India Must Choose the Right Strategic Partner
Mohan Kumar S

Current Scenario

It has been rightly stated that, as a nation we can change our friends, but not our neighbours. We have been destined to live in the most dangerous part of the world with two nuclear armed countries, China and Pakistan in our immediate neighborhood. India also faces the problem of state sponsored terrorism or proxy war from Pakistan. China after annexing so much of our land during the 1962 war, still lays claim over large Indian territory. They also support Pakistan in building their defence, nuclear weapon and missile programmes, which are wholly India centric. China is also involved in building up the so called string of pearls strategy by bringing into their fold, countries like Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives in our neighbourhood, to encircle and choke our country. The recent emergence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the threat it may pose to us also in the not too distant future is another cause of worry. The situation in Afghanistan is also not appearing promising in the long run, after the pull out of US forces.

Pakistan has created terrorist groups as a tool for its geostrategic agenda. Pakistan had long been accused by India, and now understood by western nations like the United States and the United Kingdom for its involvement in terrorist activities in India and Afghanistan. Pakistan's tribal region along the border of Afghanistan has been claimed to be a "haven for terrorists" by western media also. According to an analysis published by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution in 2008, Pakistan was, perhaps the world’s most active sponsor of terrorist groups. Many nonpartisan sources believe that officials within Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) sympathise with, and aid Islamic terrorists, saying that the ISI has provided covert but well-documented support to terrorist groups active in Kashmir, including the al-Qaeda affiliate Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar. US intelligence officials claim that Pakistan's ISI sponsored the 2008 Indian embassy bombing in Kabul. The attack was carried out by Jalaluddin Haqqani group, which runs a network that Western intelligence services say are responsible for a campaign of violence throughout Afghanistan, including the Indian Embassy bombing. Pakistan has been playing both sides in the fight against terror, on the one hand, pretending to help curtail terrorist activities and availing grants worth billions of dollar from America while on the other hand, covertly promoting it. The ISI is also accused of supporting Taliban forces, recruiting and training Mujahideen to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

In the above scenario, we have to be extremely cautious and strengthen our defence forces by keeping their morale high and providing them with the best, state of the art weapons which can be made available. It has also to be supplemented with well planned infrastructure like all weather roads, rail links, air fields, communication net works stretching to our borders, so that we can quickly mobilize adequate troops and equipments to the required areas, at short notice. Till the beginning of the last decade, we were having very good relationship with Russia from whom we met most of our weapon requirements. This was mainly due to the extremely warm relation and mutual trust we enjoyed with them. With the breaking down of the old Soviet Union, their defence sector also was not able to cope up with the challenges posed due to financial crunch and lack of strategic support from their government. There was also a lag in meeting deadlines and quality. Compelled by the situation, we started looking for alternate sources for meeting our strategic needs to countries like Israel, France, Sweden and USA. From our point of view, it was justifiable also to have diversified sources for procuring our legitimate defence requirements for reducing risk and to have better flexibility.

Indo-Russian Ties

Despite being one of the pioneers and founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement, India developed a closer relationship with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. During that period, India's relatively cooperative strategic and military relations with Moscow and strong socialist policies had a distinctly adverse impact on its relations with the United States. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, India began to review its foreign policy in a unipolar world, and took steps to develop closer ties with the European Union and the United States. During the Cold War, India and the Soviet Union (USSR) enjoyed a strong strategic, military, economic and diplomatic relationship. After the collapse of the USSR, Russia inherited the close relationship with India, even as India improved its relations with the West after the end of the Cold War. India is the second largest market for the Russian defence industry. In 2004, more than 70% of the Indian Military's hardware came from Russia, making Russia the chief supplier of defence equipment. The relationship began with a visit by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to the Soviet Union in June 1955 and Khrushchev's return trip to India in the fall of 1955. While in India, Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union supported Indian sovereignty over Kashmir. The Soviet Union declared its neutrality during the 1959 border dispute and the Sino-Indian war of October 1962, although the Chinese strongly objected. The Soviet Union gave India substantial economic and military assistance during the Khrushchev period, and by 1960 India had received more Soviet assistance than China had. This disparity became another point of contention in Sino-Soviet relations. In 1962, the Soviet Union agreed to transfer technology to co-produce the Mikoyan MiG-21 jet fighter in India, which they had earlier denied to China.

Defence relations between India and the Russian Federation have a historical perspective. The Soviet Union was an important supplier of defence equipment for several decades, and that relationship was inherited by Russia after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In 1997, Russia and India signed a ten-year agreement to further military-technical cooperation. Today, the co-operation is not limited to a buyer-seller relationship but includes joint research and development, training, service to service contacts, including joint exercises. Energy sector is an important area in Indo-Russian bilateral relations. In 2001, ONGC-Videsh acquired 20% stake in the Sakhalin-I oil and gas project in the Russian Federation, and has invested about US $1.7 billion in the project. The Russian company Gasprom and Gas Authority of India have collaborated in joint development of a block in the Bay of Bengal. Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project with two units of 1000 MW each is a good example of Indo-Russian nuclear energy co-operation.

Indo US Relations

Our relation with US after the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 deteriorated gradually and hit an all time low under the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Richard Nixon established a very close relationship with Pakistan, aiding it militarily and economically, as India, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, was seen as leaning towards the Soviet Union. He considered Pakistan as a very important ally to counter Soviet influence in the Indian subcontinent and establish ties with China, with whom Pakistan was very close. The frosty relationship between Nixon and Indira Gandhi worsened the relations further. During the 1971 Indo-Pak War, the US openly supported Pakistan and even deployed its aircraft carrier USS Enterprise towards the Bay of Bengal, which was seen as a show of force by the US in support of the West Pakistani forces. Later, India conducted its first nuclear test, Smiling Buddha in 1974, which was opposed by the US, In the late 1970s, with the anti-Soviet Janata Party leader Morarji Desai becoming the Prime Minister, India improved its relations with the US, led by Jimmy Carter, despite the latter signing an order in 1978 barring nuclear material from being exported to India due to the latter's non-proliferation record. But with Indira Gandhi returning to power in 1980 and India supporting the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the relations between the two countries weakened again in the 1980s. Until 1997 there was any significant effort by both countries to improve relations with each other.

Soon after Atal Bihari Vajpayee became Indian Prime Minister, he authorised nuclear weapons testing at Pokhran. The United States strongly condemned this testing, and initiated sanctions, and voted in favour of a United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning the tests. President Bill Clinton imposed economic sanctions on India, including cutting off all military and economic aid, freezing loans by American banks to state-owned Indian companies, prohibiting loans to the Indian government for all except food purchases, prohibiting American aerospace technology and uranium exports to India, and requiring the US to oppose all loan requests by India to international lending agencies. However, these sanctions proved ineffective - India was experiencing a strong economic rise, and its trade with the US constituted a small portion of its GDP only. Japan joined the US in imposing direct sanctions, while most other nations continued to trade with India. The sanctions were soon lifted. India emerged in the 21st century as increasingly vital to core US foreign policy interests. India, a dominant actor in its region, and the home of more than one billion citizens, is now often characterised as a nascent great power and an "indispensable partner" of the US, one that many analysts view as a potential counterweight to the growing clout of China.

Since 2004, Washington and New Delhi have been pursuing a "strategic partnership" that is based on shared values and generally convergent geopolitical interests. Numerous economic, security, and global initiatives - including plans for civilian nuclear cooperation - are underway. Also in 2005, the United States and India signed a ten-year defence framework agreement, with the goal of expanding bilateral security cooperation. The two countries now engage in numerous and unprecedented combined military exercises, and major US arms sales to India are under way. The value of all bilateral trade tripled from 2004 to 2008 and continues to grow, while significant two-way investment also grows and flourishes. During the tenure of the George W. Bush administration, relations between India and the United States were seen to have blossomed, primarily over common concerns regarding growing Islamic extremism, energy security, and climate change. On 8 November, Obama also became the second US President to ever address a joint session of the Parliament of India. In a major policy shift, Obama declared US support for India's permanent membership on the UN Security Council. Calling the India-US relationship "a defining partnership of the 21st century", he also announced the removal of export control restrictions on several Indian companies, and concluded trade deals worth $10 billion, which are expected to create and/or support 50,000 jobs in the US.

In March 2009, the Obama Administration cleared the US$2.1 billion sale of eight P-8 Poseidons to India. This deal, and the $5 billion agreement to provide Boeing C-17 military transport aircraft and General Electric F414 engines for our Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project announced during Obama's November 2010 visit, makes the US one of the top three military suppliers to India (after Israel and Russia). Indian has raised concerns about contract clauses forbidding the offensive deployment of these systems. India is trying to resolve performance-related issues on the Boeing P-8I that have already been delivered to India. The India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement also referred to as the "123 Agreement", signed on 10 October 2008 is a bilateral agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation which governs civil nuclear trade between American and Indian firms to participate in each other's civil nuclear energy sector. For the agreement to be operational, nuclear vendors and operators must comply with India’s 2010 Nuclear Liability Act which stipulates that nuclear suppliers, contractors and operators must bear financial responsibility in case of an accident. The US is one of India's largest trading partners. In 2011, the US exported $21.50 billion worth of goods to India, and imported $36.15 billion worth of Indian goods.

The United States is also India's largest investment partner, with a direct investment of $9 billion. Americans have made notable foreign investments in power generation, telecommunications, ports, roads, petroleum exploration and processing, and mining industries. Key recent developments include the rapid growth of India's economy and bilateral trade, the close links between the Indian and American computer and Internet industries, a geopolitical coalition to balance the rise of an increasingly assertive China, the weakening of U.S.-Pakistan relations over various ongoing disputes, and the 2008 reversal of long-standing American opposition to India's nuclear program. Today, India and the US share an extensive cultural, strategic, military, and economic relationship.

Indo-US Ties- Recent Irritants

India, in July and November 2013, demanded that the US respond to revelations that the Indian UN mission in New York City and the Indian Embassy in Washington had been targeted for spying. In December 2013, the arrest, strip-search and temporary detention of an Indian diplomat in New York following a domestic labour dispute caused uproar in India. Deputy Consul General Devyani Khobragade was arrested by US State Department Police on allegations of visa-fraud and handed over to US Marshals for detention.

The female consular official was subjected to repeated handcuffing, stripping and cavity searches, DNA swabbing, and placement in a hold-up alongside common criminals and drug offenders. Another issue was the 2010 document leaked by Edward Snowden and published by the Washington post revealed that US intelligence agencies had been authorised to spy on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In July 2014, U.S. diplomats were summoned by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to discuss allegations that the National Security Agency had spied upon private individuals and political entities within India.

Prior to Narendra Modi becoming the Prime Minister of India, the US Government had made it known that Modi as Chief Minister of Gujarat would not be permitted to travel to the US. Sectarian violence during the 2002 Gujarat riots damaged relations between the US Government and Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat. American based human rights activists accused Modi of fostering anti-Muslim violence. The Obama administration maintained the 2005 decision taken by the George W. Bush administration to deny Narendra Modi entry into America. In 2012, a Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Indian Supreme Court found no “prosecutable evidence” against Modi. The Supreme Court of India absolved Narendra Modi of any criminal wrongdoing during the 2002 Gujarat riots. The US Government completely failed to anticipate the political rise of Narendra Modi to the office of Prime Minister of India. Now the US Government is of the view that Modi can circumvent the USCIRF sanctions regime by visiting Washington as heads of government on A1-visa as long as he is the Prime Minister of India.

India’s Defence Ties with Russia vis a vis US: An Analysis

Neglecting our time tested friend Russia, and before making a strategic shift in our defence procurements from US, we have to evaluate our long term security risks and issues like availability of spare parts, technology transfer etc. Russia was more than willing to supply India their latest weapons as per our wish list in the earlier decades and even now. However, we cannot conclude the same about America. For example, Russia was willing to agree for joint development of 4plus generation fighter Su30 MKI, 5th generation fighter Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, Ilyushin/HAL tactical transport aircraft, lease of TU22 M3 bombers. We cannot expect America to sell us their best fighter F22 Raptor. Although we had recently acquired C - 130 J Super Hercules and Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic lift aircrafts, Boeing P-8i Poseidon multi mission maritime aircraft etc from US, we have to consider factors like their prohibitive cost, future supply of spare parts, technology transfer possibility etc:.

It may be noted that we are reconsidering our plan to procure ultra light weight M777 Howitzer artillery gun from US because of their prohibitive cost. Factors like denial of technology, spare parts/information during hostile situation like what we faced during Kargil incursion by denying the satellite data required by us has strengthened our decision to go for our own IRNASS (satellite navigation system). Moreover, India had always taken a principled stand on non interference in other countries’ internal affairs, respecting the sovereignty of other nations. America cannot be judged to have followed these principles when they had interfered in countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya in recent times. The result of such military interference had caused internal turmoil and chaos in those countries and instability in that region. The acts of our strategic partner should also be such that it is fair, justifiable and based on sound principles acceptable to us and the world community, since we may also have to support its acts in world forums like United Nations.

There are still areas or defence equipments which Russia have an edge or upper hand like S - 500 long range aircraft and anti ballistic missile defence system, new state-of-the-art Novorossiysk submarine etc, which show that they are still a force to reckon with. Joint development of Brahmos supersonic cruise missile which is under induction with our tri services, leasing of their powerful Akula II class nuclear submarine, sale to India of their Aircraft carrier (our INS Vikramaditya), their long time association with us in nuclear technology, space, developments in the cryogenic engine technology, cooperation in our development of Arihant class nuclear submarines etc, we owe much to Russia. Of course, there has been long delays and cost overrun in the aircraft carrier deal. However, during their difficult times, if we reciprocate by supporting them with offers to coproduce and in research for developing next generation weapons, which will in turn help them also to tide over their present crisis, set a new vigor to their industries, our strategic interest is also protected in the long term. It will also ensure that Russian made weapons do not go to countries which are inimical to us. A stronger Russia will ensure a multipolar world which will be in Indian interest also and for promoting world peace.

Meanwhile, let us hope that our DRDO, HAL, our shipyards and our other indigenous industry take up this challenge and make us self sufficient to meet the requirements of our defence forces by absorbing the latest technology available and providing us with next generation weapon systems so that we can reduce our dependence on foreign sources. Policies and recent statements made by our new government to substantially increase our domestic defence research activities, to cut delays in executing the ongoing projects and to evolve new technology and weapons instead of trying to emulate what other countries had already developed, are rightly in this direction. Till such substantial changes are visible on the ground, we will have to judiciously balance our external defence procurements in a way which will promote our strategic interest. Indian foreign policy should be based on maintaining strategic autonomy to promote and safeguard our long term national interest.

(The author is a Dubai-based observer of Strategic Affairs)

Published Date: 19th September 2014, Image source:
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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