Indo-US Strategic relations


Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

The problem in a relationship with an unequal partner is that the weaker side always ends up doing more to keep the ball rolling. Such is the nature of the India-US relations, where Washington, with a global role, needs to balance its world-wide imperatives with a bilateral relationship with the US as a stand-alone achievement which could propel it onto the world stage. It is axiomatic that in such a relationship, India will sulk more than the US can care about. The deeper trouble is that India, over an extended period of time, will find it increasingly difficult to balance the relationship as it will not know how to retain its status, and importantly its security against China, without the US. And this is the biggest drawback of the unequal partnership which started with the 14 rounds of Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott interaction after the 1998 nuclear tests. The aim of the talks was both to understand each other’s concerns better, and to arrive at a mutually acceptable outcome. India’s main reason for nuclear tests was its security concern regarding China. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee wrote as much in his letter to President Bill Clinton, and Jaswant Singh, in his first meeting, told Strobe Talbott. The US, on the other hand, could not allow India to undertake nuclear weaponization, and more tests, to build a minimal credible deterrence meant for China, as this would tear its non-proliferation policy to shreds, and according to the US, result in an unstable relationship between India, China and Pakistan bringing the region closer to a nuclear war. The answer found was that India and the US become ‘natural allies.’ The Bush administration’s National Security Strategy 2002 elaborated upon the phrase by saying that ‘We share an interest in creating a strategically stable Asia.’ But, the question is, who would seek to destabilise Asia?

Writing in the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine (January-February 2000 issue), Condoleezza Rice, who would a year later become US national security advisor, put her anti-China sentiments in a pro-Indian contest: ‘What we do know is that China is great power with unresolved vital interests, particularly concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea. China resents the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. This means that China is not a status-quo power but one that would like to alter Asia’s balance of power in its won favour. That alone makes it a strategic-competitor and not a strategic-partner. China’s success in controlling the balance of power depends in large part on America’s reaction to the challenge. The United States must deepen its co-operation with Japan and South Korea and maintain its commitment to a robust military presence in the region. It should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance. There is a strong tendency conceptually to connect India and Pakistan and to think only Kashmir or the nuclear competition between the two states. But India is an element in China’s calculation. And it should be in America’s too.’ According to Strobe Talbott. “I had head something close to this (Rice argument) from Jaswant and other Indians in almost every round of the dialogue.”

It does not need a genius to conclude that natural allies. Among other things, implies that India has offered, and would be pleased to be co-opted in the US strategy to countervail China. However, it does not conclude that the US has accepted such a role for India in its Asia-Pacific doctrine. What it means is that given the growing inter-operability’ between the two defence ministries and the services, such an outcome may become a logical roadmap. The good thing about becoming ‘natural allies’ is that India did not annoy the US, and also did not spend its scare resources by increased nuclear weaponization to provide a credible minimum deterrence against China. However, by not doing so, India has willingly mortgaged its national security regarding China to the US. This is the crux of the matter. Once this is understood, Indo-USA-defence relations and the frenetic pace that it has assumed become obvious, China’s military priorities are its ballistic missiles and the navy. To counter these, there is increased Indo-US naval cooperation, Special Forces and marine commando interactions, and talks on Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). The latter is part of the dialogue that the US has with its military allies in the region, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage had earlier visited India to explain BMD, which was interpreted to imply closeness between the two countries.

Even as the Indo-US relationship appeared to be settling down. 9/11 happened. India was once again hyphenated with Pakistan by the US. India offered unconditional support and use of its military facilities to the US, which was not immediately required by Washington. The latter instead sought Pakistan’s to decimate the Taliban regime, and the Indian Navy took up the important mission of escorting and protecting high value ships through the Strait of Malacca while the US aircraft carriers were employed for Operations Enduring Freedom. As Washington had successfully used India and Pakistan simultaneously during the war in Afghanistan. It needed to balance the issue of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, while appreciating Gen. Musharraf’s distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters, the US, on this issue, continues to play games with India. It banned terrorist outfits specific to Jammu and Kashmir, but refrained from pushing Pakistan too hard on cross-border terrorism. Had India understood this, it would not have made a mockery of itself by ordering Operation Parakram, which blunted its conventional capabilities against Pakistan for a long time. The Vajpayee government still continued to laud so-called strategic partnership with the US as its major national security achievement.

The truth stared India in the face when in the run up to the general elections, the US conferred the ‘Major Non-Nato Ally’ (MNNA) status on Pakistan. The situation looked pathetic as the US secretary of state, Colin Powell was in India before this unusual announcement in Pakistan, but refrained from mentioning this to the Indian leadership. New Delhi attempted to make light of Pakistan new status. Which unfortunately for India, is a big deal. Besides other things, the fundamental understanding of the agreement is that the US will do nothing which will harm Pakistan’s interest, two of which directly concern India. One, the US will not press Musharraf to dismantle terrorist infrastructure in PoK, and let the general president decide the pace of cross-border terrorism depending upon the progress of bilateral talks between India and Pakistan. And two, the US will not give any dual-use or state-of-the art military technology or weapons platform to India which could even remotely tilt the conventional arms balance between the two adversaries. Strobe Talbott confirms this in his book, ‘Engaging India’ He writes: ‘Since India will never agree to restrictions on its military programs unless Pakistan accepted similar ones, Pakistan would have to be offered the same carrots with regard to nuclear energy, commercial space launch and high technology trade.

The irony of the whole thing was that the US granted the MNNA status to Pakistan after its murky horizontal proliferation record become public. Talbott writes: ‘Musharraf, in part because of prodding from the United States, stopped denying that Pakistan was amongst the world’s most promiscuous black marketeers in nuclear goods and services. Ge deflected blame from the Pakistani government and military by focusing on the internationally notorious but until then locally revered and untouchable A.Q Khan, the master mind of Pakistan’s bomb and missile making programs and the principal merchant of its secrets to other countries. Under what amounted to a plea bargain, Khan publicly apologized for his misdeeds,and Musharraf gave him a pardon. American government officials congratulations Musharraf and let him pretend that the Pakistani military establishment had not been complicit in Khan’s activities.’

Even as Pakistan was exonerated for its shenanigans, India came under increasingly pressure. In a major policy speech at the on 11 February 2004, President Bush unveiled new stringent initiative for non-Proliferation Security Initiative of 2003 which was made more aggressive in search and seizure of suspected cargo. The US also suggested that India sign the Additional Protocol Writing in FORCE (March 2004 issue). J.N. Dixit, who two months later became India’s national security advisor wrote: ‘India would certainly be pressurized to sign the proposed Additional Protocol which involve India to make public practically all its nuclear activities and facilities and to allow international inspections. This proposal will further impact on India as it suggests that only countries which sign this Additional Protocol would be allowed to impact nuclear equipment, teaching and material. So it would not be enough if India wishes to import nuclear material and equipment for peaceful purposes under international safeguards with the International Atomic Energy Agency. It would become mandatory for India to abide by the provisions of the Additional Protocol with intrusive and expanded jurisdiction. It is obvious that India cannot blindly accept this Additional Protocol and make public those nuclear and technological facilities which are involved in India cannot blindly accept this Additional protocol and make public those nuclear and technological facilities which are involved in India’s nuclear weapons and missile status is going to be a major challenge to India’s foreign and national security policies. Two requirements are to continue a constructive process of negotiations with the US and other nuclear weapons power and safeguard India’s interest in these regards, Secondly, improve and tighten our technology management and export control laws to fall in line with the requirement of preventing horizontal proliferation of such capacities to others.’

It is, therefore, evident that Indo-US strategic relations will have defined limits. There will be more progress on the High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG) which was established in November 2002, than the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) announced in January 2004, The HTCG has two primary and interrelated components. One deals with facilitating and promoting high technology trade generally in a broad range of categories including information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and defence technology. The second component is to build confidence for additional strategic trade, and focus on discussing way to enhance trade between the US and India in sophisticated goods and technology, while working cooperatively to address proliferation concerns and strengthen national security systems. In an interview with FORCE. (July 2004). US Under Secretary for Commerce, Kenneth Juster explained that, “The NSSP builds on some of the analysis undertaken in the HTCG process and address more sophisticated technology transfer issues between the two countries-issues that may not necessarily have as broad a commercial impact as the wide spectrum of high-technology trade discussed under the HTCG, but which do have important commercial and political implications. The NSSP is meant to increase cooperation on the quarter issues of civilian nuclear energy, civilian space programmer, dual-use high technology trade, and dialogue on missile defence. As indicated by Juster, the NSSP has both commercial and political implications; the commercial refers to what all can be given to India which does not compromise various international control regimes, and the fact that India has conducted nuclear tests, Moreover, the US has to ensure that India’s export control law and measures meet US standards before any high technology trade is permitted, which is a long drawn process. On the other hand, political implication imply that Pakistan’s interest are not affected. This means that India will be outrightly denied technology which could upset the balance of power between India and Pakistan, or Pakistan would also be allowed import of similar technology. Should it so desire. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that out of the ‘quarter’ the fastest expected movement would be in the area of civilian space technology, the least controversial of all. For this reason, the US announced easing of certain curbs on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the United Nations headquarters on 19 September 2004. Called Step 1 of the NSSP. The US has allowed cooperation in commercial space programme, permitted certain exports to power plants at safeguarded nuclear facilities, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Headquaters had been removed from the US department of commerce’s Entity list. This is consistent with reports that ISRO and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration intend joint development of the next-generation National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System. More importantly, ISRO and Boeing Aerospace and working to co-develop a two-ton ocean reconnaissance satellite to monitor naval movements in the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and the Bay of Bengal.

It is certain that the next steps in the strategic partnership which deal with dual use high technology will be excruciatingly slow. India would need to look for high technology elsewhere and not depend on the US. Just as the US will ensure limitation in NSSP, India would do well to do the same in armed forces cooperation. After all, the meaning of transparency is different for the US and India. For the US, which is the world leader in technology and has global roles. Transparency, which should be defined as ‘familiarisation.’ But, the US’ desired buzzword for Indo-US defence relationship is ‘inter-operability’ which portrays a future in which the t wo countries share strategic doctrines and operations. The challenge for India is to identify how much ‘inter-operability’ with the US armed forces is consistent with its own national security interests. India is just one nation amongst many who are in military alliance with the US, or seek strategic cooperation and partnership. However,having become depended on the US for its national security via-a-vis China, New Delhi has little choice but to go the whole hog in pushing Indo-US defence relations on the fast track. While not getting what it wants, that is, faster movement on the NSSP, India has embraced wholeheartedly what is essentially the US agenda for India.

Defence cooperation

Indo-US defence relations have entered the fourth phase after the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with President Bush in New York on September 21: the phases could be termed as familiarisation’ ‘engagement’ natural allies’ and now ‘a partnership’ Considering that the two countries were perceived to be in different camps during much of the Cold War. The pace of defence relations in just a decade-and-half has been spectacular. The first phase started with the demise of the Soviet Union when the US Pacific Command saw the opportunity to know Indian armed forces better. In those days, Russia as the successor state of the Soviet Union was anxious about growing Indo-US defence ties. The US’ choice for interaction first with the India Army was natural: the Indian Army is the biggest component of the armed forces, and it has vast experience in UN peacekeeping. It was Lt. Gen Claude M. Kicklighter, general officer US Army Pacific’s initiative which led to the first army-to army steering group meeting in January 1992.The goals were modest: more bilateral visits were agreed, more US’ International Military Education and Training (IMET) were granted, and India was invited to participate at the Pacific Armies Management Seminars (PAMS).

This led to India co-hosting the first PAMS in New Delhi in 1993. The PAMS, therefore was the first visible manifestation of defence ties between the two countries. The success of the Indo-US army steering committee led to the formation of naval and air force steering committees. Even as the familiarization between the US Pacific Command with the three Indian defence services had commenced, the real broadening of defence relationship were agreed during the visit of US defence secretary William Perry to India in January 1995. The Indo-US engagement phase had begun.

The two sides signed the ‘Agreed Minutes’ on defence relations which essentially had two elements. One, it was agreed that in addition to service-to-service cooperation, the two sides cover civilian-to-civilian cooperation called the Defence Policy Group (DPG), between the Indian defence ministry and the office of the US defence secretary, was meant to provide overall guidance to the other two interactions, the services’ cooperation and the Joint Technical Group (JTG) to discuss technology transfer issues and arms purchases. And two, from the US’ perspective. There was a need for a bilateral agreement for a mutual protection of classified information. The US argued that without the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), there would be severe limits to technology and information exchanges with India. The latter, on the other hand, felt that GSOMIA was an infringement on its national security; the US wanted to know more about the Indian defence ministry and service head quarter to make up for little interaction during the Cold War years, Moreover, India said that after the signing of the 1984 Memorandum of Understanding on science and technology between the two countries (done during Ronald Reagan’s presidency), which included technology transfer, the GSOMIA was unnecessary. This resulted in a deadlock at the higher levels: India wanted US technology as proof of its sincerity in the relationship, while the US provided very little of it. Instead, it desired more transparency with in the Indian establishment. The problems were compounded by protocol hassles. As the two higher defence organization are different, this led to frequent Indian unhappiness at being equated with juniors in the DPG meetings. The sum-total was that even as both sides succeeded in maintaining a public faAade of improved defence relations, things were stuck in grooves. As a result, service-to-service cooperation continued to be maintained at a low level. Once India conducted 1998 nuclear tests, the DPG was supspended and all defence related interactions stopped.

As a consequence of the understanding reached between India and the US on the non-proliferation issue during the Clinton administration, things were revived with the visit of the US Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Gen. Henry Shelton to India in July 2001. This was quickly followed by two important events, one, the Bush administration lifted Pokhran-II sanctions against India on September 21, and two, India finally signed the GSOMIA on 17 January 2002. The stage was set to move beyond the pre-tests levels of defence and military cooperation. This peculiarity of the natural allies phase was that defence relations became more broad-based, and interestingly the Bush administration followed its predecessor’s policies with a few nuances changes. At least four new elements were added to the defence relations. First, the US agreed to sell equipment to India through the Foreign Military Sales (government to government) route. Probably the most important procurement was for the Indian Special Forces, who got as many as 26 items from the US. These include anti-tank guided missiles, underwater rifles, kayaks for clandestine water borne operations behind enemy lines, under water camera and video systems and Global Positioning Systems for land and water to name a few. However, the restrictions on Indian requests for technology and systems transfer had to meet five US criteria: the equipment should not represent a high level military technology; the US should have adequate defences or counter-measures against the equipment transferred; the equipment or its equivalent should be readily available from non-US suppliers like France and Israel; the equipment in question much not radically change the local balance of power; and the equipment should not cause dramatic shifts in the perceived local balance of power.

Second, the US offered border management systems to India to check infiltration across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. The Cooperative Monitoring Centre at the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico plays an important role in this. India has already purchased many sensors for its western and eastern borders form Sandia. Third, with the establishment of India’s Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), there is more working compatibility between the two defence organisations. The US joint staff office has helped the IDS to establish the office of Net Assessment. The US Pacific Command (USPACOM) has proposed various combined and joint operations to the IDS, which if pursued will lead to more jointness within the services under the aegis of IDS. For example, the IDS has been in dialogue with USPACOM’s joint inter-agency coordination group for combating terrorism. And lastly, the two sides are in dialogue on ballistic missile defence. Bilateral workshops have been held in India and the US on the issue which will dominate the security environment in Asia in the coming years. Talks are still at the conceptual stage, but there are indications that the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has expressed a keen desire to move the process to the technology level. The Indian side hopes to imbibe US concepts and technology though the inter-oper-ability route. The US, on the other hand. Desires across-the-board transparency from the Indian defence establishment. Regarding joint exercises. The US wishes from joint exercises of Special Forces and Marine corps, and joint army, naval and air exercises in locations like high-altitudes, jungle and desert terrain, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, According to US secretary of state, Colin Powell, “India has the potential to help keep the peace in the vast Indian Ocean area and the periphery.”



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