How Big is US Defence Secretary’s India Visit?

US Defence Secretary Visits India

US Defence Secretary Visits India

Indo-US geopolitical and geostrategic ties are set to get a further boost when US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter arrives in India for the second time on a two-day tour for talks starting 10 April.

The visit comes at a time when tensions remain high due to the ongoing Syrian crisis, resulting refugee migration to EU, terror attacks in the EU, and continuing sparring between China and its sea-facing neighbours over the disputed South China sea islands.

The US objective is towards rebalancing the strategic equations in the Asia Pacific region, as also to ensure the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East. Towards this, post Ashton Carter’s India visit, he shall be visiting its key ally, Philippines. His last leg of the tour will include tours to Saudi Arabia and UAE.

In a recent statement, Ashton Carter reiterated several common areas in the geopolitical and geostrategic space that India and the US share and the fact that he would like to consolidate the strategic handshake based on these common areas to bring the two nations closer.

The US recognises India’s growing military strength, especially in the naval arena, and would like to see greater Indian involvement and assertion in the Asia Pacific region. The US needs India on its side as a countervailing force to check China’s growing assertion in South China Sea region, and also its growing military presence and influence in other regions.

The US is keen to assist India build its military capability and wants to further consolidate the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) that involves transfer of key technologies and co-development of high technology weapons and equipment. Carter mentioned how the DTTI was in line with PM Modi’s Make in India initiative and how US’s look West policy and India’s look East policy had common grounds to further build strategic relations between the two countries.

As part of the ongoing defence initiative and dialogue process, Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had visited the US in December 2015 and was warmly hosted on the US aircraft carrier, USS S Dwight D Eisenhower, where he witnessed several flying maneuvers. This was first for an Indian Defence Minister. He was also invited to visit the US military base in Honolulu in Hawaii.

Reciprocating the warm reception given to him during the visit, Manohar Parrikar extended a personal invitation to Ashton Carter to visit India in April. The Defense Secretary will be visiting Goa starting 10 April and will be hosted aboard India’s latest aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya. The visit will mark the first time a US Defense Secretary will be on board a Russian-built aircraft carrier.

The two will also board visiting USS Blue Ridge which is part of the US 7th Fleet and its oldest vessel. Indo-US relations have indeed come a long way from the days in 1971 when the US threatened India with the 7th Fleet, only to be stared back by a steadfast nation.

The Defense Secretary will also take part in a ceremony to mark the repatriation of US Air Force personnel who died in an air crash in Arunachal Pradesh during World War II. His itinerary will include a visit to an ancient temple built in 1890, along with two old churches in Goa.

Crucial talks on the agenda

The visit is likely to give boost to several pending agreements that both countries have been discussing for a while. On top of the agenda is the signing of the agreement for procuring the ultra-lightweight M777 howitzers that will significantly add to India’s border defence on the eastern and western fronts.

US is keen to offer transfer of technology for local manufacturing of its F-16 and/or FA-18 Super Hornet fighter aircrafts, under the Make in India initiative but the US wants India to commit a certain offtake, which India is reluctant to commit.

Although the offer is commercially lucrative as the demand for these aircraft will continue in the global defence market and the demand for spares will remain for the next 20-40 years. However, India is keen to pursue development of its own fighter aircraft manufacturing capability and is looking at developing both the Tejas platform as well as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

On the table will be a revival of the earlier US offer to jointly develop and co-produce the ‘Javelin’ Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM). India had earlier turned down the US offer on account of high cost and preferred to buy Israeli ‘Spike’ ATGMs, for which the government has finalized the deal to procure 321 missile launchers and 8,356 missiles valued at Rs 3,200 crore.

But talks have since been stalled with Israel with little progress on co-development. India, therefore, is keen to re-start negotiations on the earlier US offer to co-develop 4th generation ‘Javelin’ in India.

Under DTTI, India has expressed interest to co-develop a miniature drone, Infantry Combat suit for biological and chemical warfare, and developing thermal imaging and night fighting equipment. Both countries have been in extensive talks on these and it remains to be seen if any further announcements on these are made during the visit.

Need to temper expectations

Indo-US strategic dialogue is an ongoing process with several common areas of interests and some where there are differences. While the relations continue to grow in positive trajectory, expectations from the visit must be tempered with pragmatic reality.

India is not too keen to be drawn into the South China dispute and had recently turned down the US offer for joint patrolling the region. But with China defending JeM Chief Masood Azar at the UN against an Indian sponsored motion to ban JeM, India will be more open now to discuss its options. Let us wait for the final outcome of the visit.