new high with sharing of signals and other electronic intelligence, refueling and logistical facilities being the highlights.
However, India's previous political dispensation had reservations about signing these agreements because of coalition pressures. It feared that these pacts would give the US unfettered access to Indian military bases, create military alliances in Asia (contradicting Delhi's then non-aligned stance) and put pressure on India to buy expensive weaponry from the US. The agreements would also have violated Delhi's military neutrality and provoked China. However, Modi, who is seeking to make India a more assertive global player, has shown interest in signing the pacts after a few modifications which will address security and other concerns.
US defense secretary Ashton Carter, who was in Delhi last month, said that the defense relationship between the world's two largest democracies has never been as robust as it is now.
"The US-India defense relationship is the closest it's ever been,” Carter said, “Through our strategic handshake — with America reaching west in the rebalance, and India reaching east in what Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls his Act East policy — our two nations are exercising together by air, land, and sea like never before."
Following Carter’s visit, a Maritime Security Dialogue as well as agreements to augment maritime domain awareness have also been set in motion. An arrangement to improve the sharing of data on commercial shipping traffic and navy-to-navy discussions on submarine safety and anti-submarine warfare are also underway. The Obama administration also recently signed a legislation that approves a US$619 billion budget for the US military in 2017 and designates India as a “Major Defense Partner,” a distinctly unique definition the US doesn’t bestow on any other country.
The US has also proposed joint development and production of futuristic military helicopters as well as infantry combat vehicles for India in the first such big-ticket programs under DTTI. A $3.1 billion deal has been signed for 22 Apache attack and 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from the US, slated for delivery in 2019-2020. Upgrades of already expansive and top-level Malabar annual naval exercise are in the pipeline.
Experts see China's growing footprint across Asia and especially in the Indian Ocean region as the main reason driving India-US synergies. "The driving force behind the US-India military ties," elaborates defense analyst Manoj Variyath, formerly joint secretary with the Ministry of Defense, "is to bolster India as a predominant security provider in the Indian Ocean Region and offset China’s military superiority. The US fears the growing gap between Chinese military power and that of its neighbors can jeopardize Asia's stability, a region that hosts the world’s most important trade corridors."
The fears regarding China's recklessness aren't unfounded. The Indian Navy has tracked at least six Chinese submarines in the IOR over the past few months. To check Beijing's frequent and aggressive forays into the IOR, Delhi has decided to keep a close watch on its neighbor with the help of its P-8I aircraft, packed with radars and armed with Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges.
However, China views this surveillance and the growing US-India proximity on military matters as `moves' to contain it. Expressing its annoyance, Beijing had even lodged a strong protest against the US' Malabar exercises in the Bay of Bengal with India and Japan. But India has continued to crank up its strategic partnerships with both US and Japan, with maritime cooperation emerging as a major thrust area. A new bilateral maritime security dialogue as well as navy-to-navy talks on anti-submarine warfare have also been set in motion.
India and the US also share a common goal of ensuring the safety and security of the sea lanes of communication in the Indo-Pacific region. The two have also decided "in principle" to sign a logistics support agreement which will allow American and Indian militaries to share facilities for refueling, supplies and spares.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor & senior journalist