President Barack Obama’s re-election on Wednesday may mean different things to different people but for decision makers both in Washington and New Delhi it provides continuity in their quest to take the Indo-US defence and strategic partnership to the next level.
Both have come a long way from their frosty relationship in the immediate aftermath of India’s twin nuclear tests in the summer of 1998 when Washington imposed severe restrictions against Indian defence and scientific entities. A decade and a half later, US have been actively seeking to establish a much deeper defence and strategic partnership with India to fulfil its own vision for Asia over the next half a century. India is now undoubtedly a major player in US calculus designed to recalibrate its own engagement with Asia.
US effort to woo India as a counter-balance to a more assertive and rapidly rising China is multi-pronged but in the past five years, it has mainly concentrated in providing the Indian military more hardware than it did in the previous 60.
For instance the Indian Navy signed a contract to import the long-range maritime reconnaissance (LRMR) Boeing P8i aircraft; it bought a worn out amphibious ship INS Trenton (since renamed INS Jalashwa). The Indian Air Force has bought the C-130Js medium lift transport aircraft and is awaiting induction of the heavy-duty C-17 aircraft, both from US. US military majors Boeing and Lockheed Martin may have lost the massive 15 billion dollar contract to supply combat jets for the IAF but they are steadily winning substantial orders in India. Chinook and Apache helicopters, the M-777 howitzers are all likely to be inducted into the Indian military in coming years. The Indian armed forces have increasingly undertaken joint exercises with the US military with troops from both sides now even attending several courses in each others’ training institutions.
In President Obama’s second term, Washington may redouble its effort to bring India firmly in the US fold but officials in the strategic and defence establishment are surely aware that such a plan is easier drawn up on paper than implemented in practice given India’s historic reluctance to be seen as a close ally of the United States.
So far New Delhi has adopted a cautious approach to US overtures. India is clearly not in favour of a formal military alliance with the US. That is why US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta on a stopover in Delhi in June during his swing through Asia could not get any commitment out of India’s ultra-cautious defence minister AK Antony.
Panetta had then made a strong pitch for a new beginning for the Indo-US defence partnership. Speaking to an audience at an Indian think-tank, he had said: ““While the U.S. military will remain a global force for security and stability…it will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region. We will also maintain our presence throughout the world. We will do it with innovative rotational deployments that emphasize creation of new partnerships and new alliances.”
As strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan wrote recently: “An alliance with Washington, then, would seem natural for Delhi. But India is concerned about the inconstancy of American policy towards China, the fiscal and political sustainability of the pivot to Asia in Washington. Delhi is acutely aware of the dangers of a potential Sino-U.S. rapprochement that could leave India exposed. It therefore seeks simultaneous expansion of security cooperation with the United States while avoiding a needless provocation of Beijing.”
Apart from unspoken desire in Washington to use India as a counterweight to China, the United States particularly wants New Delhi to get more deeply involved in Afghanistan even as it prepares to draw down from there. India does not mind training more Afghan forces in India but is wary of any military deployment in Afghanistan.
As a result, even as India has agreed to , it has refused to openly back the U.S. lines on the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Although India is aware (and wary) of China’s increasing assertiveness in both expanses of water, it prefers to work with smaller countries in the region – such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia – as well as China to resolve regional tensions.
More fundamentally, the Indian establishment continues to have reservations over the United States itself, doubts born largely from India’s perception of the past half a century that Washington has tended to side with India’s arch rival, Pakistan.
And yet, India’s military realises that it needs Washington’s help in acquiring and mastering more modern military platforms as well as reduce its traditional dependence on Russia for most of its weapons supply. Realising India’s dilemma, Washington has worked overtime to keep India engaged at different levels and has shown patience in its dealing with New Delhi.
The new administration is unlikely to alter this fundamental approach but Washington is sure to quicken the pace of engagement in the months to come even as it finds ways to fine tune its rebalance strategy for Asia amid leadership change in Beijing.