Defense cooperation with India is a linchpin in this strategy. India is one of the largest and most dynamic countries in the region and the world, with one of the most capable militaries. India also shares with the United States a strong commitment to a set of principles that help maintain international security and prosperity.
This statement by Leon Panetta probably defines his visit to India. It represents a dramatic change in US outlook towards India particularly because over the last couple of years, relations between India and the US have been pretty much on a roller coaster with being good through a period and cold in another. The nuclear deal and the MMRCA deal or the lack of any movement on the nuclear deal or the US fighters not being shortlisted in the tender when hopes were high on sealing the deal considering the highs of the relations back then set back the relations.
Still India has ordered over $8 billion in military hardware from the US. Talks about the downgrade of order from the US side for the Javelin missiles have been rubbished by Panetta.
The other issue which marks a shift in US strategy with regards to India to get in on board some kind of alliance was the shelving of the three agreements that the US was pushing India to sign. The Logistic Supply Agreement or LSA, CISMOA and BECA. This means the US is going to be flexible in dealing with India and not push for deals that are totally according to its requirement without any consideration for what India is comfortable with.
All this in the backdrop of the US announcement of stationing 60% of its naval assets in the Pacific region with the obvious aim of containing China. The US has been on a mission to establish or re-establish relations with the countries in the South China Sea with an eye on China. These nations are more than willing to be on board any US alliance that protects its interests against Chinese hegemony. India too has been working with the Vietnam more so in the area of oil exploration than active military alliance though India does maintain military contacts with the Vietnam.
There are convergence of interests in Asia for both India and the US. But India maintaining a strategic independence has made any sort of concrete alliance difficult with the US. India rightly pursues an independent foreign policy. India’s policy on Iran has been a sticking point between the two. India cannot give up on Iran as it is India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the port in Chhabbar that India has built and the connecting roads. It was interesting to note that nothing came out on the Iranian issue during this visit of Panetta. India should have used this opportunity to project itself as a broker between the US and Iran to come to some sort of a resolution. The US can find an easy route into Afghanistan via Iran and India can be a medium for it.
As the US prepares for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, it represents a challenging task for India. On one hand, we cannot allow the Taliban to get into Kabul which means supporting the current regime in every possible manner and at the same time having to counter the Chinese who are trying to forge a strategic partnership with Afghanistan and get a pie of Afghan natural resources. It will be interesting to see how India and US work together in Afghanistan to secure their interests. The US appears to be hinting at possible Indian troops on the ground in Afghanistan but I am not sure if India is going to agree to that. India has been training the Afghan National Army. India could look to provide weaponry to them. This could be a good opportunity for India to sell or give in aid some of the weapons system it has developed like the Arjun Tanks.
It would appear that India has been very tough in their bargaining and have won over quite a bit of concessions from the US. India has been willing to play the calm waiting game while the US it seems is in a hurry to stitch up something concrete. This may have been the reason why we saw something of a climb down in the US position especially wrt to the three agreements. The three agreements are legislative requirements for the US to proceed with arms sales, but this time the US administration may work out a separate India specific law that will help it sell weapons to India without India having to sign any agreement.
India has appeared quite a tough cookie to crack for the US and at times very stubborn. But the US appears to be willing to work its way with India. What remains to be seen is how far India stretches it and where the US draws the line before calling it quits in its effort to forge a strategic possibly military relations with India.