Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera was in India on August 19 and 20. A day after his departure Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe began a four-day trip to India. US Defence Secretary James Mattis will visit India along with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the first week of September to meet with their Indian counterparts, Nirmala Sitharaman and Sushma Swaraj, for the 2+2 India-US talks. Too much should not be read into the bunching of these important visits. In all likelihood they occurred so close to each other because of the scheduling compulsions of important and busy ministers. There is, however, little doubt these three visits indicate that a game of nations is in play with India occupying an important role.
Discussions between countries in sensitive areas such as defence and security usually indicate that they are serious about either upgrading ties or resolving contentious geo-political issues. At times, countries begin tentative conversations in these areas to test waters but that is not the case in the current Asian game involving India, China, Japan and, among others, the US. This game is taking place within the overall framework of the rise of China, certainly one of the most significant geo-political features of our times. All major powers, including the Asian giants, are seeking to ensure that their interests are not, or least, impacted as China spreads its wings.
The US-Japan alliance continues to be strong. Both have robust economic and commercial ties with China but do not want its dominance in the Indo-Pacific region to grow so much as to undermine their standing in the region. China is aware that it has very little opportunity to create a divide between the US and Japan. India is in a completely different position altogether. It has an abiding tradition of maintaining its strategic autonomy even as it has shed its inhibitions of developing comprehensive ties with the US and its allies in Asia. It is here that China wants to calibrate its relations with India so as to ensure that it does not fully join the US to contain its rise. It is seeking to assure India that even while there are major issues between them, especially the disputed border, it wants peace to prevail and the ambit of cooperation to increase.
Wei Fenghe's visit is to follow up with concrete mechanisms the understanding that was reached between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi at Wuhan earlier this year. They had agreed that India-China differences should be contained; a Doklam like situation should not develop again. Modi received Wei on August 21. He told him that differences should not become disputes and the maintenance of peace and tranquillity along the border would underline the maturity of both countries. Enhanced interaction between the defence establishments of both countries, including through exercises, would be useful. At the same time, India cannot be complacent and must be ever wary about China's intentions and watchful about its actions for China has shown no real intent to settle the border issue.
India should have no reluctance in developing defence and security ties with Japan. In the context of China, the interests of the two countries coincide in Asia. Japan also wants now to comprehensively move ahead with India. India is the only non-NPT country with which Japan has now a civil nuclear agreement. It has had to overlook India's nuclear weapon status to do so. That is a sign of Japanese interest in India. Now the stage is set for closer defence ties and to negotiate the agreements necessary to do so.
India-US defence ties have grown exponentially over the past fifteen years. They include India's purchases of defence equipment, possibilities of joint manufacture of weapon systems and exercises and other exchanges between the defence forces. Over the past decade India has cumulatively purchased around US $ 15 billion worth of US systems. The US designated India as a major defence partner in 2016. Earlier in 2012 the two countries signed a Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) to pave the way for greater flows of sensitive equipment and technology to India.
The US has a legal structure beginning with three 'foundational' agreements which taken together seek to go beyond ensuring that its supplied technology and equipment does not leak. It also wishes that its major defence partners align their interests and world view to its own. This is naturally problematic for India. India is proceeding slowly with this legal architecture which envisages three agreements. India has till now signed only one of three agreements and negotiated an India specific version. According to Professor Stobdan, a leading Indian security studies academic, the generic Logistics Support Agreement which the US signs with its allies is to "facilitate each other sides military operations including basing arrangements". However, its India specific version the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) does not give any base rights. It only permits limited access to some facilities for provision of fuel during exercises, port calls or operations connected with disaster relief.
The US needs to give up its desire that India should downgrade its defence ties with Russia which will remain an important source of defence technology and equipment for the foreseeable future. There is no doubt that if flexibility is shown by the US India specific variants of other agreements can be evolved that will permit India-US defence ties to grow. That would be in the interest of both countries which have some significant shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region.