by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th July 12
India’s defence ministry (MoD) has snubbed Washington’s gesture of appointing a top Pentagon official, Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, to focus on boosting defence trade between the two countries. With the MoD unwilling to appoint an interlocutor for Carter, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) will discuss trade and licensing issues with Carter during his visit to New Delhi next week.
In June, while visiting India, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had announced that Carter would be the Pentagon’s point man on deepening defence trade with India. Carter’s brief, said Panetta, was to “cut through the bureaucratic red tape on both sides” in order to “make our defence trade more simple, responsive and effective.”
But the MoD remains unmoved. “Can you suggest someone who could be Ashton Carter’s interlocutor?” asks a senior bureaucrat impishly.
The MoD’s reluctance to engage Washington bilaterally is not new. In April, when Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew Shapiro renewed the so-called “pol-mil dialogue” that has an overt military component, the MoD suggested that the MEA be the lead ministry for this dialogue.
And Defence Minister AK Antony’s reported wariness of the US is believed to have scuttled a Pentagon proposal to position an Indian Army officer with the US Central Command Headquarters (CENTCOM) in Hawaii, with a corresponding US officer cross-posted to New Delhi.
Contacted for comments, the MoD has not responded.
In Washington, as in the US Embassy in New Delhi, Antony is seen as overtly anti-American. Diplomatic dispatches from New Delhi, revealed by Wikileaks, convey a forcefully impression of Antony’s anti-US orientation.
This contrasts noticeably with the MEA’s relative enthusiasm for the US. There is supposed to be an interface between the two ministries: the MoD is authorized an MEA joint secretary, who works with the defence minister on diplomatic issues. But this post of Joint Secretary (Planning and International Cooperation), or JS (PIC), is currently occupied by an Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer, Smita Nagaraj, a reputedly competent officer but with no diplomatic experience or training.
A top New Delhi official, holding the rank of cabinet minister, recently revealed while speaking to a closed-door New Delhi audience, that no MEA officer is willing to serve as JS (PIC) in the MoD because it is a three-year tenure, while MEA officers need to serve in India for only two years in between foreign postings.
But pressure is building from Washington. The influential US think tank, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in a report that mirrors the Pentagon’s viewpoint that arms sales to India are a key measure of the partnership, has recommended that the “United States and India should designate one official on each side whose portfolio prioritizes the promotion of bilateral defense trade.”
The CSIS report recommends 41 specific steps to kickstart the defence relationship. Besides the designation of official interlocutors on defence trade, some of the key recommendations include:
- The US should seriously examine the prospect of greater co-production and co-development projects with India. While such projects run the risk of essential technologies being denied by Washington, the answer could lie in co-developing non-sensitive defence equipment that “need not initially delve into sensitive technologies that are difficult (for Washington) to release.” The Pentagon is already considering this. Defence Secretary Panetta had declared in New Delhi, “Over the long term, I am certain that we will transition our defence trade beyond the “buyer-seller” relationship to substantial co-production and, eventually, high-technology joint research and development.”
- Currently, discussions on defence trade and licensing are spread across a number of US and Indian agencies and ministries. These should be consolidated into a single forum that focuses exclusively on defence trade.
- India should re-evaluate its insistence on offsets since the Indian private sector is still nascent and the Defence PSUs do not have the capacity to absorb the large offsets that are arising.
- Raise the FDI cap on foreign investment into the defence sector to above 50% from the current 26%.
- And finally, New Delhi needs to respond to the Indian media’s frequent “inaccuracies about U.S. policies and intentions.” It is important to put out an “accurate, coordinated and balanced message to India’s strategic community about the value of U.S.-India defense (sic) ties (to) help dispel misinformation and myths.”