The last two weeks in the calendar of Indo-US relations are a good measure of the positives and negatives in bilateral relations, one holding the promise of more and the other providing the sour notes.
What’s on display is a clear attempt by New Delhi to build where possible, ignore the intractable and plough new fields where available. Indian activism with America is noticeable.
Washington in turn has shown eagerness, especially on deepening the defence relationship with New Delhi. But on the political and economic front, there are clear differences, which are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. The American DNA on certain issues, especially Pakistan, ensures the two sides will remain apart, earnest assurances from Washington notwithstanding.
The Obama Administration has shown no interest in changing its Pakistan policy despite recommendations from a growing number of American experts to do so. It has, in fact, gone out of its way to bolster the Pakistan military, ignoring Rawalpindi’s intransigence, its opposition to making peace with India, its continued support of terrorists and its gradual undermining of Pakistan’s civilian government.
The decision to stick to the time table to sell F-16s to Pakistan is another example of tone deafness in Washington. It’s another matter that the US Senate has put its foot down on financing the deal with American taxpayer money.
In the waning days, the US administration is unlikely to do anything revolutionary or different – like squeeze the Pakistan army – even though President Barack Obama was cold and hard-headed on Pakistan when he assumed office.
Of late, Obama has appeared distracted and prone to insensitivity of the kind he displayed when he equated India and Pakistan’s nuclear programmes at the conclusion of the recent nuclear summit. His language was jarring and caused some anger in New Delhi.
This kind of presidential slip-up would likely not have happened in the Bush Administration where any India-Pakistan hyphenation – especially of an egregious kind – was taboo. Senior officials in the Obama White House are not as bothered about diplomatic niceties even as they woo India.
The dissonance causes friction and considerable difficulty in the political basket of issues. It also makes life difficult for the Modi government which arguably is the most forward looking in terms of relations with the United States.
On the positive side, the India-US defence relationship is clearly deepening in more ways than could be imagined even two years ago.
Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary, concluded yet another successful visit to India and from all accounts, progress was made on various fronts.
India agreed in “principle” to sign a logistics agreement, marking a clear departure from the previous government’s policy of seeing the Logistics Support Agreement as a hug too close for comfort. The pact in its generic form allows the US to use the partner country’s military facilities for repairs, refuelling and supplies.
The Modi government forced a name change – it is now called the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement – to mark it as an India-specific text. It would presumably be more sensitive to New Delhi’s concerns since the language has been tweaked. A US adviser said the “tweaking process” has been going on for ten years.
New Delhi is testing the political waters with LEMOA, seen as the least problematic of the three so-called “foundational agreements” before venturing to consider the other two dealing with secure communications and digital mapping.
The joint statement by Carter and India's Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar also announced a new Maritime Security Dialogue and discussions on anti-submarine warfare and submarine safety. These flow from the path-breaking 2015 Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued by Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was seen as a crucial departure for New Delhi toward a more embracing partnership with Washington.
Naval cooperation is key in this Indo-American embrace, the objective being to send a message to China. To drive the point home, the Parrikar-Carter joint statement repeated all the important points of the original vision statement : safeguarding maritime security and freedom of navigation and ensuring over flight throughout the region, including in the South China Sea.
The two sides also plan to devise more complex military exercises, both in air and at sea. Preparations are already underway for the Indian Air Force to participate in the multilateral Red Flag exercise in April-May in Alaska. In addition, two new projects were announced under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative adding to the six already approved.
Before Carter’s latest visit, two of his senior deputies visited New Delhi to brief Indian officials on the “technical details” of Lockheed Martin’s offer to produce F-16s and Boeing’s bid to make F/A-18 in India. The visit was to underline that the Pentagon was behind the idea since something of this magnitude requires official approval.
The idea to transfer assembly lines to India for producing the fighter jets is indicative of Washington’s considerable efforts in India’s direction. According to Lockheed Martin’s Phil Shaw, the project “could include unprecedented technology sharing”. This is obviously attractive for the Make in India initiative.
India’s Act East policy is meeting the American rebalance to Asia slowly but surely. Both sides want a rules-based order, something that China has threatened with its aggressive behaviour over the last three years even as it has benefitted from it during its decades of transformation.
India appears to be gradually shedding its defensiveness towards China and overcoming its deep suspicion of the United States.