MUMBAI: A question hovers over the United States’ blooming friendship with India—how good a friend will India be should it emerge as a great power? Will it be a Britain? A loyal ally, a partner against terrorism, a fellow evangelist for free markets and democracy? Or will it be France? Sharing Washington's bedrock values, but ever willing to pursue its own interests at the expense of American ones? Or will it be China? A competitive threat to the US economy, using its influence to thwart American diplomatic pressure on nations like Sudan and Iran?
This week, government officials and military-hardware makers from the US will be looking for clues of India’s strategic intentions as they attempt to break new ground—for the first time, at an air show outside the technology hub of Bangalore, they are seeking to sell India American-made warplanes.
The world’s two largest democracies were on frosty terms during the Cold War, and India relied on Soviet imports for most of its military firepower. But with times changing, particularly after the 9/11 attacks highlighted common security interests, leaders of the two nations declared in July 2005 that they were warming their ties into a strategic partnership.
At the heart of the new bond is a civilian nuclear deal, recently enacted as law in Washington, that lifts constraints on India's purchases of nuclear fuel for its civilian reactors, and frees American companies to sell sensitive technologies to India. Around the time the deal was struck, American officials often talked up India as the new Britain. But a year and a half later, India has shown a tendency to chart an unpredictable course, whether by cozying up to the rulers of Myanmar, Sudan and Iran or by stalling on its promises to open its economy fully to American corporate giants like Wal-Mart, AIG and Citibank.
And so the hawking of aircraft in India is more than just a commercial push—it is also a chance to decipher what kind of partner India will be.
“To the extent the US government is looking for clues, they come from military sales contracts,” said Teresita Schaffer, a former chief of the South Asia desk at the US state department, and now an India scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The Pentagon has authorized the largest-ever deployment of display aircraft to the subcontinent. India is expected to open a tender this year for 126 fighter jets to modernize its fleet, and the Americans are hoping their new friendship with Delhi will give the F/A-18F Super Hornet, built by Boeing, and the F-16, by Lockheed Martin, an edge over the Russian MiG fighters that have long dominated the Indian Air Force fleet.
To counter Russia’s historical advantage, Boeing has offered to produce the F/A-18F jointly with an Indian manufacturer. Lockheed scored its own public-relations points by recruiting Ratan Tata, billionaire industrialist and amateur pilot, to fly an F-16 at the air show.
American companies sending representatives to Bangalore’s air show this week include Boeing, Lockheed, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney. American defence companies regard India as a $30-billion (Rs1.32 lakh crore) opportunity over five years, one leader of the American delegation, William Cohen, a former US defence secretary, had told reporters in New Delhi on 5 January 2007.
On paper, India seems a natural US ally. As Cohen wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week, echoing a widely held view in Washington, India and the US are “multiethnic and secular democracies” with “shared values, interests and objectives”. Signs of new cooperation abound—trade and investment are flourishing.
Military exercises between the US and India are becoming more frequent. India is playing an important and little-noticed role in post-Taliban reconstruction in Afghanistan. And New Delhi, more than most other major capitals, is generally warm to the Bush administration’s war on terror, given its own battles with extremists.
But as India has accrued ever more influence in recent years, it has not always spent it in ways helpful to Washington.
India is opening its economy to foreign competition more slowly than Washington would like, and, in a bid to counter Chinese influence in its backyard, it has warmed to the military rulers of Myanmar, which the Bush administration has sought to isolate.
India has rekindled its ties with Russia lately with an eye on its vast oil reserves. And India has shown a clear interest in buying oil and gas from governments that the West seeks to isolate, including those of Sudan and Iran. On Tuesday, foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee was in Tehran for talks on a gas pipeline from Iran to India, via Pakistan, that has irritated American officials.
“India will never be an ally,” said Arundhati Ghosh, a former Indian arms-control negotiator and ambassador to the UN office in Geneva. “But we’ll be a friend, which is different.”
“In an alliance,” she continued, “there is a leader, and what he says is carried out by the rest of the alliance. Where we have common interests, we will work together. Where we disagree, we will continue to disagree.”
And so, when India chooses this year between, say, the MiG-35 and the F-16, many will ask whether it is sign of a drift away from Washington or rather a commitment to interweave the two nations’ interests more closely together.