New Delhi: India and the US will look to broaden defence ties during a visit this week by defence secretary Leon Panetta, officials said on Sunday.
Panetta, a former chief of the US Central Intelligence Agency who took over as defence secretary from Robert Gates last year, is on his first visit to India in his current capacity.
During his two-day stay on 5 and 6 June in New Delhi, Panetta is expected to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, besides holding talks with his counterpart A.K. Antony. Panetta will also address the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses think tank.
Leon Panetta. AP
“The secretary has been eager to visit India since assuming his post last summer,” an unnamed US official was quoted as saying last week in a post on the US department of defence website.
“We’re trying to have a relationship with India that is broad, strategic and continual. With India, we are getting to a place where this type of interaction is just part of the norm of the relationship, where we engage on a whole range of issues—strategic issues, cooperative issues and a whole range of cooperative issues,” the official said.
Once mired in mutual suspicions, India-US defence ties have undergone a sea change from the days of the Cold War, when India was seen on the side of the former Soviet Union, and the US, with its military and other support to India’s arch-rival Pakistan, was seen as unsympathetic to India’s security concerns.
In the 1990s, both sides moved towards greater contacts with the setting up of the defence policy group, institutionalizing a dialogue between the US defence department and India’s defence ministry.
But India’s nuclear tests in 1998 and the subsequent sanctions soured the relationship, and it was only the removal of the strictures a decade ago that led to a resumption of civilian defence and military contacts in the form of joint exercises and dialogues.
Panetta’s stopover in New Delhi after Singapore and Vietnam is unlikely to yield a far-reaching pact like the one clinched in 2005 when India and the US signed the landmark new framework in the India-US defence relationship that set the contours of their partnership for a decade. But his trip will be keenly watched as he could expand on what role the US would like India to play as Washington implements President Barack Obama’s “pivot towards the Asia-Pacific” strategy—underlining the US as a Pacific power despite planned cuts of about $500 billion in defence spending.
“The core of what we’re trying to do in this swing through Asia is give a comprehensive account to everyone in the region about what the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific (region) will mean in practice,” the US official cited earlier said.
In his speech at the ShangriLa Dialogue forum in Singapore over the weekend, Panetta reiterated the importance of the high-growth Asia-Pacific region to the US—naming China, India and Indonesia as examples of high-growth economies.
Noting that the region has some of the world’s largest populations and the largest militaries, Panetta said, “While the US military will remain a global force for security and stability, we will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region,” according to a text of his speech posted on the website of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organized the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The assurance comes against the backdrop of concerns among many countries in the region about the rise of China, its military modernization and the disputes over islands in the South China Sea that China claims as its territorial waters in its entirety.
Chinese officials have been critical of the US’s shift of military emphasis to Asia, seeing it as an attempt to fence in the country and frustrate Beijing’s territorial claims.
The new strategic guidance to the US department of defence released by Panetta in January says the US is “also investing in a long-term strategic partnership with India to support its ability to serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the broader Indian Ocean region”—a key commercial sea route.
“US economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia,” the strategic guidance posted on the department of defence website said.
On China, the guidance said the country’s emergence as a regional power “will have the potential to affect the US economy and our security in a variety of ways. ... the growth of China’s military power must be accompanied by greater clarity of its strategic intentions in order to avoid causing friction in the region. ...Working closely with our network of allies and partners, we will continue to promote a rules-based international order that ensures underlying stability and encourages the peaceful rise of new powers, economic dynamism, and constructive defence cooperation.”
“This is the hedging strategy” of India, the US and other countries in the region vis-a-vis China, said former foreign secretary and ex-ambassador to the US, Lalit Mansingh. “We don’t know which way China will turn, but we will be prepared, that is the idea.”
India is often cited as having the potential to counter-balance China though the Indian government is reluctant to be seen as such.
But India has in recent years signed defence pacts with a host of countries including Thailand and Vietnam, besides announcing its intention to post a defence attache in Seoul.
On the bilateral front, Panetta will discuss defence trade with Indian leaders, as well as future US-Indian military-to-military relations, the outcome of the 20 May North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) summit in Chicago, and long-term trends in South Asia and the rest of the region.
India has in recent years emerged as a major buyer of US military hardware, from an amphibious assault platform—the USS Trenton—to transport and reconnaissance aircraft.
US envoy to India Nancy Powell was recently quoted as saying that defence hardware deals worth $8 billion were in the pipeline.
Powell did not specify which firms she was talking about or when the deals will be signed, but embassy officials said she was referring to negotiations that include about a dozen Apache helicopters with engines for Indian jets, Reuters reported.
“What India would like to see is joint research, development and manufacture of military hardware. We have not yet reached that stage of the offset policy,” Mansingh said.
The situation in Afghanistan and US ties with Pakistan are also expected to be on the table, an Indian government official said, requesting anonymity.
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