India’s proximity to America — A marriage of convenience

The Pentagon was pulled up last week by a powerful US Senate panel for not appointing its point person for India to coordinate and expedite bilateral defence cooperation. The panel also labelled India as America’s key security partner. The ‘Senate Armed Services Committee’ in its report running into more than 600 pages has voiced concern over the growing gap between the overarching goals of the Indo-US defence ties.

Of course, a point person in the Pentagon would help to better cement Indo-US defence ties, but India-US defence relationship has travelled miles and miles already to be throttled by a few institutional bottlenecks. As compared to 1990s when the defence relationship between India and the US was actually aimed at containing India in South Asia, today we are one of the largest importers of American defence equipment and conduct the widest series of military exercises with each other. A mechanism to transfer defence technology to India is also in the pipeline. We have signed LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) with each other for reciprocal logistic support, supplies and services for activities such as joint exercises, training or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

While everything seems delightful, we should keep in mind that there is a basic institutional reluctance in the United States in terms of defence technology transfer to India or even their closest allies like the United Kingdom. For instance, the Royal Navy had to design its own nuclear ballistic missile capable submarines because the Americans denied sharing of the technology with them. It is evident that the US would accept the transfer of defence technology that corresponds to the period of the 1960s or 1970s, such as the F-16 fighter jets. But it should also be remembered that in many areas new starts have been made in technology transfer, such as aircraft carrier manufacturing. Therefore, outright rejection of America’s inability for a flat transfer of technology may not be justified.

As of now, the Trump Administration seems dysfunctional at the level of appointments at significant positions due to domestic jostling against the President and his alleged Russian connections. It has failed to appoint the plum book postings i.e. the appointments at the higher hierarchy of administration. For instance, it is lagging in appointments to positions such as Assistant Secretary of State, Country Director, Desk Officer or even a point person for India in the Commerce Department. Therefore, it is quite intriguing to see why the Senate Panel specifically lashed out at the Pentagon for non-appointment of a point person for India. It can be assumed that the defence lobbies are pushing the Congress to manoeuvre the Trump Administration for appointing a point person for India at the Pentagon so that the pending defence sales can be cleared and the new ones can be negotiated.

The Indo-US relationship is also analysed through the lens of our convergence of interests against the rise of China. Hence, the Malabar Exercises are principally directed at China as the idea has always been to contain China because it is the primary threat that everybody envisages not just in the present times but in future as well. A growing China would become a threat to India’s supremacy at the Indian Ocean, therefore, the 2017 edition of Malabar Exercise focused on anti-submarine warfare. It should be noted that when the exercise was being pursued in the Indian Ocean, there was a surge of Chinese submarines (both nuclear and non-nuclear) into the Indian Ocean. The littoral states of Indian Ocean are concerned about China’s confrontational outlook in the region, therefore India should look for converting the trilateral (India-Japan-US) Malabar Exercise into a multilateral one that includes other regional powers as well as the smaller countries of the region, such as Australia and Indonesia, and Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and Philippines. These countries are seeking to bolster their security apparatus against Chinese belligerence at the international waters, and the Malabar Exercise can provide them with this necessary confidence as it the premier joint-military exercise of Asia-Pacific region. It is worth noting that the recently conducted Malabar Exercise is precisely the reason why China is pushing the buttons of India’s military and tactical strength at the Doklam plateau near India-China-Bhutan trijunction.

While we are coming close to the United States due to common interests, we shall not forget that the United States does not deal with any ally or partner as an equal. The only equal nations that it deals with are rivals like Russia and China. Therefore, India is unlikely to be treated differently, other than a client state. This means that the moment a country becomes dependent on American defence technology; it ends up being hostage to their policies guided by their whims and fancies.

To India’s comfort, it is quite evident that we are not looking for an alliance with the United States. This cooperation is apparently a marriage of convenience which happens due to the convergence of interests such as defence, terrorism and trade. It should be noted that renowned business consultant Jagdish Sheth from Emory University has predicted India as the largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment in the coming years. This shows a huge market potential for American products which means another major convergence of interests for them towards India. Therefore, India is not seeking an ally status with anyone, but it is building its own comprehensive national power in terms of health, education, economic and military spheres. It is apparent that India has never worked as an ally or a client state for anyone and the legacy will be continued in the future also, irrespective of Government at the helm.

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