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India must not ignore China in order to improve Indo-US ties

By Premvir Das
February 11, 2016 08:28 IST
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Military cooperation with the US has its limits and relations with China have to be given due weight, opines Premvir Das.

IMAGE: Indian troops engage with Chinese during the fifth edition of the joint exercise called Hand-in-Hand 2015 at the Kunming Military Academy at Yunnan Province in China. Photograph: Indian Army

There has been much talk in recent years of the flourishing defence cooperation between India and the USA and future possibilities.

Examples of the undoubtedly professional Malabar series of exercises at sea, as also of similar interfaces among the two armies and air forces, are quoted in support of the growing engagement, as well as the purchase of military hardware from American companies now crossing $9 billion (around Rs 60 thousand crore).

That this has come about through a larger strategic congruence between the two countries is also a given.

Add to this, the increasingly close interaction in exchange of intelligence relating to terrorism, which is not unrelated to security, and the picture gets bigger. Two visits of the American president to New Delhi in as many years and his bilateral exchanges with our own prime minister in Washington add to this synergy.

Positive interactions at Track II levels have further facilitated this process, and the sky would appear to be the limit. Wisdom, however, lies in recognising the ground realities.

Only two decades ago, our military interface with the US was in the pits, literally. Even after the tensions of the Cold War began to recede and India started to see the world and its interests in it through a different prism, suspicions on both sides remained high.

In 1995, the two countries signed what was termed a Minute on Defence Cooperation. Then came India's nuclear tests in 1998 and things went back to zero as the US imposed stiff sanctions on this country.

From then until now, steady progress has been made in the relationship and defence has been an important driver. Acquisition of sophisticated aircraft for the navy and the air force that provide strategic reach has led the purchase segment even as exercises at sea have given a visible public face to the military engagement.

However, the two, while advantageous to both sides in different ways, must, sooner or later, plateau and that may well be happening even now for reasons that are not difficult to understand.

Defence cooperation between two countries essentially requires a strategic base. For the Americans, such relationships have primarily flowed from politico-military alliances.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation across Europe and two other earlier groupings, Cento covering South West Asia and Seato in South East Asia -- both now defunct but in most cases replaced by bilateral arrangements -- are some examples. Add to this close military interfaces and bases around the world, and the mosaic is complete.

In short, America's defence engagement has always been focused on and with its 'allies'. Through this network, which includes transfer of military hardware and technologies, the US seeks to maintain the status quo, in which it remains the unchallenged leader.

To quote US President Obama in his recent State of the Union address, "America is the strongest power in the world, period."

India's world is somewhat different.

From being a relatively docile nation hesitant to play any leading role in global affairs other than by professing its non-alignment, it is now moving to a stage where it seeks to be more proactive in its interfaces and in its region, the Indo-Pacific in particular.

This means engagement, including in defence relationships with several participants, without becoming the alliance partner of any.

So, while the US is a country with which India shares many common interests, it is not the only one.

Similar synergies exist with other players, of which Russia (with which India has had a strong military relationship for decades), Japan, France, UK, Australia, Israel, Vietnam, Iran, South Africa and littorals of the Indian Ocean region and South East Asia are only a few.

It has such cooperation arrangements with several countries and it is not surprising that as many as 54 are represented at the International Fleet Review being hosted by the Indian Navy in Visakhapatnam.

One or more of these nations might also be America's allies but their aspirations are not the same as ours, or the desire to seek changes in the world order consistent with our own. India's need to seek a new paradigm in international equations runs on a different plane, if not counter to the American theme.

So, while healthy and mutually beneficial interaction with the US must be a key objective of our foreign policy, developing advantageous relations with the others is important. In such bilateral interfaces, relations with China have also to be given due weight.

As the major Asian power with which India shares a long and disputed land boundary, it cannot be left out of our calculus. In short, there are some fundamental differences in the way the US and India see the emerging strategic environment and their own roles in it.

The fact that India is already the fourth largest global economy in PPP terms, and will become the third in less than a decade, gives another dimension to the emerging scenario.

To this dissonance should be added the continuing soft handling of our neighbour by the US despite that country's known support of India-focused acts of terror.

As far as the purely military relationship is concerned, levels of suspicion have greatly diminished in the last 15 years but they have not disappeared; one reason for this is the mollycoddling of Pakistan's military establishment by the Pentagon, which is unlikely to be gone anytime soon.

To address and overcome the negatives should be work in progress for both sides.

As for procurement, some facts need recognition.

Several major warships that the Indian Navy operates are of Russian origin and almost every single frontline vessel that is built in India is equipped with some Russian weapons and/or sensors.

The SU-30s and MiG-29s are at the forefront of our air strike power, as are armoured vehicles like the T-90 tanks on land.

To expect that things will change dramatically in the foreseeable future is unrealistic. The impending induction of Rafale multi-role aircraft from France costing about $10 billion (around Rs 62 thousand crore), more than all US purchases so far, will further constrain acquisition of American military hardware.

In recent years, many important American functionaries -- among them the present secretary of defence -- have actively pursued closer ties between the militaries of the two countries, independent of the fact that India is not and is unlikely to ever be a US ally. This is a positive approach which we must reciprocate.

In brief, both countries have to realise that there are limits to our defence cooperation and the relationship has to be developed within the parameters that these will, inevitably, set.

Any expectation that this engagement will reach the sky is rather simplistic. 

The writer is a former Director General, Defence Planning Staff, and has been a participant in Track II India-US dialogues for many years

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