By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th June 16
On Saturday, in the lead-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s on-going visit to the United States, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar spoke out in measured terms against China’s aggressive unilateralism in the South China Sea. Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Parrikar abandoned the timidity with which Indian officials speak about China, and called for “the parties to these disputes [in the South China Sea] to renounce the threat or use of force against other states.”
American observers often misread the studied distance New Delhi maintains from US actions and comments on the South China Sea, to conclude that India does not have the stomach to stand up for regional rights. Mr Parrikar himself has rebutted over-enthusiastic comments from senior American officials --- including the US Pacific Command (USPACOM) chief, Admiral Harry Harris Jr, and the US envoy to India, Rich Verma --- about joint patrolling by the US and Indian navies. Yet, even at this moment, an Indian flotilla with three frontline warships is sailing the South China and East China Seas, visiting ports in Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Russia and Malaysia.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, Mr Parrikar pointed to India’s own interests in retaining freedom of navigation in the waters of the western Pacific, through which more than half of India’s maritime trade passes. He said: “While we do not take a position on territorial disputes, which should be resolved peacefully without the threat or use of force, we firmly uphold freedom of navigation and over-flight in accordance with international law, in particular the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Voicing the concern of regional countries at Beijing’s belligerent rhetoric and inflated maritime claims, represented by its unilaterally drawn “Nine-Dash Line” that claims much of the South China Sea as China’s historical waters, Mr Parrikar stated: “While no single region has a monopoly on nationalist rhetoric, we need to pay special attention to its linkages with territorial disputes and alternate readings of history in this part of the globe.” Even without joint patrolling, this brings New Delhi’s stated position in this region pretty much congruent with Washington’s.
Mr Parrikar also backed the ASEAN-created, multilateral security architecture to maintain regional harmony, although these mechanisms are distrusted by China, which prefers to bully smaller countries in bilateral arrangements, rather than being outnumbered in a multilateral framework. Yet, Parrikar supported multilateralism, stating: “We have a foundation of regional and sub-regional arrangements to build upon. Bilateral dialogue and confidence building can usefully supplement these regional and sub-regional mechanisms. ASEAN has built several mechanisms, which can play a central part in the regional security framework.”
Yet, Mr Parrikar also served the US a reminder that, despite Washington’s and New Delhi’s common interests in south-west Asia; India’s core concerns include violent conflict in West Asia, and Afghanistan’s stability that is being relentlessly undermined by Pakistan. While the Indian defence minister did not say so, New Delhi deeply resents American diplomatic and military support to Pakistan, which allows Islamabad to leverage its support for the Taliban to keep India out of a substantive role in shaping a post-conflict regime in Afghanistan.
This dichotomy --- US-India convergence in south-east Asia, and divergence in south and west Asia --- will form the geopolitical backdrop to Mr Modi’s engagement with President Barack Obama on Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington. Even so, the US administration may be already re-evaluating its unquestioning support to Islamabad. Last month’s killing of Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Mansour, in a drone strike in Baluchistan suggested that Pakistan might find it harder to string along Washington indefinitely. The blocking of funding by the US Congress for the sale to Pakistan of eight F-16 fighters, and the passage of the “US India Defense Technology and Partnership Act” in the House of Representatives underline that American lawmakers have lost patience with Islamabad and better understand the potential of partnering with India. This realisation will be inevitably reinforced with a predictably rousing Modi speech to a joint sitting of the US Congress. That Americans of Indian origin constitute a potent political lobby became clear in New York in 2014, during Mr Modi’s jamboree at Madison Square Garden.
While the defence partnership is loaded with the weight of expectations, there is not much on the table in terms of deliverables. India may be formally associated with the US Central Command (USCENTCOM), in addition to the Hawaii-based USPACOM, which currently coordinates military exercises and plans with New Delhi. While two “foundational agreements” have been broadly negotiated, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) is likely to be signed quickly, while the signing of the more operationally vital Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) may depend upon the political reaction to LEMOA.
As always, there will be feel-good statements about US-India joint exercises, especially the Indian Air Force’s participation in last month’s Red Flag exercise in Alaska, and the naval Exercise Malabar, now a trilateral exercise that also includes Japan. Much will be made of India’s purchase of the CH-47F heavy lift helicopter, and the AH-64E Apache attack helicopter. There could be news about India’s $700 million purchase of 145 M777 ultralight howitzers. All eyes will be peeled for indications that the Indian Navy has chosen to partner with America in the design and construction of its second indigenous aircraft carrier, a 65,000-tonne vessel that will be called INS Vishal. If the navy finally plumps for a catapult launch capability (as it is increasingly inclined to do), that may open the doors for not just a host of US aircraft carrier systems, such as the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), but also air combat control systems, and a bouquet of naval combat helicopters, fighters (the F/A-18 Super Hornet remains a strong contender) and electronic warfare aircraft.
Still underperforming is the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), established in 2012 to remove hurdles to US-India defence trade. Four “pathfinder projects” announced during President Obama’s visit to Delhi in 2015 have made little headway. Since this is his pet project, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter can be expected to propose measures to galvanize this initiative.
New Delhi watchers will measure the success of Mr Modi’s visit less in terms of defence agreements than in the context of whether he can induce President Obama to unstintingly campaign for India’s candidature of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Mr Modi has laboured to persuade holdout countries to support India’s entry into the NSG; his current visits to Switzerland and Mexico aim at this very objective, and has apparently succeeded with Berne. But unstinted US support will be crucial. In 2008, a nominally “lame duck” President George Bush pushed through crucial legislation relating to the US-India nuclear deal. Mr Obama, who still has seven months in office, could win serious equity in New Delhi by shepherding India into the NSG.