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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Building US-India defence relations

Political conditions don't exist that justify a joint defence commitment, but there is every reason to develop joint military capabilities

After more than a decade of discussions on the topic, on 29 August, the Indian minister of defence and US secretary of defence signed an agreement on the provision of military logistics services. The content of the agreement isn’t especially consequential—it facilitates activities already occurring—but its conclusion demonstrates that the Narendra Modi government is willing to accept short-term criticism (based on politically motivated misinformation about these agreements) in exchange for the longer term benefit of a stronger defence partnership with the US. More important steps lie ahead.

Specifically, American and Indian military forces should take concrete action to develop the capability to operate together as partners. A capability, not a commitment. The option, not the obligation. After all, the political leadership of both countries characterizes the relationship as a “defence partnership"—a phrase heard repeatedly this week with India’s defence minister in Washington DC.

It’s fair to ask what exactly this phrase means. The US and India are not treaty allies nor are their military forces operating alongside each other in today’s battlefields. The Indian body politic is intensely averse to military alliances. Nor is it clear that American interests would be well served by a treaty that commits American soldiers to defend Indian territory when the situation on the India-Pakistan border remains unresolved. America has plenty of defence commitments already.

In practice, the US-India defence partnership has primarily expressed itself through a robust joint military exercise programme, defence technology cooperation and growing defence trade. Exports in this sector have grown from $300 million to approximately $15 billion in about a decade. This is huge. But more is needed to give meaning to a true defence partnership.

The next step to be taken by both governments is to link military exercises and defence trade to military missions of mutual interest. Indian and American diplomatic and military leaders ought to identify and discuss the missions that their armed forces may be responsible for executing in the Indo-Pacific during the coming decades. We know for example that they will perform humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, counter piracy actions and maritime domain awareness patrols. Indo-Pacific countries are also confronted by a widening gap between China’s growing military capabilities and those of its neighbours. There are plenty of contingency scenarios to consider as the life blood of the world economy increasingly flows through the Indian Ocean Region.

The US has both a commercial and national security interest in enabling India to serve as a security provider in this vital part of the world. American companies should be the partners of choice for defence procurements not only because of the commercial benefit but because American-origin platforms provide the option for interoperability. Political conditions don’t exist that justify a joint defence commitment, but there is every reason to develop joint military capabilities. A time will come when Americans and Indians will want their armed forces to be capable of working together—the option not the obligation. Joint capabilities take time to build. We should get started today.

Benjamin E. Schwartz is the director for defence and aerospace at the US-India Business Council and previously served as director for India in the office of the secretary of defence.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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