An enviable consistency has come to characterise Indo-US relations for some time now, with the bilateral defence relationship spearheading other areas of cooperation between the two countries. The US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's three-day visit to India that started on 10 April, which will climax with a widely anticipated joint statement on 13 April, is a significant step in fostering the acquired momentum between the two sides.
On the eve of his visit to India, Carter told the Council on Foreign Relations at New York that he will talk about "exciting new projects" during his visit to India. The visit is being held as ‘high-profile’ given the expectations with regards to final breakthrough announcements in the joint statement. The media contingent travelling with Secretary Carter has also fuelled this outlook.
Assessing the Likely Deliverables
From less than a week before his visit, when the Pentagon was still teetering on the final date of Carter’s visit to India, the three-day programme has certainly been precipitated to coincide with immediate goals. The US seems to have taken full cognizance of India’s hunt for fighter jets, which is still on the fence. One of the likely accomplishments of the visit seems to be in the deal to produce American fighter aircraft in India under the Make in India initiative. While Boeing is expected to manufacture the F16 'Super Viper', Lockheed Martin will make a customised F/A 18 'Super Hornet'.
The speculations regarding an aircraft deal find themselves further validated when looked at with the meeting between the two US companies, Pentagon's Director for International Cooperation Keith Webster, and top Indian officials, in the preceding week. The deal that is likely to take the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route is expected to meet both indigenous requirements as well as exports in the long term, thereby giving a boost to realising the co-production and co-development clause under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI).
While the fighter aircraft deal has hogged the limelight because of the economic stakes involved and its consequential employment opportunities in India, there are three ‘foundational’ agreements which, if reached, would further entrench India-US defence relations: Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial intelligence. The underlying purpose of all the three agreements is to bolster interoperability between the armed forces of the two countries through various means and under different circumstances. For instance, the LSA would allow both the countries to access supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports in return for payments.
India has so far been very circumspect, allowing cooperation in these areas only a 'case-by-case' basis. The CISMOA intends to make communications between the two countries secure through the supply of encrypted communications equipment from the US. And BECA would facilitate passing on of topographical and aeronautical data and equipment from the US to India improving targeted strikes and better navigation.
The two sides are also likely to announce new mechanisms to improve service-to-service relations in order to promote better understanding of acquisitions, technology pooling, and developments. As the two countries have more than 50 bilateral exercises annually between them, service-to-service exchanges will also smoothen efficient interoperability.
That Carter has described the US-India relationship as a “strategic handshake” is itself important. To say the least, in the present context it means a give-and-take relationship with possible trade-offs for either side. So, while the US would stand to benefit more from agreement such as the LSA, given its reach in the Indian Ocean, the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea, India is likely to benefit immensely through CISMOA, if signed, vis-à-vis terror activities from across its borders. However, challenges remain between the two sides on other agreements such as the End Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) and the Enhanced End Use Monitoring Agreement (EEUMA). Since these agreements require monitoring equipment even after sale by the supplier and hence access to these equipment, India has kept away from bringing them up and a discussion during this visit is unlikely.
Secretary Carter has summed up the purpose of his India visit as having a “whole global agenda.” The attempt to move beyond specifics of bilateral relations towards a grand strategy in the region has not seemed overstated, at least in the recent past. Some of the defence agreements cited above, which the US is pushing for, would assist in locating more bilateral convergences in the policies of two sides. India’s Act East policy and the US rebalance have already coalesced in the Indo-Pacific. With every high profile visit, the two countries appear to move a step closer in forming a regional grand strategy.
During President Obama’s visit in January 2015 the two countries announced the crucial, "US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region." For the first time, India stood with the US in arguing for the freedom of navigation and over flight in the South China Sea. More recently, the US-India Defense Technology and Partnership Act has already been introduced in the US Congress to elevate India-US relationship to a special status. However, it remains to be seen if Secretary Carter and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar will extend the contours of a rapidly shaping grand strategy in the region, largely riding on the bilateral defence relationship.