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Baby steps forward in US-India defence ties

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

Narendra Modi, Barack Obama
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington

The US-India defence relationship may turn out to be fruitful in the middle-to-long term, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington this week has more intentions than tangible outcomes.

Without any high-visibility signings of agreements and contracts, the two sides apparently resorted to diplomatic subterfuge to make an agreement under negotiation appear like a major step forward.

The US-India joint statement "welcomed the decision to renew for 10 more years the 2005 Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship". No new agreement has been negotiated so far; this is only a decision to renew the old agreement that expires on June 27, 2015.

The renewal of a framework agreement is, in fact, a routine matter. In 1995, Washington and New Delhi signed an "Agreed Minute on Defence Relations", which was valid for 10 years. When that expired in 2005, the two sides signed the "New Defence Framework Agreement". With that expiring next year, negotiations are under way on a new 10-year pact that will run till 2025.

The decision to renew the pact, and even the negotiation of a draft, began well before the prime minister's visit to the US. As reported in Business Standard ("Belying optimism, US-India defence cooperation struggles", September 26), New Delhi had kicked off negotiations in August by initiating a draft that proposed the wording of the new agreement.

The US has responded, with wording of its own. Business Standard learns from sources close to the negotiations that there are significant differences over the draft agreement. While India proposed that the new framework agreement should use very similar wording as the 2005 agreement, Washington is loath to sign an agreement without guarantees of delivery.

The 2005 agreement enjoined both sides to collaborate in 13 specific areas, including: participation in multinational operations; expanding two-way defence trade; expanding collaboration on missile defence; conducting exchanges on defence strategy; and increasing intelligence cooperation. Much of this was anathema for the United Progressive Alliance defence minister, A K Antony. Consequently, chunks of the 2005 agreement existed only on paper.

Responding to frustration within the Pentagon, Washington has signalled it wants a realistic agreement, including a schedule for reviewing outcomes.

There is frustration that the Defence Policy Group - an apex US-India body that is co-chaired by the US defence secretary and India's defence minister - has not met since February 2012. Washington and New Delhi had an understanding that the DPG would meet at least annually.

The DPG is now scheduled to meet in the fourth week of October, with the draft agreement included on the agenda. However, this meeting, too, has the threat of cancellation looming over it due to Defence Minister Arun Jaitley's illness.

Jaitley's visit to Washington this week, in his capacity as finance minister, has already been cancelled.

There is scepticism, too, over the joint statement's intention to "reinvigorate the Political-Military Dialogue and expand its role to serve as a wider dialogue on export licensing, defense cooperation and strategic cooperation."

For years, the Antony defence ministry had refused to take ownership of the political-military dialogue, palming it off to the ministry of external affairs (MEA). For the last several months, the MoD has had no joint secretary in charge of international cooperation - the chair remains empty even today.

On the positive side, there is reaffirmation that both sides would "treat each other at the same level as their closest partners." America's defence relations with country partners vary, depending upon the categorisation allocated to that country. Pakistan, for example, is a "major non-NATO ally", which allows it to receive various categories of defence equipment from the US.

New Delhi's aversion to alliances has defied easy categorisation of the US-India relationship. It has been affirmed that India will enjoy the status of America's closest allies, like the UK and Australia, but without being categorised as an ally.

Hopes for rejuvenating the US-India defence relationship centres mainly on the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). Under this, the Pentagon has made a dozen proposals to the MoD, offering to co-manufacture and co-develop modern defence equipment with India. During Modi's visit to Washington, the two sides decided "to establish a Task Force to expeditiously evaluate and decide on unique projects and technologies which would have a transformative impact on bilateral defense relations".

New Delhi has signalled an unusually forthright convergence with Washington in the Indo-Pacific. The joint statement cites India's "Act East" policy and America's "rebalance to Asia", and "affirm(s) the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea."

Tantalisingly, the two sides "agreed to upgrade their existing bilateral exercise MALABAR (sic)." It remains unclear whether the "upgrade" would be in purely military terms, or a political upgrade with the bilateral Malabar exercise taking on a multilateral character. In 2007, China had objected when four countries - Australia, India, Japan and the US - had participated in Malabar.

The US committed to facilitating India's admission into all four global technology control regimes - the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. The joint statement says, "The (US) President affirmed that India meets MTCR requirements and is ready for membership in the NSG. He supported India's early application and eventual membership in all four regimes."

There remains a key divergence: New Delhi believes its impeccable non-proliferation credentials merit simultaneous membership of the four regimes. Washington, however, continues to adopt a step-by-step approach.

However, the right buttons were pressed for New Delhi with the statement, "The (US) President reaffirmed his support for a reformed UN Security Council with India as a permanent member."

First Published: Fri, October 03 2014. 00:48 IST