Journalist | Writer | Analyst
1 July 2005
India is entering uncharted, risky territory
The new military agreement with the U.S. will help advance Washington’s strategic goals in Asia and expand the global market for American defence contractors. But it is not clear what good it will do for India and Asia.
FOR ONCE, the breathless rhetoric that has become a standard part of all joint U.S.-India statements appears to be justified by the contents of the underlying agreement. The “New Framework for the U.S.-India Defence Relationship” — unveiled in Washington on June 28 — speaks of hitherto “unimaginable” and “unprecedented levels of cooperation.” This is no exaggeration. The agreement reflects the Bush administration’s desire to take the existing strands of strategic cooperation between the two countries to a qualitatively different plane in which some of the military and political tasks of unipolarity — multinational operations, disaster response, `peace-building’, spreading `democracy’ worldwide — can be outsourced to India.
Pakistan may still be the United States’ “major non-NATO ally” in South Asia but India is being cultivated as its lever for realising a more fundamental goal: to remain firmly embedded in Asia at a time when the continent is emerging as the world’s new centre of gravity and Beijing as Washington’s challenger nonpareil.
What this means for the security and stability of Asia is, however, another matter. Already, the U.S. military and its “endless war” in Iraq have emerged as a principal source of instability in West Asia. In east Asia, Washington’s threats against North Korea are undermining the prospects of a negotiated settlement of the nuclear question. As for energy security, the Bush administration’s attempts to isolate Iran and destabilise Central Asia in the name of `democracy’ demonstrate clearly the fact that Asian interests and U.S. interests are often a zero-sum game.
“The worst outcome for the United States,” a senior U.S. official told a closed-door gathering of strategic analysts in New Delhi earlier this month, “is an Asia from which we are excluded.” The key challenge for the U.S. over the past 100 years has been to “remain engaged everywhere and not allow any other industrial power to dominate a given region.” “If I were China,” he added, “I’d be working on kicking the U.S. out of Asia … Right now, we have a lot of alliances but there is no architecture embedding us in Asia. This worries us.” The June 28 agreement with India is seen by the U.S. as a vital element in this planned architecture.
Global policing outsourced
Besides other things, the defence agreement envisages the deployment of Indian troops in undefined U.S.-led “multinational operations” around the world regardless of whether these are authorised by the United Nations or not.
To be fair, the text of the agreement does not specify that these operations would be U.S.-led and adds the rider “when it is in their common interest.” But in American strategic parlance, multinational operations necessarily mean the subordination of all participating forces to overall U.S. command and control. From Somalia to Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq, exclusive control over “multinational operations” has been a non-negotiable element of U.S. military strategy.
In agreeing to “collaborate” in such operations, the Manmohan Singh Government appears to be expressing its willingness to enter a minefield that even the erstwhile BJP-led National Democratic Alliance Government was forced to step away from at the eleventh hour.
Ironically, it was the Congress’ firm opposition to India joining any multinational operation other than a U.N.-led “Blue Helmet” force which helped scuttle the proposed deployment of Indian troops to U.S.-controlled Iraq in July 2003.
When read alongside the aim of “enhancing the capabilities to combat proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the agreement to collaborate in multinational operations also starts to look a lot like the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The PSI is a controversial U.S.-led multinational initiative involving the interdiction of third-country ships on the high seas. Apart from its dubious legality, the PSI explicitly undercuts a genuinely multilateral and balanced approach to the problem of proliferation. Among the major countries in Asia opposed to the PSI are China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Iran.
Though India has been asked to join, it has refrained from doing so yet. However, the text of the New Defence Framework would appear to envisage the Indian Navy joining a U.S.-led interdiction effort against a ship suspected of carrying WMD-related cargo in situations not permitted by the Law of the Seas.
While Washington’s wider strategic goals have attracted little or no attention, the new agreement’s provisions on the possibility of U.S. arms sales have, predictably, generated the most comment and enthusiasm. Though critics say the U.S. is not serious about selling high-tech weaponry to India and cannot be trusted as a long-term supplier, the agreement suggests otherwise. A bilateral “Defence Procurement and Production Group” has been set up to oversee defence trade and prospects for co-production and technology collaboration. “Co-production”, however, at least for the foreseeable future, is likely to mean the re-assembling in India of CKDs produced in the U.S., with little or no technology diffusion to the Indian side.
For the U.S., arms sales are a convenient — and highly profitable — way of sweetening the overall strategic partnership package being offered to India. The Bush administration is keen on selling F-16 fighter aircraft to India and one can only presume its eagerness to “brief” Indian officers about the Patriot missile defence system is the prelude to an eventual sales pitch. “The potential for 126 jets is a significant programme,” a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, the company which makes the F-16, was quoted in the New York Times of April 16 as saying. “If we don’t get any more F-16 orders by 2005, we would have to take action to close the line. India is a market we want to pursue.”
The New York Times quoted a military analyst as suggesting the U.S. decision to sell F-16s to Pakistan might have been aimed at inducing India to buy American. “The real prize is India,” he said. “India would have gone its merry way but the announcement of Pakistan getting the F-16s changes the game. For years, India has coasted on Russian and locally made fighter jets. Now, if its adversary gets real new American planes, it has to have them too.” From the U.S. Government’s perspective, the newspaper added, “weapons sales to Pakistan and India strengthen the American presence on the Chinese border and open new markets throughout Asia for military contractors, which are looking more to foreign buyers as the Pentagon budget comes under pressure.”
For any product, having multiple sources is always a good thing provided decisions are taken on merit. However, the June 28 pact says the U.S. and India “will work to conclude defence transactions, not solely as ends in and of themselves, but as a means to … reinforce our strategic partnership.” Does this mean India might be prevailed upon to buy the F-16 — even though it might not be the best plane available — to “reinforce” the “strategic partnership”? Or some missile defence system, regardless of the arms race this might trigger with Pakistan and China?
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