James Mattis’ India Visit: Deepening India-US Defense Cooperation

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September 26-28 India visit of Jim Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense was the first high level visit under the Trump administration. He had extensive talks with his counterpart Nirmala Sithraman, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Before leaving for India, the Pentagon in a briefing had said that the “United States views India as a valued and influential partner, with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia.” From his joint press conference with Sitharaman, it could be discerned that there is convergence of issues between India and the US ranging from bilateral defense cooperation to Indo-Pacific to Afghanistan. It may be recalled that in a bid to strengthen bilateral defense and security cooperation, the Obama administration had designated India as a ‘Major Defense Partner.’ Will Mattis take this partnership to the next level? Will President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ be a rider to some of the potential technology transfers to India?

Defense partnership

Ever since the signing of the New Framework for the India-U.S. Defense Relationship in 2005, which was renewed for another ten years in 2015, and the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in 2012, India-US defense ties have expanded exponentially. In 2016 defense trade reached $15 billion, making India the largest buyer of the US equipments. The US supplied India 3 C-130 Hercules aircraft, 10 C-17 Globemaster, 12 P-8 Poseidon aircraft, and 22 AH-64 Apache and 15 CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Deals have been signed to supply 145 M777 Howitzer guns to India, and there are talks for selling F-16 Block 70 combat aircraft and the predator drones.

Notwithstanding the procurement list, New Delhi knows that mere acquisition will not work, if India has to modernize its armed forces and create its own defense industrial complex. The time looks opportune as many US defense companies have shown interest in investing in India. Lockheed Martin has signed a deal with Tata to manufacture F-16 in India. Since the Modi Government has offered preferential policies to foreign companies as regards its ‘Make in India’ initiative, there are possibilities of technology transfer. This could also be gleaned from the press statement of Ms Sitharaman, when she said, “I appreciated Secretary Mattis’ willingness to share further cutting-edge platforms which would enhance India’s defense preparedness to meet current and emerging threats. Secretary Mattis and I agreed that we need to expand on the progress already made by encouraging co-production and co-development efforts.”

However, in the face of president Trump’s ‘America First’ campaign, the transfer could be difficult. For example, two components of the foundational agreements – Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) which the US was keen to sign with India during the Obama administration might never be signed under the Trump administration. Similarly, projects under the US-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) may not see light at the end of the tunnel owing to inherent contradictions between India as a ‘Major Defense Partner’ and ‘Trump wanting to ‘make America great again’! Whether we blame it on the bureaucracy or trust deficit between India and the US, procrastination and to be able to identify the areas of cooperation, especially joint production demonstrates that it is a difficult goal to achieve.

Indo-Pacific

With the rise of China, its reclamation of the islands in the South China Sea of which the US was a helpless moot spectator, its forays and building of soft and hard infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, Indo-Pacific has emerged as one of the most important theatres of contest between various powers. It is the China factor in this area, which has brought together the US, India, Japan and possibly Australia. Inclusion of Japan in the Malabar naval exercises, and probably Australia in future shows the evolution of new contours in the region. As expected, India and the US reiterated the freedom of navigation, over flight and unimpeded lawful commerce. Secretary Mattis resonated it by saying that “a peaceful and prosperous future in the Indo-Pacific region is based on a strong rules-based international order and a shared commitment to international law, to peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for territorial integrity.”  While appreciating India’s ‘stabilizing role in the Indian Ocean’ the US deems it fir for India to have “a vital role to play in supporting Southeast Asia’s regional institutions, particularly in ASEAN and in building partner capacity across the region.”

Here again, irrespective of India and the US terming cooperation in maritime security as a lynchpin of their strategic partnership, the progress is slow. It appears that the response is in reaction to China’s creations of hard and soft infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific, from South China Sea to Gwadar to Djibouti in the form of various free trade agreements and port development. The Indo-Japanese Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, the revival of the ‘New Silk Road’ and the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor linking South and Southeast Asia thought to be counter to China ‘Belt and Road’ initiative are shrouded in uncertainties, for lack of political will and economic support.

Afghanistan issue

With the unfolding of Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy in which he has asked India to play bigger role along with the US beefing up its military presence. While sending Indian forces to Afghanistan has been completely ruled out by the Indian Defense Minister, however, in the spirit of 2011 Strategic Partnership Agreement, and the recently issued Joint Statement on the 2nd meeting of the Strategic Partnership Council between India and Afghanistan, it could be gleaned that India remains committed to build capacities in Afghanistan. It ranges from training Afghan army and police in India to build infrastructure in the war torn country. Both have agreed to take up 116 High Impact Community Development Projects to be implemented in 31 provinces of Afghanistan, including in the areas of education, health, agriculture, irrigation, drinking water, renewable energy, flood control, micro-hydropower, sports infrastructure, administrative infrastructure.

Under the $ 3 billion grant-in aid assistance from India, some of the new projects included in the joint statement are Shahtoot dam and drinking water project for Kabul, low cost housing for returning Afghan refugees in Nangarhar Province, road connectivity to Band-e-Amir in Bamyan Province, water supply network for Charikar city in Parwan Province, establishment of a Gypsum board manufacturing plant in Kabul, and construction of a polyclinic in Mazar-e-Sharif. These developments demonstrate that India’s engagement in Afghanistan would be on India’s own terms, albeit it would leverage its ties with Iran and Russia in building a better security environment in the region.

Undoubtedly, India-US relations are on upward trajectory as far as defense cooperation is concerned. However, there remain uncertainties, and we must not forget the US president Donald Trump accusing India demanding billions of dollars for compliance with the Paris Climate Change Accord. He has already accused Indians for robbing jobs from the US. Will the transfer of technology not rob these jobs? On the issue of Afghanistan too, India needs to watch out for the SCO action plan. Once Afghanistan is brought to the SCO folds, the hope for a regional solution will on the table.