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India-US defence ties secure under Trump

December 13, 2016 14:43 IST

When Obama signs the NDAA 2017 into law this week, the US-India partnership will be enshrined in US legislation, binding every succeeding administration, whatever its inclinations, to treat India as a 'major defence partner,' says Ajai Shukla.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

After a recent meeting with Manohar Parrikar, with whom he had already met seven times since he was appointed India's defence minister in November 2014, US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter was quoted by a senior American official as lamenting that despite their relentless efforts to invigorate the Indo-US defence partnership, there was always more to be done.

The official concluded by likening this to Zeno's Paradox (external link).

"There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. We shuffled our feet and tried to look like we knew the first thing about Zeno’s Paradox," says the US official.

Then, to relief all around, Parrikar broke the silence with the comment that Zeno's Paradox was indeed a good description. The IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) graduate explained that the ancient Greek had postulated, in his Dichotomy Paradox, that a destination could never be reached because, one had first to reach the half-way mark; at which point half the journey still remained.

When one covered half of that, half still remained. In this manner, there would always be half of some distance remaining to be covered, howsoever small. Thus, the journey could never be completed.

Such was the peculiar bond between Carter, a technocrat and academic; and Parrikar, an engineer and politician, who both were convinced that a close defence relationship was vital for both Washington and New Delhi.

Over the last two years, they have set course pragmatically, steering over speed bumps and obstacles, to achieve a number of successes that testify to the solidity of the relationship.

Amongst them are the 'Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship', signed in 2015; and a long postponed 'Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement' signed this year.

In addition, Carter and Parrikar have solidified an entire edifice of discussion bodies, providing forums in which Washington and New Delhi's bureaucracies negotiated the new relationship.

Some of these, like the apex Defence Policy Group and the Military Cooperation Group, predated the current ministers.

But the real driver of the relationship was the newly-created Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, which explored co-development programmes that had the potential to really build trust and overcome decades of suspicion between the two new partners.

Also created by Carter in the Pentagon was an India Rapid Reaction Cell that processed India-related issues on priority.

With Carter due to demit office in late January, all this hung in the balance.

The India policy was an initiative of the Barack Obama administration, and there was no certainty that it would be followed up by President-elect Donald Trump and his chosen defence secretary, General James Mattis.

Even before Trump won the election, questions were being asked about whether Hillary Clinton would accord New Delhi the priority that Obama's administration had done.

Obama's successor, or another president down the line, could easily have reversed course, walking away from the DTTI, shutting down the India Rapid Reaction Cell and abandoning the idea that India was a special partner, vital to Washington's interests in Indo-Asia-Pacific.

This uncertainty was removed with the passage of the National Defence Authorisation Act of 2017, in which Section 1292 is headed 'Enhancing Defence and Security Cooperation with India'.

Over the last fortnight, the NDAA passed the House of Representatives (375:34) and the Senate (92:7).

When Obama signs the NDAA 2017 into law this week, the US-India partnership will be enshrined in US legislation, binding every succeeding administration, whatever its inclinations, to treat India as a 'major defence partner.'

While the US Congress was (as the voting pattern indicates) solidly behind the India legislation, it would have been tempting fate to introduce it as a standalone 'US-India Partnership Bill.'

Most small bills introduced in the US Congress disappear without a trace into what is essentially a legislative black hole that has time only for the really big things -- and sometimes not even for those.

So, like many other strongly supported legislations, the Indo-US legislation was made to piggy-back on the NDAA 2017, which must be passed each year since it allocates funding for the American defence forces.

This was the method followed to legislate the US-Israel defence partnership, which has ensured that Israel remains the pre-eminent military power in West Asia.

In 2008, a similar amendment, the Naval Vessel Transfer Act, contained the clause that binds Washington to ensuring that Israel enjoys a '"qualitative military edge' over every potential adversary.

Effectively, the bill enjoins the US secretaries of defence and state to recognise India as a 'major defence partner of the US.'

It mandates the appointment of an official to pursue the 'Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship', a 10-year agreement signed in 2015 that lays down an elaborate agenda for the partnership.

New Delhi will be carefully watching who the Trump administration appoints; the official's seniority and influence would be an indicator of how important the new president considers the Indo-US relationship.

The India section also enshrines the DTTI and the India Rapid Reaction Cell into US law. This means the continuation of the Indo-US development projects that were taken up under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative last year: joint development of the Indian Navy's next-generation aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, and the crucial high-temperature 'hot section' of an experimental jet engine.

Official sources in Washington and New Delhi are whispering about a new big-ticket project about to be announced under the DTTI. There is speculation this might involve building a jet fighter in India.

The passage of the legislation was not without drama.

In the summer, the House of Representatives had passed the NDAA 2017, along with an 'India amendment' introduced by Representative George Holding. But, due to infighting in the Senate over a barely connected matter, the India amendment was left out of the NDAA 2017.

Eventually, the House-Senate conference that met to reconcile the two versions of the NDAA 2017, agreed to include the India amendment in the final version.

This is a measure of India's influence on Capitol Hill and a stark reversal from the days when most legislations relating to South Asia were directed at providing Pakistan exceptions from sanctions over its clandestine nuclear project, its trampling of democracy through military coups, and its support to terrorist groups.

Ajai Shukla
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