Bottomline | Modi Meets Trump

India should review its relationship with the US on the lines of NSSP

Pravin Sawhney

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the United States (US) should be viewed as a blessing in disguise. The fantasy that the US would help India become a major power — through strategic convergence — finally hit reality. Having lost 12 years (US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice promised this illusory dream on her India visit in March 2005) and strategic ground to both China and Pakistan, India should now wake up to the truth that no nation helps another become a major power.

Any major power — being a geo-strategic player with capability and political will to influence events beyond its borders — has three essential attributes, namely, economic, technology and military prowess which provide genuine strategic autonomy to its foreign policy. India lacks technology which it has consistently sought from friendly nations, and it is oblivious to the fact that military power is fundamentally about military reforms and a competitive defence industry. It is not about capability building through imports or sham defence technology transfers.

The strategic convergence of India-US relations came with the signing of the January 2015 ‘US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region’, and the US unequivocally stating that ‘the US-India strategic partnership will be anchored in Asia’. The US also dangled hope of giving cutting edge technology to India through the June 2012 Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).

In order to provide muscle to the ambitious political statement, the US recognised India as a ‘major defence partner’ and sought joint patrols which necessitated commonality of equipment through defence trade and by India signing three remaining US fundamental agreements — the General Security of Military Information Agreement, Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial intelligence — for operational compatibility. All this was meant to closely align the US’ re-balancing strategy in Asia with India’s Act East policy. The unsaid adversary for both nations was China which seemed determined to upend the US-led order in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Notwithstanding all this, the US, aware of India’s military capabilities and capacities had a limited operational role for India. This was explained by US Pacific Command chief, Admiral Harry Harris to me in February 2015 when he observed that he saw “India having a pivotal role in the Indian Ocean.” India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, committed itself to an expanded political and military role in the Western Pacific (impinging on China’s major concern in the South China Sea). This was evident from Modi’s September 2016 visit to Vietnam when India granted USD 500 million defence credit line and elevated the bilateral relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with emphasis on defence ties with Vietnam. Modi’s India had challenged China in its own backyard.

Against this backdrop, the meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Donald Trump came a cropper. The joint statement clarified that the US would have a transactional and not a strategic relationship with India. The US would neither help India become a major power nor use it as a countervailing force against China. Having dumped the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement which had a pivotal role in US’ re-balancing strategy, the Trump administration appears to have re-worked its China strategy focused on bilateral rather than multi-lateral approach.

Putting up a brave front, India decided to focus on the transactional aspects of relationship to include purchase of 100 Boeing aircraft for commercial use, possible agreements for USD 40 billion US shale gas, unmanned remotely piloted vehicle Guardian, and perhaps, F-16 aircraft production line and F/A-18 aircraft for naval use. While all this is fine, what about US’ cutting edge defence technology and most importantly, the future of India’s Act East Policy which was dependant on US’ re-balancing strategy?

India, too, would need to re-assess its US policy, including the DTTI, which includes the purpose of joint patrols, the need for signing the three held-up fundamental agreements, joint research and development and co-production, and the future of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which the Modi government signed in August 2016 to ‘allow military logistics permission on a case-by-case basis to each other to facilitate joint exercises, humanitarian assistance and other relief operations’.

While competitive defence trade with the US should continue, for the cutting edge defence technology India should not pin high hopes on the US. For one, as US analyst Ashley Tellis put it: ‘Because the United States is a hegemonic power in the international system, all significant military technology transfers are conditioned fundamentally by an assessment of their impact on Washington’s capacity to preserve its unique supremacy, their consequences for global or regional stability, and their benefits for strategic ties with the recipient’.

For another, divested of the strategic element, India should perhaps recall the January 2004 bilateral Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP), and the early High Technology Cooperation Group (HTCG) formed in November 2002 for commercial trade in high technology for civilian use with the US. The NSSP, though slow, was good for India as it did not interfere with India’s foreign policy choices and minimum nuclear deterrence; the reason why the US replaced it by the 18 July 2005 Framework Agreement, commonly referred to as the Civil-Nuclear Deal.

The NSSP covered three strategic areas, namely, the civilian space programme, civilian nuclear activities and high technology trade as well as dialogue on missile defence. Trade in defence hardware was deliberately not included in the NSSP because it was felt that trade in weapons platforms should follow trade in technology. This was meant to ensure that enough strategic trust was built before India purchased war-fighting platforms which would need an uninterrupted supply of spares.

Speaking with me in June 2004, the US Undersecretary of Commerce, Kenneth Juster (tipped to be the US ambassador to India), had said, “In some respects, the NSSP builds and expands upon the work being done in the HTCG. The HTCG set up a framework for reviewing and analysing how technology commerce between the US and India could be expanded across a broad range of categories, including information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology and defence technology.”

Thus, the NSSP, a process capable of fulfilling India’s need of high technology and the US’s need for the tightening of Indian laws for better export controls (a non-proliferation requirement) was meant to, in a subtle, progressive manner, help India and the US come geopolitically closer without ruffling China. The slow movement of the NSSP did not diminish its importance. Given the distrust that existed on both sides, especially on the Indian side, the NSSP was and remains possibly the best approach for the relationship to grow. Since the NSSP cannot be done again, India should, for once, seek a new equivalent relationship with the US.

Regarding the Act East Policy, it has already been put to test by China’s military intrusion in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction with serious implications for the Chicken’s Neck in the Siliguri corridor which connects India’s Northeastern states with the mainland. While a resolution will not be easy, it should bring home the bitter truth: Act East Policy will work only after India’s territory and neighbourhood is secure. It is perhaps time for India to re-consider its Pakistan and China policies.


Business Rules
US vice president Mike Pence with Vivek Lall
US vice president Mike Pence with Vivek Lall

The US commitment to sell Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems to India under the ‘major defence partner’ status is being seen as proof of growing defence ties between the two nations.According to the joint statement released after the Modi-Trump meeting, “The United States and India look forward to working together on advanced defence equipment and technology at a level commensurate with that of the closest allies and partners of the United States. Reflecting the partnership, the United States has offered for India’s consideration the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems, which would enhance India’s capabilities and promote shared security interests.”

Said chief executive, US and international strategic development, General Atomics (the makers of the platform), Dr Vivek Lall, “We are extremely pleased that President Trump and Prime Minister Modi have had excellent deliberations and that the path forward for a game changer in US-India defence relations has been charted. Given the Sea Guardian’s capabilities, such a US offer demonstrates a major change in US policy because this type of aircraft capability is only exported to a very select few of America’s closest defence partners. Such an offer represents tangible implementation of United States Congress’ designation of India as a ‘major defence partner’.”

The Sea Guardian is the naval version of the Predator B armed drones. While India had asked for the armed version, given the technology sensitivity, the US has, for the time being, agreed to give the unarmed version. The Sea Guardian is listed under Category-I of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) list since it’s capable of delivering nuclear weapons. It was only after India joined the MTCR club that this sale was made possible.

According to senior sources in the Indian defence ministry, two things are not ruled out in the future. One, if India were to sign the held-up three fundamental agreements, it would be able to fully exploit the capabilities of the Sea Guardian platform. However, given the overall relationship between the two nations which has slipped from strategic to transactional, this may not happen anytime soon. And two, the US could agree in the near future to sell armed Avenger drones to India, which have been sought by the Indian Air Force. Considering that India and Israel are negotiating the sale of the Heron TP — armed drones with multi-mission payload, the US too could sell its Avengers to India.

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