If he felt any disappointment at not achieving any substantial breakthrough in talks with Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta didn’t show it publicly. On a swing through Asia that started with Singapore’s annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Panetta had hoped to bring the Indian defense establishment on board for a rebalancing strategy that many believe is aimed squarely at China.
But it wasn’t to be.
Antony, known as a particularly cautious policymaker, reportedly told Panetta politely but firmly that India doesn’t wish to be seen as a U.S. alliance partner as it embarks on its Asia-Pacific strategy. His comments came within days of Panetta’s announcement in Singapore that the United States intended, by 2020, to have 60 percent of its naval fleet based in the Asia-Pacific even as it looks to build new alliances in the region.
Speaking to an audience of strategic thinkers, defense officials, diplomats and journalists at one of the biggest events on the annual Asia defense calendar, Panetta stated that the “United States military…will be smaller, it will be leaner, but it will be agile and flexible, quickly deployable, and will employ cutting edge technology in the future.
“While the U.S. military will remain a global force for security and stability,” he added the United States “will of necessity rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific region. We will also maintain our presence throughout the world. We will do it with innovative rotational deployments that emphasize creation of new partnerships and new alliances.”
Yet while New Delhi has been open to increasing bilateral engagement with Washington – and does in fact undertake a number of joint exercises across the three defense services – the establishment in India is still wary of any military alliance, or even a formal partnership with the United States.
Why? It’s partly because India doesn’t want to upset China, its main competitor in Asia, by openly embracing the United States.However, more fundamentally, Indian lawmakers and politicians continue to have reservations over the United States itself, doubts born largely from India’s perception of the past half a century that Washington has tended to side with India’s arch rival, Pakistan.
Antony, who last month became India’s longest serving defense minister, has been especially careful not to publicly cozy up to Washington. Indeed, he has often instructed ministry officials to downplay joint bilateral exercises with the United States, resisted signing deals tied to weapons systems weapons, and he has consistently told officials that India believes any U.S. disputes should be dealt with bilaterally.
As a result, even as India has agreed to scale up training for Afghanistan’s armed forces, it has refused to openly back the U.S. lines on the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Although India is aware (and wary) of China’s increasing assertiveness in both expanses of water, it prefers to work with smaller countries in the region – such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia – as well as China to resolve regional tensions.
Antony raised exactly these issues at Shangri-La. “As countries seek to bolster their capabilities to respond to perceived challenges in the maritime domain, there also arises a need to avoid conflict and build consensus,” he said. “In this connection, keeping in view the issues that have arisen with regard to the South China Sea, India has welcomed the efforts of the parties concerned in engaging in discussion, and the recently agreed guidelines on the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties between China and ASEAN. We hope that the issues will be resolved through dialogue and negotiation.”
According to Defense Ministry sources, Antony’s plain talk, both in Singapore and in bilateral talks with Panetta, was a disappointment to Panetta and U.S. efforts to weave together an “anti-China” alliance. But Panetta apparently hid his disappointment well at a talk delivered immediately after conversations with Antony at the Indian Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA), a government-funded, New Delhi-based think tank. Indeed, despite the setback, Panetta tried to stay upbeat.
“I believe our relationship can and should become more strategic, more practical, and more collaborative,” Panetta said. “Our defense policy exchanges are now regular, candid, and invaluable. Our partnership is practical because we take concrete steps through military exercises and exchanges to improve our ability to operate together and with other nations to meet a range of challenges. And our defense relationship is growing ever more collaborative as we seek to do more advanced research and development, share new technologies, and enter into joint production of defense articles.”
Still, although Panetta didn’t say so explicitly, accompanying U.S. officials told their Indian counterparts that they are looking to move beyond a transactional relationship between the two countries as far as weapons and platforms are concerned. India, which recently became the world’s largest weapons importer, is in the process of buying U.S. arms worth more than $8 billion dollars over the next two years. However, India is also eyeing high technology, dual-use items. If such deals can be achieved, it would mark a notable shift in the U.S. from the late 1990s, when many Indian entities found themselves sanctioned following India’s twin nuclear tests.
With the changing geo-political environment, and the impending U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan, Washington sees India as a critical partner in ensuring stability and security in Asia, including over cyber and space security, which are seen as potentially major areas of collaboration. This view is backed by two IDSA scholars, Ajey Lele and Cherian Samuel, who argued in a commentary on Panetta’s visit that there are a number of potential areas of military collaboration on space and cyber security, including satellite navigation. They noted that the Indian Space Research Organisation has an ongoing GPS-Aided Geo Augmented Navigation (GAGAN) project that’s expected to yield major benefits for the civil aviation sector.
“Since the currently used GPS does not guarantee the availability of precision services during conflict situations, it is important for India to invest in space assets…India and the United States could work on compatibility and interoperability aspects of both these systems,” they wrote.
Washington can be expected to continue to push New Delhi to accept a role as a lynchpin in a U.S.-led security architecture in Asia. But for now, at least, India will at best be a very reluctant ally.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7.