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A New Chapter in Waiting?


Amidst the publicity spin surrounding PM Modi’s foreign visits, it is prudent to ask if Indo-US relations have achieved the momentum worth mentioning R D Kaushik reports
R D KAUSHIK | Issue Dated: July 5, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Prime Minister Narendra Modi |

India is seen to be warming up to US as Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the US Congress on 8 June 2016 during his fourth visit after coming to power in May 2014. And even as two US lawmakers have introduced a legislation in the US House of Representatives to designate India as a Special Global Partner of America, analysts here are not sure whether the Modi- led government has eventually led India into the US fold, making a paradigm shift in India's foreign and defence policy.

A large perception has emerged that there's a tighter US embrace than what has existed hitherto, or so it seems from Modi's address. Though it is unlikely that the "very great closeness" will be implemented very seriously in practice.

A former Additional Finance Secretary of MOD says, "India does seem to be tilting towards US in recent years. In so far as defence is concerned, the only concrete result has been a substantial increase in import of defence equipment from US through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route. There has been enhanced cooperation in areas such as counter-terrorism but co-development and co-production projects are yet to take off in a big way."

India in the past has tried to remain equidistant between Russia and US and has attempted not to annoy China with which it fought a brief battle in 1962 and has failed to resolve the boundary issue running into thousands of kilometres. Has India abandoned this equidistant position under the Modi government? Defence analyst Praakull k Singh maintains, "That appears to be so. Again, this would appear to be more rhetoric and audience-pleasing statements than realizable goals simply because otherwise India would face unbearable strains in relations with Russia, and costs too, especially if the Russian supply and military R&D cooperation connection eroded significantly." The warming up of ties with US under the Modi regime is likely to evoke concern from Moscow – one of the traditional and main suppliers of weapons and equipment to India. "In fact, Moscow has conveyed Russian apprehensions (of India attempting closer ties with Washington) in no uncertain terms to the Ministry of External Affairs," says an expert. However a former MOD top brass says, "There is no question of why Russia should be miffed at the warm welcome accorded to Prime Minister Modi in the US. India’s relations with US are independent of our relations with Russia, just as US’s relations with China are independent of those with China."

Some analysts here say India and US should have inked the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) during Modi's visit, which had been agreed in principle during US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter's visit to India in April 2016 this year, when he repeatedly expressed his appreciation for both India generally and Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar specifically.

A formal agreement when inked will allow India access to supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports, which can then be reimbursed, added the MoD source.

While no Ministry of Defence official would comment officially if the LEMOA draft has been finalized, an official of the Ministry of External Affairs said that the draft has been frozen during the Obama-Modi meeting.

"The fact that LEMOA was not signed (during Modi's current visit to US) indicates that there continue to be many differences in the perception by two sides on the issue," says Onkar Singh, retired Indian Army Brigadier and defence analyst.

With US support, India is now more confident of getting membership of the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) club and the  Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in the future. These will enable India to acquire armed, high-altitude, long endurance (HALE) drones. India has been in talks with the US for acquiring Predator drones too.

"The US administration is really pulling out all stops to make India a part of major world groupings such as the NSG; and this exemplifies the personal investment made by both heads of state in strengthening the bilateral relationship. With India's imminent inclusion in the MTCR fold, several US technologies and platforms could be made available and India will have to decide on them sooner rather than later," said A K Gupta, defence analyst with E&Y India.

US experts observed that Modi's visit is “a culmination of what Obama has tried to do since he came into office," adding that “executive branch to executive branch — that is a dramatic transformation of where the US today sees India as a security partner of choice in the broader Indo-Pacific region."

According to media reports, Frank Wisner, an ambassador to India under President Clinton, said that for all these reasons, the barriers to the relationship are no longer political, but based only on bureaucracy for the US and defence budgets for India. “This is one of the biggest, fastest moving defence relationships in the world, period," said Wisner, now with the international law firm Squire Patton Boggs. He added later: "We have an interest in an India that is robustly armed. India is not a predatory power, and she is big enough and important enough that she helps anchor the balance of power in Asia. A good relationship with India is part of a good relationship with China." A domestic defence expert concurs, “Indian interests and American interests fundamentally converge with respect to China. Obama understands China is really the big game the US has to get right, and I think it’s in that context that the relationship in India is viewed today. And that will outlast President Obama — whomever the next president is won’t be able to avoid the China problem.”

Given that focus, it is no surprise that the Pentagon has grown increasingly open to technological development programs with India.

The core of the technology relationship between the two nations is the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), a specialized program launched in 2012 and championed by Carter, then deputy defence secretary.

India is seeking help from the US in two major areas: engine technology for its proposed homegrown advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA), and an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) for the proposed indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vishal. The two nations have also agreed to a series of “pathfinder” programs, small-money co-development programs that analysts view as more symbolic than game changing.

But the biggest opportunity for the nations to work together is on the horizon. After years of false starts, including the cancellation last year of the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program, the Modi government hopes to select a new fighter jet design to provide the backbone to the Indian Air Force. Both Lockheed Martin and Boeing have teams in India pitching the F-16V and F/A-18 designs, respectively. While both fighters lost out under the MMRCA program, where the criteria was largely focused on price, the Modi government appears to be operating under new requirements, giving hope to the American firms.

"If India selects an American fighter, it would change the relationship between US and Indian industry,” says Saurabh Shukla, a defence analyst. The game changes because then we will have major defence cooperation on a scale we have never seen with the US.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017