The reaffirmation of commitment by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Barack Obama to implement the bilateral nuclear trade agreement and the joint declaration on defence cooperation on 27 September is symbolic of a distinctive contour in Indo-US strategic partnership.
First, both countries have now agreed to move away from a buyer-seller relationship to joint development and production in the field of defence. The joint statement noted that both governments “are committed to reduce impediments, ease commercial transactions, and pursue co-production and co-development opportunities to expand this relationship”. This would make their bonhomie “equally transformative” in the decades ahead. The talks between US deputy secretary Ashton Carter and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon have taken care of a number of procedural problems in furthering the defence cooperation, even though a full defence agreement is a while away.
Second, American leadership seems to have grasped constructively India’s domestic-political compulsions and sensitivities, especially on civil nuclear commerce. Incidentally, the US is the late and last beneficiary in India’s nuclear expansion projects despite the fact that Washington has been largely instrumental in India’s transition from a “nuclear apartheid” country to a “responsible state with advanced nuclear technology” in the world today. US companies have patiently waited for India’s convenience on commercial reactor contracts. In the milieu of partisan politics and local resistance, licensing of the Westinghouse AP-1000 nuclear reactor may experience further delays. However, the preliminary contract signed between Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) and Westinghouse will go a long way in paving the way for greater energy and nuclear cooperation.
Third, the stress in the joint statement on the need “for joint and concerted effort, including dismantling of terrorist safe havens, and disrupting all financial and tactical support for terrorism” is symbolic of a growing understanding that terror as a state policy or the excuse of inability to control the menace is intolerable, and this would espouse eccentric measures. A small step in this direction is the decision “to significantly expand information sharing and intelligence cooperation to address threats to their respective nations including strengthening the bilateral relationship to exchange information on known and suspected terrorists.” A few, however, are of the view that Obama and Singh have together put “hyphenation” back on the agenda as India-Pak ties were discussed on the same table. Introspectively, should Pakistan, as part of the problem, be not a part of the solution?
Fourth, India will join the US for the Pacific Rim naval exercises next year which may spook China, as believed by many. The real question is why India’s political discourse on China retains an appeasing tone despite all negativities. India’s appeasing tone rather sends an impression that Chinese inroads into South Asia and Indian Ocean is not a matter of concern to India, which is in fact not true.
Fifth, Manmohan Singh government’s focus on strategic cooperation with US is often appraised by the disgruntled groups as “strategic sale out”. The joint statement reiterates that the new India-US defence cooperation decision is “in line with our own thinking” that India’s domestic industry should be involved in research and production in a big way. Will this unseat and upset Russia, France, and Israel from being the largest defence suppliers to India? When India is planning a bigger strategic role, diversification of defence procurement and industrial base would be prudent. “India does not fancy a situation in which it might have to choose one nation over the other” by overlooking its national interest. Rather, India is in the process of devising a ‘defence multi-alignment strategy’ and need to insulate its strategic dealings from global/regional power politics.
Lastly, India will remain as “Asian France” cherishing its shared interests and strategic relationships with Washington while charting a different path in its quest for securing national interest. Indeed, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent visit to USA on the side-line of the UN General Assembly meeting and the hub of engagements on plethora of issues “demonstrates that the interests of the United States and India continue to converge, and this partnership will indeed be a defining one for the 21st Century” – certainly more than just an alliance.