How India and the US can do the tango

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War games Indian and American soldiers participate in a joint military exercise in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand

A seismic shift has taken place in the area of India’s defence imports — the US has overtaken Russia as the No. 1 arms supplier to the world’s No. 1 arms importer. What was unthinkable just a decade ago has turned into a torrent, with India buying weapons worth Rs 32,615 crore from the US during the past three years, leaving Russia in second spot at Rs 25,364 crore.

The deals include 12 C-130J Super Hercules aircraft, 10 C-17 Globemaster- III strategic airlift aircraft and eight P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft. The US has also got the green light to supply 22 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift choppers worth Rs 15,000 crore to the IAF. The deal could get bigger if the army’s proposal to acquire 39 Apaches gets the nod.

Defence ties with the US are not limited to arms imports. India’s military trains — and conducts highly publicised air combat exercises — more often with the Americans than anybody else. This is despite India having a strategic partnership, both bilaterally and through the powerful BRICS group, with Russia.

While both countries have come a long way from the deep freeze of the Cold War, India-US ties are hardly a game-changer on the geopolitical chessboard. Rather than a strategic partnership, it is a rightsizing of a formerly frayed relationship.

Narendra Modi and Barack Obama have agreed to reinvigorate the political-military dialogue in the areas of export licensing, defence cooperation and strategic cooperation. But it remains to be seen if this is just a polite send-off or whether there is a finer print that ramps up the relationship to the India-Russia bilateral level. Modi and Obama say they will make the India-US partnership a “model for the rest of the world”, but in reality the relationship is a classic case of ‘I scratch your back, you scratch mine’.

India: Swing state

Air supply India has inked a deal to buy US choppers, including the Apache combat helicopter, Photo: AFP
Air supply India has inked a deal to buy US choppers, including the Apache combat helicopter, Photo: AFP

If morning shows the day, the 21st century will not be America’s. As the world turns multi-polar, the US finds itself in an unfamiliar environment where it is not only having to face off old rival Russia and reckon with new challenger China, it is facing the nightmarish scenario of Moscow and Beijing joining forces.

The rise of nationalism in Japan — where PM Shinzo Abe wants to pursue an independent foreign policy not tied to Washington’s coattails — has also got the US looking for new strategic partners.

In the backdrop of the demise of Pax Americana, policy wonks Richard Fontaine and Daniel M Kliman describe India as a “global swing state”. Such a state possesses a large and growing economy, occupies a central position in a region or stands at the hinge of multiple regions. In an interview to the Seattle-based National Bureau of Asian Research, they say alliances with swing states can “deliver a geopolitical pay-off” because the choices these nations make may “decisively influence the course of world affairs”.

If that is the definition of a global swing state, then India relishes that role. Earlier this year, it unequivocally supported Crimea’s reunification with Russia. Again, as a member of the BRICS group, India backed Russian diplomacy that blocked a US assault on Syria. New Delhi also ticked off the Australian foreign minister for suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin be banned from the G-20 summit to be held in Brisbane.

Again, India’s lone dissenting vote that stalled WTO talks this year is yet another — welcome — sign that the country is growing a spine after decades of deference to one and all.

During his address at the UN General Assembly, Modi had brought up the topic of UN reforms, with the specific reference that India has a billion people but no permanent seat at the Security Council. The US has said — on several occasions — that it will help India get a seat at the high table, but the question is, should that be India’s aim?

The UN is an organisation that is past its use-by date and is reduced to a talking shop. These days, the G-20, BRICS and NATO are getting things done. India’s entry into the Security Council as a permanent member will raise the question: why leave out Japan, Germany and Brazil or even Egypt and South Africa?

Those who try to assess the state of India-US relations by looking at bilateral defence ties miss the real nature and causes of these engagements.

The cascade of arms from the US is happening because India does not want to be dependent on a sole supplier. The erratic supply of spare parts for the military became such a serious issue after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that India has been on a diversification spree since then.

For India’s armed forces, joint exercises are an opportunity to train with the technologically advanced American armed forces. But such exercises can sometimes backfire. America’s primary interest in training with India’s armed forces seems to be to find out how its hardware stacks up against the latest Russian-built weapons. Indian military officers who come in contact with US defence personnel may even be compromised by American intelligence agencies.

Therefore, the part of the joint statement that says the two nations are “committed to enhancing exchanges of civilian and military intelligence and consultation” is dangerous. Indian counter- intelligence agents, who were sent to study in the US as part of a joint war on terror, are considered compromised as at least one of them — Rabindra Singh of RAW — became a double agent and was exfiltrated out of India by the CIA.

US whistleblower Edward Snowden has revealed that American spying on India — including the ruling BJP — has been on the upswing. India knows this — when the IAF trains with the Americans and British, its Sukhoi-30MKI pilots are under orders not to use the aircraft’s radar, so as to prevent them from estimating its range and spectrum of capabilities.

Following Snowden’s tip that the National Security Agency conducts a bigger espionage programme against India than on Russia or China, Indian Embassy employees in Washington started using manual typewriters instead of computers to compose sensitive messages.

Weapons: Try before you buy

US weapons are suddenly the favourite toys of the Indian military brass. But in its zeal to diversify from Russian sources, India shouldn’t go overboard. American weapons, for all their stellar performance on CNN, are not always what they are cracked up to be.

If the recent crash of a Super Hercules jet on a training mission wasn’t bad enough, a report by the Pentagon testing office says the Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft — which the Indian Navy operates — “is not effective for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission and is not effective for wide area anti-submarine search”. Flaws in the aircraft are almost everywhere: radar, sensor integration and data transfer.

It is worth noting that the success of US weapons has come against poorly trained and relatively small defending forces such as those of Iraq, Serbia and Libya. On the other hand, India’s armed forces have used Russian weapons with spectacular results against Pakistan’s USsupplied military.

India must, therefore, be wary of buying weapons that may have limited utility and questionable effectiveness against the likes of China, which has got the deadly accurate S-400 missile, the Su-35 super-manoeuverable fighter-bomber and other high-octane gear from Russia.

According to Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Foundation, India’s weak spot is defence acquisition and that is where US expertise can come in. “The Indian weapons acquisition system is badly fragmented — leading to arming without aiming,” he writes. “The US cannot fix the system, but it can share more widely its expertise in defence planning and acquisition. This can increasingly be done through the private sector — although it is important to keep in mind that this will not guarantee large defence sales.

“The US should bring Indian defence personnel into its system to experience it, and to share India’s best practices. These do exist: India does well in producing more rumble for rupee in space and missile technology, for example. Indian space and nuclear experts believe they can help the US develop missile and even reactor technology, and such offers should be taken seriously, with the US adjusting its own technology restraint regimes to benefit from the high quality and low cost of sourcing from India.”

Managing China and Pakistan

Many Indians believe the US can help in containing China. But since 2012, when India’s Agni-V nuclear-tipped ballistic missile got every inch of Chinese territory in its range, the Chinese have started talking about India-China “being the most important partnership of the 21st century”. A few more sea-launched ballistic missiles and a couple of nuclear-armed mountain divisions, and Beijing will come running to the negotiating table. So India doesn’t need the US to “manage” China.

According to Wang Jisi, the dean of the School of International Studies, Peking University, after decades of trying to contain India and having failed, China now wants a reset with India. Plus, the rise of Islamic terror in China through Uighurs trained in — where else — Pakistan has got the Chinese thinking. The communists have realised belatedly that the Faustian bargain they struck with Islamabad is coming to haunt them. “We have to fend off extreme Islamic terrorism from getting into China from Pakistan,” says Wang.

If the US is sincere about having a strategic partnership – forget the chimera of friendship – with India, then Washington has to help India dismantle the dysfunctional state of Pakistan.

Anyone who says a stable Pakistan is good for India is living in cuckooland. The DNA of the Pakistani military leadership — now turning jihadi — is opposed to any overtures to India. Only if the country is broken up into three separate entities — Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab — and the Pakhtoon areas merged with Afghanistan will we finally see peace on our western borders.

What Modi’s visit may have achieved is recharge a listless relationship. His rockstar performance at Madison Square Garden coming on the back of the other Indian icon, Mangalyaan, has sent India’s rating in the US into the stratosphere. The two nations may not agree on many issues, but if the US can stop spying on us and if we ignore their slumdog jokes, perhaps the two can finally tango.

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