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US-India defence ties have taken another small step towards consolidation with the visit of US secretary of defence Ashton Carter to India this week. The two countries finally managed to agree “in principle" on a logistics agreement, and it could now be finalized in weeks. It is expected to help the two militaries coordinate better, including in exercises, and also allow the US to more easily sell fuel or provide spare parts to the Indians.

A second pact to improve the sharing of information on commercial shipping, in a move to beef up security on the seas, is also close to realization. There has been, however, no real progress on the joint development of jet engines and aircraft carrier technologies.

These are good times for US-India defence ties. Carter himself has had a long standing interest in India and in strengthening India-US ties. This was his third visit to India since assuming office in 2015. He was a strong supporter of the US-India nuclear deal and as deputy secretary of defence in 2011 was the principal architect of the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) to help the flow of advanced American technology to India, a key Indian priority strongly resisted by Washington’s defence bureaucracy. He has taken this forward with the setting up of the India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC), the only country-specific cell in the US department of defence, as part of the DTTI, to fast-forward India-related acquisition issues. Carter has emphasized the Pentagon’s “decision to change its mindset regarding technology transfer to India from a culture of ‘presumptive no’ to one of ‘presumptive yes’" in the context of the US’s changing strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific.

Carter has come to India at a time when the US Congress is considering the US-India Defence Technology and Partnership Act, which encourages the US president “to coordinate with India on an annual basis to develop military contingency plans for addressing threats to mutual security interests of both countries".

It also calls for the development of “strategic operational capabilities" that will give the two states “the ability to execute military operations of mutual security interest while sustaining minimal damages and casualties, through the use of military means, possessed in sufficient quantity, including weapons, command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities". Today India is interested in co-development opportunities, rather than in simply buying American-made weapons, especially with the government pushing its “Make in India" initiative.

Many in India worry that the US wants to make India a junior partner in its regional alliance network, but Carter has given clear indications that he understands Indian concerns. He has been explicit that India was not likely to be an exclusive partner of the US as he suggested “Indians are, like many others, also proud. So they want to do things independently, and they want to do things their own way. They don’t want to do things just with us. They want to do things with all; that’s fine. So we’re not looking for anything exclusive. But we are looking for as close a relationship and a stronger relationship as we can because it’s geopolitically grounded."

This geopolitical grounding is provided by the rise of China and all that it means for Indian strategic interests. India will be reaching out to China in the coming days, with the national security adviser and the defence minister both visiting the country over the next few weeks. But China has shown no signs that it is willing to change or even moderate its anti-India posture. Insisting that the designation of any individual as terrorist by the UN is a “serious issue", China recently blocked the UN from banning Masood Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammad chief and mastermind behind the Pathankot attack.

To counter the China challenge, the US wants to create a “network" of countries with “shared values, habits of cooperation, and compatible and complementary capabilities", which will expand the strategic reach of the participating countries, enable them to pool their resources to share the security burden and, thereby, “help ensure the peace and stability in the region for years to come". New Delhi need not become part of this network but it needs to articulate the need for a new security architecture in Asia that can successfully take on the challenge posed by a rising and aggressive China.

India and the US have been striving to conclude a series of “foundational agreements" for years now and under the United Progressive Alliance government, even the least controversial, the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) could not move forward as then defence minister A.K. Antony under the influence of the Left parties, became convinced about the US’s malign motives in pushing it through. With the declaration that the LSA has been finalized, the two nations can now move forward with some confidence about the future of US-India defence ties.

India is in the big league today and so should start thinking big. The old Third World rhetoric doesn’t do justice to Indian global aspirations. The Narendra Modi government is gradually shedding Indian strategic diffidence but it needs to move faster if India is to avail of the opportunities that present themselves today.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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