Implications of US Defence Secretary’s Visit to New Delhi
Arun Sahgal

The two days visit of US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta to India generated considerable interest both among the political circles and strategic community. Major interest was in the new American defence strategy the chief element of which was re balancing towards Asia – Pacific Region.

The visiting Defence Secretary outlined three broad perspectives in his interaction with Indian political leadership, these included, shared challenges of ensuring an open access to maritime, air space and cyber space domains as also challenges posed by radical ideologies, piracy and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The fundamental thrust of the Secretary’s discourse was that in addition to upgraded US military presence in the region, US was keen to encourage and assist regional states in developing capabilities to deal with shared challenges. India was sought to be projected as the lynch pin of this strategy being the biggest and most dynamic. Towards this a commitment of sorts was made to upgrade the current buyer and seller relationship to a more substantial one in which US will share important cutting edge technologies, enter into substantial co-production relationship which would eventually transgress to high technology joint research and development.

An interesting point was the underplaying of outstanding agreements sought by the U.S such as CISOMA, BECA and the LSA, outlining that these will not be allowed to be a dampener in building strong positive defence relationship with India. The message was clear, US is ready to do business on terms that India may find both politically and economically comfortable. In an interesting initiative Mr. Panetta mentioned that he has asked his Deputy Secretary to engage with Indian counterparts to streamline bureaucratic procedures on both sides to make them simple, responsive and effective.

It is apparent that US is keen in drawing India into a much stronger defence partnership and provide technologies and capacities that will enhance India’s defence capabilities and preparedness. The fundamental challenge for India is how to respond to these overtures. We have a drawn out acquisition process, which is based on global Request For Proposals from which sound technological products at best possible costs are sought to be acquired. That this procedure is cumbersome and does not provide top of the line technologies is given, however government ridden by corruption charges cannot hope to give up apparent transparent procedures only to build relationship with the US. Mere induction of cutting edge technological inputs cannot help India build indigenous defence industrial base. Although not spelt out, US assertions of best technological products are based on Foreign Military Sales route, with at best limited technology transfer. In evaluating US offer India will need to carefully calibrate this cooperation to its advantage, most importantly in terms of technology transfer and even more importantly after weighing the capacity for industrial absorption.

On strategic and geo political plane the visiting Defence Secretary shared his views on Afghanistan making two critical points. One, the US was on top in the war on terror and Taliban has been pushed onto the defensive. Second, US is on course in its disengagement schedule and handing over security control to the Afghan Security Forces, who going by the Secretary’s calculations will be in control, of nearly seventy five percent of their territory by the end of 2012. He also outlined US commitment to ensure stable and secure Afghanistan, which could over time make its own democratic choices.

Subsumed in the remarks was a clear nuance of India assuming the role of an important stake holder in security and development of Afghanistan by both upgrading its training commitments and development efforts. The key to Indian greater engagement was hinted in improved bilateral relationship with Pakistan, in terms of resolving differences (Siachen?) and economic cooperation to help in Pakistani economic recovery. A sort of grand bargain appeared to be nuanced as part of greater Indo – US defence relationship, in which India would help the US in providing regional stability through greater economic and military engagement (training of Afghan Security Forces) in Afghanistan and helping Pakistan through economic and political gestures. The basic issue for Indian security concerns is that will it bring lasting peace and stability or will this be one more unilateral concession? There is a need for India to critically evaluate its policy options, vis a vis both Afghanistan and Pakistan, time for which appear to be running out.

There was also an exchange of views on tensions in South China Sea, North Korean nuclear weapons proliferation among concerns that it was close to testing fission – fusion device at the behest of Pakistan on Chinese insistence. Discussions also centred on new asymmetric challenge of nuanced cyber attacks against both strategic and economic entities in both the countries.

On China a somewhat cautious approach was adopted highlighting the need to strengthening of bilateral relationship by both countries while welcoming China’s rise. Hope was expressed of a strong China playing by the international norms as its regional and global roles expand in particular not do anything that could upset the six decades of peace and stability in the region. Nuance of the Secretary’s remarks were clearly towards, at one level to draw the Chinese in as a responsible stake holder in maintaining peace and stability by not resorting to coercion and assertive behaviour, on the other to drive home the credibility of US power and its attempt to build regional security capabilities to deal with Chinese aggressiveness.

Is there any wonder that Chinese have reacted sharply to the American attempts to tilt regional balance in its favour, by what they claim attempting to create a semi circle of alliances against China from the South (Global Times, June 8, 2012). Chinese statement also carried a nuanced message for India; warning it not to get entrapped in a US led anti Chinese alliance. The analyst from Chinese Institute of International Studies a government sponsored foreign policy think tank highlighted that ‘India was unlikely to get involved in any such containment policy on somebody else’s behalf, as it has “its own agenda in the region," noting that India wants to be independent in making its own foreign policies while maximising its national interests. As an example it outlined how India has refrained from becoming deeply involved in the South China Sea rows because it viewed any friction with China as being against its fundamental national interests, underscoring that India's interests lie in wider economic and cultural cooperation with China. In a veiled attempt to woo India it added that “this is China's opportunity to break up the US intention to contain China”.

India is unlikely to fully countenance the America’s ‘re- balancing strategy’ given its likely impact on balance of power in Asia. there is no doubt that there are concerns in New Delhi about China’s rise, its military modernization, infrastructural developments in Tibet and growing foot prints in South Asia and SE Asia and even more importantly forays into the Indian Ocean. However despite these overt Chinese moves there is, growing realization that given the prevailing power differential it is imperative to engage China, lower tensions and build a win-win transactional relationship that underscores cooperation and downplays competition. A senior Indian policy maker put it succinctly when he declared that India is absolutely committed to a pragmatic approach in dealing with sensitive bilateral issues. India doesn’t want any fights with China. We want to develop a relationship further and faster, but we want to assure that our pride is not hurt in the process because China has risen and India is, still, rising. The unequal space of development, he adds should not cast a shadow on mutual treatment which has to be based on the spirit of equality and respect. Both India and China will have to find ways to preserve mutual pride and move ahead on the journey of development and growth. The Indian dilemma therefore is how to play its politico – military cards in the evolving strategic order in Asia.

Given the aforementioned perspective, the nature of Indian engagement will be dictated by how Indian policy elites perceive their role in the region and above all its impact on the overall India’s China policy. The issue that will drive India’s policy options will essentially the nature of engagement with China and the US as also broader Asia – Pacific region. Will India act as a swing state, i.e. balancing Chinese assertions with close political and military relations with United States? Alternatively with China enjoying increasing influence in SE and South Asia, bandwagon with, Southeast and East Asian states like Japan and South Korea (littorals along the Asian Rimland) to balance, Chinese power.
Different pathways for India could be:

a) India’s geo-political, energy, economic and maritime interests force it to get into a security understanding with US allies and partners like Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and Australia. There is a marked enhancement in her defence self reliance capabilities which is boosted by US technology transfers and military hardware support. It develops strong maritime capability and nuclear triad backed by significant space and cyber capacities with large C4ISR foot print over its region of strategic interest. Andaman and Nicobar transform in to a strong ‘iron choke’ to counter Chinese ‘string of pearls’. India puts in place an effective anti access and area denial strategy in the Indian Ocean as also along its land borders.

b) India attempts to balance Chinese assertion and US interests. Towards this, on one hand, it boosts its economic relationship with China, while simultaneously developing close political and economic linkages with the US but without any overt security understanding. To foster its regional economic interests boosts trade and economic relationships with ASEAN. It buttresses these initiatives through; close strategic relationship with Russia, Central Asia while taking effective steps to enhance its bilateral relations in South Asia and moves toward resolution of India -Pak differences. It simultaneously uses this period to build up its comprehensive national power while ensuring economic progress.

c) Third pathway could be sustained economic development and military modernization to build credible dissuasive capability. To foster regional peace and stability, it could reach political and economic understanding with China through conciliatory gestures e.g. South China Sea, membership of SCO, undertaking joint development and infrastructure projects in South and SE Asia. Opens up dialogue to address Chinese fears in IOR. In short attempt to upgrade its bilateral arrangements with China, prevent falling into China containment trap. Thus there is an attempt to build peaceful periphery without being a so called ‘swing ‘state.


Indian strategic options in forging a grand strategy vis a vis China are restrained by a new euphuism of maintaining strategic autonomy. As a result there is talk of unexceptionable strategic risks in proximate relationship with the US, which could mortgage India’s strategic options.

Notwithstanding above India needs a strategy that helps it balance military challenge posed by China’s military modernization, persistent adversarial stances and increasing forays at India’s doorsteps in the North East, Western and North Western peripheries and in the Indian Ocean. Given the aforementioned perspective is there a case for closer strategic understanding with the US on terms which both find comfortable? What this essentially entails is a strong and purposeful hand shake and not a bear hug.

Published Date: 11th June 2012

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