Originally Published 2010-01-28 00:00:00 Published on Jan 28, 2010
Nothing of substance came out from the recent low profile visit of the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates
What did we gain out of Gates visit?
Last week’s visit of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates does not seem to have advanced the India-US defence agenda visibly. The deliverables from the visit haven’t surfaced publicly. Three defence related agreements have been under discussion for some time now: the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), the Logistical Services Agreement (LSA) and the Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA). But these have remained unclinched even as India has already begun purchasing big ticket US defence items. India has not yet been persuaded of the value of signing these agreements. The US will therefore “do a better job of putting on paper and using concrete examples of the benefits to India of all these agreements”, according to Gates.

The issue is not so much one of US convincing India on the material and technological merits of signing these agreements it is of India convincing itself of the political desirability of doing so at this point in time. According to Gates these agreements are enablers, in that they will provide to India the highest quality equipment and systems. CISMOA would allow, for instance, the highest US cryptologic information to be provided along with the C-130Js that India has bought. BECA, in the geospatial area, would provide the aircraft India has acquired with the highest tecnology in terms of navigational capability and targeting.

The point about benefits and protection of technology made by Gates publicly has surely been made in greater detail during several exchanges at various levels between the two sides all these years. It is hardly likely that any new decisive argument remains to be made. Now that India has already bought advanced transport and maritime aircraft from the US, the implication of Gates’s remarks is that India has not obtained the “highest technology” along with them. Assuming, however, that India would not buy such platforms without an acceptable level of technology, the question therefore is whether India would want the”highest technology” if it is accompanied by conditions that are too onerous, or politicaly problematic. 

Earlier, the US side considered the End-Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) indispensable for transfers of its arms and technology. India’s acceptance of EUMA earned the government considerable political flak, as it meant, in the eyes of the critics, accepting conditions that impinged on our sovereignty by subjecting us to the oversight that the US enjoys on the use of US arms by its allies. 

 If India can obtain satisfactory levels of defence equipment and technology under exisiting conditions, why should it want to accept agreements that seem intended essentially to strengthen operational defence cooperation- easier interoperability and easier logistics- in the identified areas of joint training exercises, counter-terrorism efforts and maritime security. The logic of the agreements under discussion is a stronger defence partnership  for facilitating joint operations as well as US operations in the region through easier access to Indian port facilities.

This might explain why India is dragging its feet on these agreements. It may be wary of being caught in the web of a military relationship with the US that may exceed politically prudent limits. It may want to calibrate the pace of the defence relationship, given the conditions attached to US arms supplies, restrictive US practices with regard to technology transfer and political risks of interruption of supplies in a conflict situation. US arms supplies to Pakistan that are suitable more for use against India rather than for counter-terrorism purposes remain an irritant, and these concerns were expressed officially shortly before Gates’s visit.

The nuances of Gates’s pronouncements in Delhi on Pakistan and the issue of terrorism are important. In his view it is the Al Qaida that is orchestrating attacks in Aghanistan, in Pakistan through the Tehrik-e-Taliban and in India through the LeT. The objective is to “to destabilize not just Afghanistan or Pakistan, but potentially the whole region by provoking a conflict perhaps between India and Pakistan through some provocative act or terrorist act”. Success against a single group will not help as they are all linked in a “syndicate of terrorism”. Therefore a ”high level of cooperation among us all” is needed. This analysis presents Pakistan as a victim of terrorism, absolves it of any responsibility in promoting it, places terrorism against India in a context larger than Pakistan and the solution to this problem as well. A call to India to cooperate with Pakistan to meet this common threat is also implied. Such an analysis is quite at variance with India’s view of the issue, especially the close links between the Pakistani establishment and the LeT.

On the danger of a repeat Mumbai like attack Gates reacted publicly with unexpected realism, admitting that “Indian patience would be limited were there to be further attacks”. He did not offer the facile, and for India the annoying counsel that India should show continue to show restraint etc. This intelligent position would help the US in private to continue to dissuade India from retaliating militarily, while sending a subtle message to Pakistan to exert more to prevent such an attack as an Indian reaction would be difficult to stop.

In Afghanistan the US is willing to acknowledge the positive role India is playing in providing development assistance, but it remains sensitive to Pakistan’s concerns about our intentions and goals. While extolling India’s developmental effort, Gates ruled out any Indian role in training the Afghan military. Surprisingly, he drew a questionable equation between Indian and Pakistani activity in Afghanistan, mentioning the “real suspicions in both India and Pakistan about what the other is doing in Afghanistan”. Calling for “full transparency towards each other in what they are doing” suggests that Pakistani paranoia apart, the US itself has concerns about some dimensions of India’s role. That with full knowledge of Pakistan’s duplicitous role in Afghanistan vis a vis the US itself, its strategic ambitions there, its connivance at the bombings of our Embassy in Kabul itself, the US should put India and Pakistan in the same basket in Afghanistan is objectionable.

Gates stated suo moto at the press conference that he had discussed China with the Indian leaders, though not at length. Views on China’s military modernization programme, its implications, and the intentions behind it were exchanged. In China’s context, the security of the Indian Ocean and the global commons, including cyberspace, was discussed in generic terms. That this was said publicly on Indian soil by a US Defence Secretary is significant. At the very least the pretense of China’s peaceful rise is being punctured.

Gates’s visit turned out to be, surprisigly, relatively low profile, with nothing of real substance emerging. Whether it signals the maturing of the relationship, in the sense that such visits should become more routine, without expectations of major announcements each time, or it signals a lowering of euphoria about the transformation of India-US ties and the relationship settling down at more realisitc levels, has to be assessed. The press briefing that we raised with Gates the issue of continuing US sanctions on India defence PSUs and DRDO laboratories contrary to the strategic relations that India and the US are building might support the latter view.

The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and can be contacted at [email protected]

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