New Delhi walks tightrope

President Putin has come and gone. United States President Barack Obama is expected to arrive in New Delhi as the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations. As an emerging economic power and a strategically located  nation, India has become a favoured choice for both Russia and US. Russia faces a geopolitical situation, after being expelled from G-8 over its alleged annexation of Crimea.

Following its expulsion, the Western bloc declared sanctions against Russia. Though the situation has not seen  an absolute return to the cold war era, but it be can be viewed as a step towards a soft realignment in global geopolitics. The moot issue here is where and how much India stands to gain? India has already said that it cannot be a party to any sanctions against Russia.

The US has already expressed its intention to act as a “pivot” in the Asia-Pacific region.  With plans to position itself in the region, the US faces an increasingly assertive China. Therefore, strong relations with India has become a necessity.

Defence is one of the most critical areas where India seeks cooperation from these two global powers. Manufacture of defence platforms and equipment in the country through co-design, co-production and transfer of technology is what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks under his ambitious ‘Make in India’ programme. With a number of acquisitions in the pipeline, the US is likely to become a top supplier of defence products to India, displacing Russia. However, Prime Minister Modi has clarified this position. “Even as India’s options have increased today, Russia will remain our most important defence partner. We have conducted joint exercises across all three wings of the Armed Forces in the last six months,” he said.

Even today 60 per cent to 70 per cent of India’s defence platforms are from Russia. It is the first country to come for co-production and co-development of defence products with India. Recently Russia had entered into a military pact with Pakistan for the first time to exchange of views and information on politico-military issues, as well as issues related to strengthening of mutual trust and international security. It has, however, clarified that this is not directed against India, but to empower Pakistan to deal with  terrorists in Afghanistan.

India-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) was inked two years ago when the UPA government led by Dr Manmohan Singh was in power. It was the initiative of the then US Defence Secretary Leon E Panetta that was subsequently shepherded by the then US Defence Secretary Ash Carter. The DTTI has on its agenda proposals for co-production and co-development.  The new framework for the US-India defence relationship has been extended to the next 10 years beyond July 2015 during the recent visit of US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to India. However, the net results of actual cooperation is yet to be seen on the ground.

One needs to understand what US really means by technology transfer. Ash Carter had earlier spelt it out. “We’ve adapted our system in ways that will speed our release process for India, especially in the Department of Defence, recognising that for all partners this process is subject to case-by-case review and there will always be some technologies that we will keep to ourselves,” he said. This shows that US will not be liberal in technology transfer.

However for funding innovative projects, Carter had said, “We’ll ensure that those innovative projects receive priority funding. This is an approach we’ve only ever taken with the United Kingdom and Australia and now India will join that company.”

Another aspect that draws US closer to India in defence cooperation is the growing Indian market. Since 2008, over $9 billion in defence contracts have been signed between US and India, compared to amounts less than $500 million for the preceding  three years. During Prime Minister Modi’s recent talks with President Obama in Washington, it was agreed that both countries would go ahead with reinvigoration of the political-military dialogue and expand its role to serve as a wider dialogue on export licensing, defence and strategic cooperation. The agreement also decided to set up a Task Force to expeditiously evaluate and decide on unique projects and technologies aimed at enhancing India’s defence industry and military capabilities. Expressing concern over the rise of China in Asia-Pacific, both India and US have agreed to work closely with countries in the region through consultations, dialogues and joint exercises. India-Japan-US trilateral relations will also be raised to the level of foreign ministers.

However, playing to Prime Minister Modi’s homeland security concerns, President Obama pledged to help India counter the threat of improvised explosive devices with information and technology. India is eager to purchase US-made mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles.

During President Putin’s recent visit, Russia has, however, agreed to fully manufacture one of its most advanced helicopters in India which includes the possibility of exports from India. The helicopter is both for civilian and military use. India and Russia will increase collaboration in joint design, development, manufacturing and marketing of technology-driven products.

In areas of energy security, India and Russia signed a Strategic Vision for Strengthening Cooperation in Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy agreement. It stipulates carrying forward the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Projects by setting up 10 more nuclear reactors and manufacture of equipment and components in India. Australia has already agreed to supply uranium to India.

India stands much to gain by effecting a free trade agreement with the proposed Eurasian Union and after the proposed International North-South Transport Corridor is operationalised. Indian investors see greenfield opportunities in Russia’s hydrocarbons and natural resources. Possibilities of a gas pipeline from Russia to India can be explored. The India-Russia bilateral trade can see a quantum jump from the existing level of $15 billion. Russia and US can be valued partners for us. It depends upon how India can leverage both to meet its needs. IPA

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