Originally Published 2010-11-03 00:00:00 Published on Nov 03, 2010
The relative degree of success of President Barack Obama's visit to India will depend on the extent to which the tough US demands on defence trade be eased to accommodate India's strategic needs without compromising national interests from both sides.
Delhi's obsequious Obamamania
President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to India has already drawn much attention, compelling flattering as well as utilitarian-cautious analyses abound. The former argues for taking Indo-US relations to new heights, while the latter suggests rationalised restraints. It is obvious that many critical issues will be on the table, but given the speed at which the “military-industrial relations” are growing, it will be interesting to see what direction it will go in in the foreseeable future. For example, more than two dozen high-profile military exercises and $11 billion-plus worth of weaponry, signed or in the pipeline, in the last three years typify the pace. Yet there is still a plethora of thorny issues, which, unless addressed in contextual terms, are likely to mar the very efforts that have gone into deepening the relations thus far.

It is thus important to understand the very basics on which Indo-US defence relations stand. Grand strategic objectives of both countries notwithstanding, it is the lucrative Indian arms market that has provided the US a fertile ground to sell military hardware that would, in turn, give a much-needed economic propeller to advance its strategic intentions. Has India become a “weapon merchants’ paradise”? Consider this: India is the second-largest arms recipient in the world, after Saudi Arabia, accounting for nearly 5% of global arms trade. India’s military procurement expenditure has witnessed a 500% increase in the last eight years, only to touch $16 billion in 2010-11. If this is not all, consider this further: India is going to spend to the tune of $180 billion by 2020. Much more must have been envisaged in the last quarter of the long term comprehensive military modernisation programme that has been under way since 2007 and is likely to culminate in 2022.

While long-term integrated military modernisation plans are in place, it is pretty obvious that the Indian MoD would like to spend at least $12-15 billion per annum in fresh procurements (excluding committed liabilities, of course) and this is where the global arms merchants smell big money—Uncle Sam in particular and others in general. If the US is already the biggest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia, on the verge of supplying $60 billion worth of weapons to the Arab state, it has already found a wonderful new buyer in New Delhi. This is how “arms dynamics” and its intricate relationships with global politics are played out by big powers on the grand platform. Both Saudi Arabia and India provide altogether different strategic choices for the US that are complementary, not contradictory, in advancing strategic interests. Supply of C-17 to both countries could explain a possible element of the US strategic intentions in the larger Asia.

Arms dynamics would attract world powers to reap commercial dividends by supplying weapons systems to India, hence the visits of three powerful Presidents to New Delhi in coming months. While this certainly helps sharpen strategic calculus pursued by the US, the challenge for India is how to advance its “arms card” strategy to acquire advanced systems and complex system integrators that are necessary for enhancing its military capabilities in coming decades; and even more importantly acquire from and develop jointly critical technologies, both military, dual-use and civilian, with the US. While this seems too simplistic a proposition for India, translation of such objectives into concrete results is certainly a herculean task, if not impossible.

President Obama’s visit assumes much strategic significance in this context.  First, the US arms sales to India have been virtually coming through intergovernmental agreements (read, foreign military sales), similar to the ones signed with Russia. While this is fine, given strategic compulsions on the part of India, it defeats the very purpose of competitive bidding military procurement processes in the Indian defence sector. A desirable competitive field still eludes, as India is sandwiched between major arms suppliers. Corrective action needs resolute political will. This is where India’s “arms card” strategy could be tested. Second, the President’s visit will test the nerves of bilateral negotiating abilities in the fields of arms transaction between the two countries. While the US arms sales come with a baggage of conditions like logistics support (LSA), interoperability conditionalities (CISMOA) and other highly regulated military export conditions, Indians would prefer mutually beneficial conditions to tightly controlled ones from the other side, which requires tough negotiations between the two. The Americans must realise that there are strong Indian reservations on these agreements. Third, high-technology trade between the two countries must accelerate to include civilian as well as dual-use domains, which will necessitate the creation of a conducive environment whereby not only the Indian industry would benefit from larger American generosity but also the same industry could offer unfathomable value to the Americans. And last, protracted negotiations as well as deliberations pave the way for reducing trust deficits in the long run. This requires give and take from both sides.

The relative degree of success of the President’s visit to India will depend on the extent to which the tough US demands on defence trade be eased to accommodate India’s strategic needs without compromising national interests from both sides.

(The author is a Senior Fellow in Security Studies at Observer Research Foundation)

Courtesy: The Financial Express

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