Originally Published 2013-10-29 07:07:09 Published on Oct 29, 2013
The US has done some serious weight-lifting to break down its own barriers to closer defence ties with India, and has taken away the plank that it isn't sincere. Can India do the same? Dr. Carter and his team have left a legacy which can be built upon. It is just the end of the beginning.
US-India defence cooperation beyond the legacy of Ash Carter
"A famous line from 1942 went: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." An apt description perhaps of the current state of US-India Defence relations after Prime Minister Singh's visit to Washington in September, and more notably after the recently announced retirement of Dr. Ashton Carter, the Deputy Secretary of Defence.

Set apart from the Joint Statement issued in Washington during the Prime Minister's visit, remarkably, was a Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation. That it was issued separately from the Joint Statement, if not intended to convey as much, at least reflects the reality that Defence co-operation is where the two countries' engagement is furthest along.

That it is so is in no small measure due to the efforts of Dr. Carter, who in the last year has apparently been able to help reform the way the US export control process looks at Defence technology cooperation with India. The rubric, which he headed, was called the Defence Trade Initiative (DTI). Without disregarding the diplomatic efforts of the last decade, which built up the US-India relationship, over the last year the DTI has been instrumental in addressing some of the recalcitrant issues within the US' own internal processes toward Defence ties with India.

So, what is this Defence co-operation declaration? Is it, as some have already claimed, a de facto military alliance? Does it automatically open the kimono, and will US technological goodies start descending on India like manna from the Gods? In reality, it is none of these things. It is part of a process where much work still has to be done.

The declaration is an iterative improvement on ongoing discussions, by publicly acknowledging what has been discussed between the governments for a while: first, that India has been 're-categorized' in the US export control system to a level commensurate with the US' strongest ally, the UK; second, that while India will not sign the 'foundation agreements' such as CISMOA, unlike many US allies, the US and India are committed to finding work-arounds that meet political standards in both countries; third, that the Defence trade aims to go higher, much higher, than just one-way Defence sales from the US to India.

The second point -- not being limited by historical constraints and constructs -- is what Indians should pay the most attention to. For years, India has complained -- with some merit -- that the US export control system was too rigid, technology denial regimes would never change and so on. Yet, here the US is, committing to finding alternative solutions to these issues.

Even further, the Joint Declaration states that the two countries will: "continue their efforts to strengthen mutual understanding of their respective procurement systems and approval processes." In simple English, the US has recognized that its Defence export process is incompatible with India's Defence Procurement Process (DPP), and is committed to finding solutions.

For instance, usually a US company is not allowed to apply for an export license until it actually gets awarded a contract. This clearly, would prejudice against US companies being able to present their best solutions. Instead of being doctrinaire, the US government will now issue 'advisory opinions' to companies as a work-around so they can put their best feet forward.

Why is the US changing so much for India, many ask. Simply put, until last year, the entire US national security strategy was Euro-centric. At one stroke, the 'Asian rebalance' has changed that into being Asia-centric. Technology release decisions are now to be measured against this new paradigm.

In this regard, what India sees as its negative history with the US is just that, history. Nowhere is there mention of an 'alliance'. Just an implicit acknowledgment that both sides have come to understand, and respect, each others' domestic compulsions. This process itself is transformative.

The first example of the new attitude in the US toward India is a proposal to jointly develop the next generation Javelin Anti-Tank missile, a proposal 'unique' to India, as it fits operational requirements of the armies in both countries. Not only is this is a remarkable proposal in its own right, it also means the US Army's International Program Office -- USASAC -- historically the slowest off the line on cooperation with India, is now ahead of the curve. Additionally, the US will incentivize researchers in the US who seek out Indian R&D partners, a status only accorded to the UK so far.

But, again, what the Joint Declaration mainly did was acknowledge the work that has been ongoing to improve communication between the two bureaucratic systems. A lot still needs to be done to make sure rhetoric at the high levels reaches the working levels of both bureaucracies, which is where many US-India initiatives commonly get bogged down.

Mid-level communication between the two sides remains weak, making even the most routine of tasks extremely hard. All of the talk around Defence industrial collaboration should not mask this ground-level reality. Further, to illustrate the reason to be pragmatic about this relationship, the number and scope of joint exercises -- usually stated as a strength -- has been steadily declining, partly for budgetary reasons, partly for political ones.

Whether deeper defence technology collaboration happens or not depends on three factors: first, how effectively India can surface its national priority requirements for discussion within the US interagency process that Ash Carter has created. Second, whether India can help define the strategic and economic rationale for such cooperation. And third, whether India can put in place good communication among its own decision-making stakeholders that is essential to execute it.

In many ways, the ball is now in India's court. The US has done some serious weight-lifting to break down its own barriers to closer defence ties, and has taken away the plank that it isn't sincere. Can India do the same? Dr. Carter and his team have left a legacy which can be built upon. It is just the end of the beginning.

(The writer is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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