Implications of Obama’s Visit on Indo-US Defence and Security Cooperation
There appears to be a cognizable vibrant shift towards an equitable partnership based relationship between India and the US after Narendra Modi’s maiden visit to the US as the Prime Minister of India. This raised new hopes and expectations that the Indo-US defence collaboration under the auspices of the strategic cooperation would reach to greater heights beginning with the last two years of Obama administration under the stewardship of PM Modi. Their first joint statement in September 2014 placed defence cooperation as the staple aspect of the bilateral relationship.
The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review cited India as one of the anchors for ensuring regional security and helping the US manage tensions and prevent conflict in the Asia Pacific on issues ranging from humanitarian assistance to maritime security to counterterrorism. It underscored the importance of India’s rise for the United States as an increasingly capable actor in the region, and the deepening bilateral strategic partnership was made evident through the through the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI).
On the occasion when India showcases the pride and might of its armed forces, defence security cooperation emerged as the keyword of the second visit of the POTUS. President Obama and Prime Minister Modi took the bilateral defence ties to a “new level”, by renewing the 10-year Defence Framework Agreement that was signed in the year 2005 by the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his American counterpart Donald Rumsfeld. While Obama sat bewildered witnessing the India’s advertisement of its military might in the Republic Day parade, he agreed in principle to pursue joint development and production projects under DTTI, which could become the hallmark of the Modi government’s ‘Make-in-India’ initiative. This includes the next generation Raven mini UAVs and specialised kits for C-130 military transport aircraft, explore aircraft carrier technology besides designing and development of jet engine technology, mobile electric hybrid power source and Uniform Integrated Protection Ensemble Increment. This also paved the way for a new framework that will enhance joint military exercises, more in-depth intelligence-sharing, increase bilateral anti-terror cooperation, maritime security efforts among others, upgrade India’s domestic defence industry and expand the manufacturing sector in India.
The show-stopper was the clearing up of the logjam in operationalizing the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, by resolving the key hurdles pertaining to the liability of suppliers of nuclear reactors in the event of an accident and the tracking of fuel supplied by the US. India and the US have proposed a pool of 1500 crore rupees to offset the liabilities in case of a nuclear accident, one half of which would be provided by the government of India and the other half by five insurance companies to guarantee companies that build reactors in the country. The US on the other hand made a noteworthy concession to withdraw its demand to "monitor in perpetuity" any nuclear material it sold to India.
A Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region has also been signed by the two leaders, besides advancing their shared security and prosperity in this critical region, also sends a clear signal to China against its objective of dominating Asia. In keeping up with international law, as well as sharing a common assessment on China, both upheld freedom of navigation especially in the South China Sea.
The reactions to this visit in India’s immediate neighbourhood were certainly restrained with feelings of enmity and antagonism. China with its usual abhorrence towards the warming up of Indo-US relations remarked President Obama’s visit to New Delhi was being more ‘symbolic than pragmatic’ and revealed a ‘superficial rapprochement’ between the two countries. Remarking the US ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy as unsuccessful, and focusing on the continued brawl, between India and the US, at the WTO and the UNFCCC platforms, revealed Chinese pessimism and envy of strengthening Indo-US ties. Pakistan on the other hand, already upset with the Indo-US friendship, has found itself in the rich arms of expansionist and aggressive China, so much so, the latter called it as ‘an-irreplaceable-all-weather-friend’. Dreadful of India’s massive acquisition of weapons from the US, Pakistan feared it would contribute to the ‘conventional asymmetry and strategic instability’ in South Asia. This is a vivid reaction of bitterness to gather some media attention, amidst the heights of cordiality to Obama in India.
While the Indo-US defence ties are not aimed at building any containment schemes, it is unquestionably aimed towards capacity building and maintenance of domestic and international peace and security. With a new Republican-dominated Congress, the Indo-US defence cooperation seems to be an extremely vital subject, at least till the end of the next Presidency or even beyond, especially with John McCain as the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has called for an intensified cooperation with India making defence the area of priority.
However, certain hindrances need to be cleared amidst this background of optimism. Some of these include India’s refusal to sign the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) – the two agreements that are vital for technology transfer according to the American laws.
In all, Obama’s tryst with India, in a limited sense means a strengthened relationship with India, giving the latter a geopolitical strategic space against problematic neighbours. On the broader side it has set the stage for the never-ending-best-times in the bilateral relationship between India and the US, with compatibility at the levels of government, administration and people.
Simi Mehta is a Ph.D, Scholar at the American Studies Division of the Centre for Canadian, United States and Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi.