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Will jet deal hamper US-India ties? Experts differ

April 29, 2011 11:57 IST

While Obama administration officials and representatives of US industry strongly expressed their angst over India's rejection of the American fighter aircraft but did not want to be quoted by name, leading South Asia policy wonks in Washington had no such compunctions in interviews with

President Obama had personally pushed for the deal in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

'No reason why US should bend backwards to accommodate India'

Former Bush administration official and strategic affairs expert Ashley Tellis, who had authored a major report titled Dogfight! India's Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Decision, where he made a strong case for the American aircraft, said, "The down-select decision clearly represents the Indian Air Force's choice, which the ministry of defence has obviously gone along with as expected."

Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, "Both the fighters down-selected are extremely agile platforms: they obviously represent a fighter pilot's dream because they excel where maneuverability, acceleration, and flight envelopes are concerned."

But he acknowledged, "Their big weakness, however, is their primary sensor -- neither has an AESA radar yet -- but the bigger questions are not technical, but strategic: Do these aircrafts represent the best value for the IAF?  Do these aircrafts represent the best investments for India overall?"

Tellis said, "I think there are many in the US who will conclude that India has settled for a plane, not a relationship -- and if that is the case, there is no reason why the administration should bend backwards to accommodate India."

He said, he believed "the way the decision was made and announced has only made things worse: the government of India knew full well the importance the administration attached to this sale. A quiet intimation of the coming decision would have helped."

'Uproar over scams may have restricted India'

Lisa Curtis, an erstwhile Central Intelligence Agency analyst and ex-Congressional staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who is the resident South Asian specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said, "The Indian decision to de-list the two US companies for consideration is a severe blow to the overall relationship."

She said, "Strong defence ties are the bedrock of any strategic partnership and this Indian decision will have far-reaching implications for the nature and quality of the US-India partnership moving forward."

Curtis, echoing the contention by Obama administration officials and also the representatives of US business and industry, said, "The powerful Defense Minister A K Anthony seems to have prevailed in the debate over the aircraft purchase," but she reiterated her warning that "there may be costs for Indian geo-strategic interests."

She pointed out that "India is conducting an increasing number of military exercises with the US, including multilateral coalition-building exercises with countries, such as Australia, Japan and Singapore, that have become more significant as rising China's military and economic weight is increasingly felt in the region."

Curtis said, "A decision to buy US -- which produces the most capable aircraft in the world -- would have helped boost India's power potential by increasing its own military's interoperability with not only the US but also with other important Asian nations."

"To overlook these geopolitical realities and downplay the competitiveness of the US aircraft is short-sighted," she said, and added: "The weakening power of Prime Minister Singh, a major supporter of strong US-India ties, under the weight of the corruption scandals that have wracked India over the last several months may have played into the politics of the decision."

Curtis said, "This is regrettable and will likely cost India in terms of reaching its global power ambitions, not to mention setting the overall US-India relationship back for a period of time."

According to her, "While (US) Ambassador Roemer may have been planning to leave his post around this time already, the symbolism of him announcing the resignation on the same day India announced its decision to de-list the US companies should not be lost on anyone. It demonstrates the significance the US attaches to this Indian decision."

'Indian military values autonomy more than performance'

Sunil Dasgupta, director of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County's Political Science Program and also a nonresident fellow in Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings, who recently co-authored Arming without Aiming: India's Military Modernisation with the doyen of South Asia experts Stephen P Cohen, was more circumspect, saying, "I'd say the government of India values autonomy in military supplies and access to technology more than it values military performance -- a point we have made in the book."

He dismissed the dire prognostications of the likes of Tellis, Curtis and administration and industry officials, saying, "I don't believe US-India relations will suffer inordinately as a result."

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC