NEW DELHI — India is seen to be warming up to tighter relations with the United States, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the US Congress June 8 during his fourth visit after coming to power in May 2014.
But while two US lawmakers introduced legislation June 8 in the House of Representatives to designate India as a Special Global Partner of America, analysts here are unsure about the new stance toward Washington, which marks a paradigm shift in India's foreign and defense policy.
In general, a tighter embrace is in store, or so it seems from Modi's address to lawmakers, though it is unclear what practical steps might follow. One recent exchange between the two sides illustrates the differing expectations at play. Shortly after U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris publicly envisioned the Indian and US navies "sailing together," Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said there would be no joint patrolling, notes Bharat Karnad, research professor at New Delhi based Centre for Policy Research.
Amit Cowshish, the Ministry of Defense’s former additional finance secretary, says, "India does seem to be tilting towards [the] US in recent years. In so far as defense is concerned, the only concrete result has been a substantial increase in import of defense equipment from US through the Foreign Military Sales route. There has been enhanced cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism but co-development and co-production projects are yet to take off in a big way."
India has tried to remain neutral between Russia and the US and wants to avoid antagonizing China, with which it fought a brief battle in 1962. A resulting border dispute, covering thousands of kilometers, remains unresolved.
To the question of whether India has abandoned its neutral position under the Modi government, Karnad said: "That appears to be so. Again, this would appear to be more rhetorical and audience-pleasing statements than realizable goals simply because otherwise India would face unbearable strains in relations with Russia and costs, especially if the Russian supply and military R&D cooperation connection eroded significantly."
Some analysts here say India and the United States should have inked the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) during Modi's visit, which was agreed to in principle during US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's visit here in April this year.
A formal agreement, when signed, will facilitate the bilateral flow of supplies, spare parts and services from land facilities, air bases, and ports, which can then be reimbursed, added the MoD source.
Modi, in his remarks before a joint session of Congress, acknowledged India’s value as a defense market, its role in regional maritime security and a strong India-US partnership's potential to “anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa.”
“India exercises with the United States more than we do with any other partner,” Modi said to applause. “Defense purchases have moved from almost zero to $10 billion dollars in less than a decade. Our cooperation also secures our cities and citizens from terrorists, and protects our critical infrastructure from cyber threats.”
But while no MoD official would say if the draft of the LEMOA had been finalized, an official in the Ministry of External Affairs said, the draft was frozen during the Obama-Modi meeting.
"The fact that the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was not signed during Modi's current visit to US indicates that there continue to be many differences in the perception by the two sides on the issue," says Rahul Bhonsle, retired Indian Army Brigadier and defense analyst here.
Though the pact went unsigned, Ben Schwartz, now the US-India Business Council's director for defense and aerospace, said the strides made demonstrate the Modi government is “willing to risk short term domestic political pressure -- by those who misconstrue the agreement as a concession that weakens Indian sovereignty -- in order to reap the longer term benefits of defense cooperation with the United States.”
With US support, India is now more confident of getting membership of the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) club and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which will enable India to acquire armed high-altitude, long-endurance drones. India has been in talks with the US for acquiring Predator drones.
"The US administration is really pulling out all stops to make India a part of major world groupings, such as the NSG, and this exemplifies the personal investment made by both heads of state in strengthening the bilateral relationship. With India's imminent inclusion in the MTCR fold, several US technologies and platforms could be made available and India will have to decide on them sooner rather than later," Ankur Gupta, defense analyst with E&Y India.
The warming up of ties with US under the Modi regime is likely to evoke concern from Moscow, one of the traditional and main suppliers of weapons and equipment to India.
"Moscow has conveyed Russian apprehensions in no uncertain manner to the Ministry of External Affairs and the government of India," says Karnad.
However, Chwshish says, "There is no question why Russia should be miffed at the warm welcome accorded to Prime Minister Modi in the US.” India's relations with the US “are independent of our relations with Russia, just as US's relations with China are independent of our relations with China," he added.
Going forward, New Delhi and Washington will need to demonstrate their growing defense partnership on the ground by undertaking hi-tech defense projects on a co-production and co-development basis, otherwise Modi's visit and warming up to US will only be seen as mere rhetoric and theatrics, opined a MoD official who requested anonymity to discuss the politically sensitive issue.