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India-US: The blunt truth

By B S Raghavan
Last updated on: July 22, 2005 20:26 IST
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Part I: Unequal partners

The text of the Indo-US defence accord speaks for itself.

With the bilateral defence relationship having 'advanced in a short time to unprecedented levels of cooperation unimaginable in 1995,' and changes in the international security environment posing challenges to both countries 'in ways unforeseen ten years ago', the new 'framework', while building on past successes, is designed to seize new opportunities, it says.

In tune with its unprecedented nature, it will be in force for 10 years.

The blunt truth is that this is an agreement between two unequal partners, one having all the trumps and the other in danger of being irresistibly forced to follow suit at moments of crisis.

Pranab plays good cop, bad cop

Also, India has got very little from the US for undertaking these obligations which are bound to be a strain on resources and freedom of action. The US has been tight-lipped about supporting India's bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, supply of dual use nuclear and space technologies and pressuring Pakistan to close down terrorist camps.

No wonder US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld rejoiced: 'The military-to-military relationship between our two countries is excellent. It has been developed over four-and-a-half years in ways that today are multifaceted. We have advanced continuously in the relationship in terms of meetings and exercises and various aspects of it. And I feel very good and positive about it.'

India, US agree to boost defence ties

There are several features that distinguish the new 'framework' from the 'agreed minutes'. For the first time in a formal agreement on defence cooperation, it sets out the 'shared interests' of the US and India in specific terms as including: maintaining security and stability; defeating terrorism and violent religious extremism; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data, and technologies; and protecting the free flow of commerce via land, air and sea lanes.

In the light of these wide-ranging goals, the two governments bind themselves and their defence establishments to a comprehensive charter of 13 obligations (see box) many of which may constrain India to become a 'client state' of the US.

'Who could imagine such cooperation a decade ago?

Take the obligation to collaborate 'in multinational operations when it is in their common interest' and expand collaboration in missile defence.

Conceivably, the Defence Policy Group set up after the 'agreed minutes' will decide what is in the common interest of both countries, but what happens when they cannot agree?

Further, there is no mention that such operations will be under the auspices of the United Nations. Which means India has pre-committed to participate even if its troops were brought under US military command.

Collaboration in missile defence can easily result in India being drawn into a global missile defence shield being forged by the US as part of its own hegemonistic strategy. Would India want this to happen?

Or, take the commitment to 'assist in building worldwide capacity to conduct successful peacekeeping operations, with a focus on enabling other countries to field trained, capable forces for these operations'.

India, US look at wider horizons

Peacekeeping cannot take place in vacuo or without regard to who are the aggressors and the aggressed. There will be situations in which it would be prudent for India not to get involved. But the obligation imposed by the charter is unqualified and may prove a source of contention.

On top of it all, India seems to have boxed itself in the interlocking mechanisms envisaged under the 'framework'. They can become embarrassing millstones round India's neck in the future, fettering free exercise of its judgement.

In addition to the Defence Policy Group and its various sub-groups, the pact 'in recognition of the growing breadth and depth of the US-India strategic defence relationship' establishes a Defence Procurement and Production Group and a Joint Working Group for mid-year review of work.

The DPPG will oversee defence trade, as well as prospects for co-production and technology collaboration, broadening the scope of its predecessor the Security Cooperation Group.

US non-committal on backing India for UNSC permanent seat

The Defence Joint Working Group will be subordinate to the Defence Policy Group. It will meet at least once a year for a mid-year review of work overseen by the Defence Policy Group and its subgroups (the Defence Procurement and Production Group, the Joint Technical Group, the Military Cooperation Group, and the Senior Technology Security Group), and prepare issues for the annual meeting of the Defence Policy Group.

With so many cooks stirring the broth (and the hornet's nest as well!), it is doubtful if India's defence establishment will have the time to look after its primary duty of safeguarding India's defence.

The whole purport of the 'framework' and the charter of commitments seem to be to enhance 'inter-operability' of which one of the concomitants would be integration of the structures of the two armed forces.

Is India game for such a merger of identities?


(The author is a former director (political), in the ministry of home affairs. This column was written after Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit and before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to US.)

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B S Raghavan