By C. Raja Mohan
In the new security context, India and the US should deepen their defence cooperation
United States Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Delhi underlines the sea change in the Asian security environment and the new imperatives for deepening strategic cooperation between the two countries. Although India and the US launched defence cooperation in the middle of the last decade, its full potential for security cooperation remains unrealised. To be sure, America has become an important supplier of arms to India. The armed forces of the two countries have more bilateral military exercises with each other than with any other country. Yet there is no denying the widespread sense that the momentum in bilateral defence relations has begun to lose steam.
The US has been too narrowly focused on getting India to sign the so-called foundational agreements. These include the Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA), the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).
If Delhi has been unable to lend political direction to the defence exchanges with the US, bureaucratic inertia in the Pentagon prevents Washington from customising a unique partnership with South Block. But the current global strategic context facing the two countries is vastly different from the situation in 2005, when Delhi and Washington signed the framework agreement for defence cooperation.
For one, there is a financial imperative that demands India and the US to re-evaluate the current premises of defence cooperation. Delhi, which stares at lower economic growth rates in the coming years and the implications of the recent depreciation of the rupee, needs to get a better defence bang for its buck, develop a more purposeful and cost-conscious approach to military modernisation, and appreciate the importance of long-term defence industrial cooperation with the US.
Washington’s defence planners are confronted, for the first time in decades, with a financial constraint on American national security strategy. The US needs long-term partnerships with countries like India to maintain its defence industrial base as fiscal austerity and the rising cost of arms production bite the Pentagon.
The US faced few threats to its primacy in Asia a decade ago. Today, America finds itself exhausted after two prolonged land wars to India’s west and challenged by the rapid rise of Chinese power to our east. As an anxious Asia looks to the US to restore the balance of power, Washington is scrambling to reinforce its military presence in the Western Pacific. At the annual Shangri-La conference in Singapore over the weekend, Panetta outlined the US plans to deploy more forces in Asia and develop a new doctrine to cope with the assertion of Chinese military power.
Ten years ago, Delhi had every reason to believe its external security environment was a benign one. Today India must cope with the prospects of greater turbulence on its north-western frontiers amidst the downsizing of international military presence in Afghanistan and of the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul with the support of the Pakistan army. Towards its north and east, India will have to deal with the consequences of rising Chinese military power, and to its south, the growing presence of Beijing’s naval power. Delhi can no longer ignore the widening power gap with Beijing. China’s GDP is nearly four times that of India’s and China’s official figure for military expenditure, at more than $100 billion, is more than three times that of India’s.
As China’s rise produces a lasting power shift in Asia as well as the Pacific and Indian Oceans, all nations, big and small, are trying to expand and deepen defence relationships with partners old and new. Neither the world’s sole superpower, the US, nor Asia’s lone ranger, India, can bet on achieving their security objectives on the basis of their own national strength.
As they survey the strategic turbulence in Asia and its waters, three imperatives of security cooperation present themselves to Panetta and his Indian interlocutors. First, India and the US must move away from a buyer-seller relationship on arms transfers and lay the basis for greater defence industrial collaboration, co-production of weapons systems and joint research in advanced areas.
Second, Delhi and Washington have a shared interest in stabilising Afghanistan as its armed forces take responsibility for the security of their nation. Until recently, the US had relied on the Pakistan army to secure its objectives in Afghanistan; today Washington has begun to acknowledge Rawalpindi as a major obstacle to its goals in Afghanistan. India and the US must find ways to coordinate their policies in Afghanistan and institutionalise consultations on the security situation there. Delhi and Washington also have big stakes in nudging Pakistan towards the path of political moderation, economic modernisation and regional integration.
Three, as Asia’s waters become the lifeline for the world’s trade and prosperity, India and the US agree on the importance of working together on maritime security. But they are yet to devise a framework for operational cooperation in the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Finally, India and the US have a common interest in constructing a stable balance of power in Asia. Delhi and Washington must now translate their political declarations into credible security cooperation in the region.
Three and a half years ago, the Obama administration declared the centrality of Pakistan in stabilising Afghanistan and proclaimed a “China-first” policy in Asia. India objected to both the propositions. Much has happened since then to turn those American premises on their head. Washington is a lot more realistic now and is eager to deepen the defence partnership with India. As political India wakes up to a more complex security environment enveloping it, Delhi needs to demonstrate greater pragmatism in enhancing cooperation with Washington.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi
Courtesy: Indian Express