US Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton B Carter's imminent departure from the Obama administration will be a loss for India. He has strongly articulated India's role in the US rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific and vigorously sought to enhance defence cooperation between the two countries, declaring in unambiguous terms that the US goal is "for India to have all the capabilities it needs to meet its security requirements." Sustained efforts by Mr Carter and India's NSA, Shivshankar Menon, salvaged more than anticipated results from the Singh-Obama Summit on September 27, 2013. The challenge now is for both sides to build further on the foundation laid by the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTI).
Defence cooperation, pursued since 2005 under the "New Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship", constitutes a critical component of India-US bilateral ties. Since 2010, it has been buttressed by a range of India-US security dialogues that advance their growing strategic convergences in Asia. The India-US Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation, concluded during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent visit to Washington DC, is thus a logical and welcome extension of the positive trends witnessed in the past decade.
The carefully nuanced terminology of the joint declaration indicates the adjustments that an established power and a rising power are making in their endeavour to develop a long-term partnership. The document states that "The United States and India share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners." Given India's reluctance to join formal alliances, the reference to "closest partners" is understandable. However, for a country that lays strong emphasis on "strategic autonomy" (which is understood in some quarters as implying a certain aloofness from the US), India has travelled a considerable distance. On its part, the US has also signalled accommodation by not accepting this limitation.
This is significant, as US policies impose stringent restraints on defence trade involving non-allies. It is precisely to break free from these conditionalities that the joint declaration specifically affirms that the principle of closest partner "will apply with respect to defence technology transfer, trade, research, co-development and co-production for defence articles and services, including the most advanced and sophisticated technology." Furthermore, the reference to the pursuit of collaborative initiatives "in accordance with national policies and procedures" removes the precondition of "foundational agreements", which India has long resisted.
During his visit to India on September 17-18, 2013, Mr Carter presented a carefully selected menu of ten proposals to India's Defence Ministry for joint development. The US has offered to co-develop the next generation of the Javelin anti-tank missile and surface to air-missile systems. It has also proposed collaboration in the areas of counter-IED technology and individual soldier capabilities. The joint declaration can provide a platform for both countries to collaborate on missile defence systems.
India has been acquiring top-of-the-line US equipment such as C-130J, C-17, and P-8i aircraft, and the volume of India-US defence trade is bound to increase in the near future. India's defence capabilities have been boosted by US deliveries of advanced military hardware, without delays and cost overruns. In these circumstances, the uninspired response to the joint development proposals on the part of India's defence establishment remains perplexing.
While the joint declaration is a significant step, many challenges remain. First, there are still some remnants of old mindsets on both sides which may occasionally hamper decision-making processes. Second, while India is keenly interested in co-development/co-production which can strengthen the indigenisation of defence technologies, this can happen only if India frees its defence industrial sector from self-imposed regulatory constraints, including overdependence on moribund defence PSUs. Third, there is need to ensure that progress on defence co-operation initiatives with India is not impacted by personnel transitions in the Obama administration. On the Indian side, growing financial stringency caused by a weakening economy should make it even more attractive to pursue technology collaborations offered by the US.
Beyond these issues, it is also important to enlarge the nature and scope of India-US defence co-operation. The ten-year Framework initiated in 2005 is focussed substantially on joint military exercises, defence production and procurement. It may be opportune to redefine the US-India defence framework by drawing on the Joint Declaration on Security Co-operation concluded between India and Japan in 2008 and its subsequent Action Plan of 2009. The India-Japan framework provides for multi-level, multi-institutional (2+2) dialogues involving the defence and security establishments of both countries.Moreover, these India-Japan agreements have a geographic focus and clearly defined parameters for action with specific timelines. These elements merit incorporation into the India-US framework. Furthermore, the India-US Framework for Maritime Security Co-operation of 2006 calls on both countries to work towards an agreement on logistics support (LSA), which is yet to be inked. If both countries are to be effective security partners across the Indo-Pacific and the broader Indian Ocean region, an LSA is the logical next step.
Closer India-US defence ties can play an important role in ensuring strategic stability, whether along India's disputed northern borders or for operationalising India's role as a net provider of regional security. There is an inescapable linkage between a robust India-US strategic partnership and China's periodic displays, however slight, of accommodation with India.
A volatile external security environment requires that India must enhance its defence capability. Stress from multiple commitments and budgetary difficulties is propelling the US to seek a defence partnership with India. Recognising the inter-linkages between defence trade and technology collaboration, institutional arrangements among defence forces and security co-operation, it is time for India and the US to move towards full-spectrum defence ties. Targeting a comprehensive defence and security partnership to replace the existing Framework when it expires in 2015 is in the mutual interest of both countries, not least in the light of the Singh-Obama pledge to maintain the transformative nature of US-India relations over the next decade.
Ambassador Hemant Krishan Singh holds the Wadhwani US Chair at ICRIER, New Delhi. Sanjay Pulipaka is Research Fellow with the Chair