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Indo-American defence ties: a reality check

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In Brief

There has been a vast change in Indo-American relations in the past decade, spurred by US interests in attending to its strategic vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean because of the fragilities in its dealings with India in the past, India's desire to come in from the cold in developing its civilian nuclear capabilities, and India's unequivocal commitment to economic globalisation.

In the background, this rapprochement was linked to putative concerns about the rise of China, although, no matter how much some might have wished it to be, that issue was never central to the historical watershed that has now taken place in Indo-American ties, although, certainly, there were great expectations of burgeoning US-India defence ties. The strategic importance of the Indo-American relationship clearly stands independently of either country's approaches to China.


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Getting the US-India relationship right is going to be as important as getting the US-China relationship right to the peace and prosperity of Asia over the coming decades.

It is important, therefore, to be well-informed about what the huge potential of the relationship is that is evolving between the two countries, as well as what its strategic limits are. The recent jousting with China in the South China Sea and the hosting of the first ASEAN + 8 foreign ministers meetings (with US and Russian participation) underline this interest, as the region seeks a new framework and set of arrangements within which to deal with political and security issues, as well as the economic issues that still dominate the regional agenda.

Sourabh Gupta, in this week’s lead essay, provides a helpful reality check on how the US-Indian defence relationship is shaping up in this regional setting. The budding US-India strategic axis, Gupta observes, is certainly one of the significant global geo-political undertakings of the past decade, but public assessment of the relationship, he warns, has tended to race ahead of the realities. That is not a healthy development, from the long-term perspective of managing expectations as well as making well-founded strategic calculations down the track.

Expectations that India would fall in to defence alignment on China have not in fact been borne out.

Gupta gives chapter and detailed verse on how New Delhi has appeared ‘neither willing to confront Beijing in any security format other than one which is strictly bilateral (Sino-Indian) nor countenance the degree of inter-operability in bilateral defence planning preferred by Washington. Indeed, at the point at which defence interoperability assumes the trappings of quasi-informal military alignment, the tendency in New Delhi has been to reflexively shrink from such engagement’.

‘Almost a decade after its first broaching by Washington’, Gupta says, ‘New Delhi is yet to post a mid-level officer on a permanent basis to PACOM headquarters in Hawaii. Recent statements by India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) that it does not seek such a relationship with US combatant commands, as well as the Ministry’s disallowing of all unsupervised contact between armed forces officials and foreign defence delegations, suggests a shrinking space for exchange of ideas at the mil-mil level with PACOM. Competing interpretations of permissible activities by American hydrographic survey vessels, including the USNS Bowditch, in Indian maritime zones meanwhile continue to fester, although without the vitriol that characterises Beijing’s exchanges with Washington’.

Gupta concludes that ‘To the extent that (US defence ties) are viewed in New Delhi as being somewhat superfluous to security requirements in its immediate maritime neighbourhood, US-Indian defence cooperation that assumes the characteristics of a quasi-informal military alignment will remain merely aspirational, at best — if at all — well into the future. Beijing’s dispatch of naval assets to protect its drilling and pipeline interests off the Burmese shoreline, as also the presence of PLAN submarines in the more enabling nautical environment of the Bay of Bengal, might alter this calculation, although such an eventuality appears hypothetical at this time’.

Gupta’s careful and timely analysis of Indian affairs reminds us again that, as India and China face their own strategic realities, whatever the baggage in the history of their relationship, India will be nobody’s pawn in dealing with China or rely on the dream of appeal to distant American power in managing its relationship with China. And China will have every reason to treat India with increasing care and appropriate respect, especially in regard to the deployment of its military assets, however modest they may be, in ways that offend that respect.

Peter Drysdale

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