Bottomline | Partnership of Equals

Nuclear deal or not, India should forge closer military ties with the US

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Considering that I passionately favour close defence ties with the United States but remain steadfastly opposed to the nuclear agreement that New Delhi is determined to sign, I have often wondered why knowledgeable people believe that one without the other would be a half way house. I can think of two reasons why the US defence industry has been in the forefront of backing the Bush administration on the nuclear agreement. It believes that the agreement will bring the two militaries closer by raising the level of bilateral and hopefully multilateral military exercises under the UN and later the US leadership. This will improve inter-operability and nudge India to buy US defence equipment for commonality purposes.

The second reason is that the agreement will allow the US to sell high and dual-use technology that it is unable to do at present. The US defence companies are unable to match Israeli offers to India as the latter have less restrictions on sharing technologies. Understandably, the US companies are not threatened by Russia that still has the largest hardware in the three India defence services. Moscow’s across-the-board technology does not match up to what US has, and unfortunately, Russians are more focussed on making money than in providing assured product support to India. Take the case of the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov that was to be delivered in August 2008.

Russia now says it will take two more years for the job and has asked for a hundred per cent hike in the earlier settled price. This is not all. It has done very little to ensure uninterrupted spares supplies for Russian equipment with India. It entered into a joint venture (BrahMos), but has not only refused to induct the weapon system into its own armed forces; it now desires to lead the exports. It is little wonder that Indian military officers are urging the government to diversify defence trade with the US, Israel and the European nations. I agree with the military’s viewpoint. There is indeed the need for the defence establishments including the industries, outside Russia to work together.

The case of the nuclear agreement is different where the prime stated objective of the US is non-proliferation. Among other things, it wants India to stop fissile material production ahead of the global treaty on fissile material cut-off. While the US has not ratified the CTBT, the cost for India to do nuclear testing would be enormously high. Moreover, the Hyde Act that allowed the Bush administration to sign the nuclear agreement (123 Agreement) has made it clear that India will be required to work closely with US global interests. Indian supporters of the agreement argue that Hyde Act is not binding on India, and the foreign policy imperatives mentioned in the Act are non-binding on the US administration as the US President and not the US Congress always has a large say in fashioning foreign policy. What this is true, what is being overlooked is the fact that the nuclear agreement would bring India into a tight embrace of the US where India as the junior partner will always be constrained before an acknowledged bully.

Moreover, the next US administration, expected to be a democratic one and the likely candidate, Hillary Clinton, has already listed her priorities as ratification of CTBT by US Senate and that ‘Our (US) relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in the world in this century.’ What it means is that the US’ pressure on New Delhi to sign the CTBT will increase resulting in a complete review of the relationship with India. If India signs the nuclear agreement now, the US pressure will come in the form of trade-off between India signing the CTBT and the US timely fulfilling yet-to-be-negotiated provisions (setting of reprocessing facilities in India and transfer of US nuclear equipment) in the nuclear agreement.

The US will resist tooth and nail all attempts by India to set up additional un-safeguarded nuclear reactors for strategic purposes, even as India has the liberty to do so under the nuclear agreement. After all, under the 18 July 2005 understanding between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India alone was to prepare its separation plan for civilian and strategic nuclear reactors. Instead, India had to fight all the way with the US interlocutors to retain strategic imperatives like the number of un-safeguarded and breeder reactors. Under President Clinton, China will have little reasons to worry about close ties between India and the US. Consequently, Beijing will harden its position on settlement of the border dispute with India.

The answer for India is to let the nuclear agreement pass and concentrate on cementing defence relations with the US. Unlike the US administration that has multiple global interests and responsibilities, the US defence industry and the Pentagon are clear in the roadmap ahead. The prime motive of the industry is profit. The US industry’s approach of investing in Indian defence public and private companies to seek a long term mutually beneficial relationship is welcome. So is the Pentagon’s motive of partnering with India, knowing well that the Indian military will be a professional and equal partner in New Delhi’s area of interest.


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