HANOI and NEW DELHI — The US took steps last week to increase its defense industrial ties with Vietnam and India, easing the path for the American defense industry in two growing markets while strengthening political ties with two nations increasingly wary of Chinese aggression in the region.
During a 10-ten day swing through Asia that included stops in Vietnam and India, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter signed new frameworks that will define the military relationship going forward.
Both agreements included language specifically promoting greater military-industrial participation.
However, Pentagon officials were quick to point out that India is much further along than Vietnam when it comes to such agreements, something evident in the 10-year military pact signed by Carter during the trip.
That included the finalization of agreements to co-produce two new technologies: a chemical-biological protective suit and portable field generators.
Those programs fall under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), a specialized program launched in 2012 — and brought to fruition by Carter, then deputy defense secretary — to help further military development with India.
The two development projects will be conducted by India's Defence Research and Development Organization and Pentagon research labs, with the goal of having a producible project at the end of a two-year period. That could then be put up to bid to industry, and could potentially be produced by India's industrial base.
The agreements are for small money, with the US and India each kicking in $500,000 total over two years on each project. But Carter and his staff say the important thing isn't the size of the projects as much as the simple fact they are occurring.
"From our perspective, it's really not [about] these two projects," a defense official told reporters. "Now we know we are going to move forward, and that process will lay the strategic foundation for us to do a lot more in the future.
"This is not the future of our strategic cooperation here. It's the proof of concept that once we get some of these projects moving, we will know how to do it, and then we can start putting much bigger things on the table."
Carrier, Engine Programs
Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security, agreed that the dollar figures may be small but the symbolism is important.
"The two joint research projects, announced during the trip as part of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, are very small, but they are a start," Fontaine said. "With hope, this will energize the DTTI, which so far has yielded few concrete benefits to the two sides."
The two governments have set up collaboration groups on aircraft carrier technology and fighter jet engines, something that Fontaine said would be "very significant."
The carrier discussions include collaboration on the development of a nuclear carrier, something Indian officials see as the next step in their growing maritime capabilities. An Indian MoD source said the government is particularly interested in the next-generation electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology used on Ford-class US carriers, which will enable an aircraft carrier to more efficiently fly a variety of planes.
The source added that the joint development of the GE-414 jet engine for use by India's homemade Light Combat Aircraft design is also being discussed.
Carter's trip through the Pacific, which also included stops in Hawaii and Singapore, featured an unmistakable line of concern about rising Chinese aggression in the region.
The framework with India, which was sketched out during President Barack Obama's visit to India in January, gives the US a major maritime ally with a common concern in China.
"The strategic logic is compelling — stronger defense ties help preserve a balance of power in Asia and serve as a stabilizing force in the Indo-Pacific region," Fontaine said. "Going forward, the challenge will be to translate much bilateral political goodwill and overarching agreements into real progress at the bureaucratic, commercial and operational levels."
He highlighted a stop by Carter at the naval port of Visag, the headquarters of India's eastern Navy, as "symbolically significant in light of the rhetorical jousting between him and Chinese officials on maritime matters over the past week."
Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, also emphasized the role a stronger India could have to ensure "China does not rise as a hegemonic power in Asia."
Although less concrete than in India, the agreement signed by Carter with Vietnam also contained language on industrial co-development.
The agreement explicitly calls to "expand defense trade between our two countries, potentially including cooperation in the production of new technologies and equipment, where possible under current law and policy restrictions."
The inclusion of that language is important, a second defense official said, because the Vietnamese tend to treat their written arrangements with the US very narrowly and very literally.
Phuong Nguyen of the Center for Strategic and International Studies called the new agreement "very encouraging," but warned that a 2011 memorandum, which has provided the guidelines for the US-Vietnamese military relationship, was not executed as fully as it could have been.
"There'll be more challenges at the operational level because the two militaries haven't built a self-sustaining level of trust," she added.
As for industrial participation, Nguyen points to Vietnam's co-production with Russia on the Molniya-class fast attack ships as proof that Vietnam's industrial base is capable of handling such programs.
Industrial co-production "allows the US to transfer defense technology to Vietnam and could be a way to go about defense cooperation since any arms deals have been slow to materialize," she said. "In the end, it helps forge trust."
In the meantime, both sides are looking for potential sales of equipment. That is set to become easier, with the US Senate's Armed Services Committee chairman, John McCain, R-Ariz., ready to introduce a bill to lower restrictions on arms sales to Vietnam.
Vietnam currently buys more than 90 percent of its defense materiel from Russia, according to Pentagon figures.