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Is India the American buffer against China?

Last updated on: October 4, 2010 19:21 IST

Image: A Chinese policeman stands guard at Tiananmen Square in Beijing
Photographs: Jason Lee/Reuters
Aziz Haniffa reports from Washington, DC on how the American Enterprise Institute, a leading neo-conservative DC think-tank, wants the US to boost its military relationship with India.

On the day Union Defence Minister A K Antony met with United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon recently, the American Enterprise Institute -- that often reflects the views of the powerful military-industrial complex -- issued a strategic briefing paper calling on Gates to hard-sell India on buying the 126 advanced fighter aircraft it has said it requires as part of its military modernisation.

The AEI, a leading neo-conservative Washington, DC think-tank, which has been pushing for the US to build up India militarily as a counterweight to China, said, 'If India and the United States are to achieve the level of partnership that defence officials in both countries have pledged to pursue, there may be no better means of doing so that for the Indian Air Force to add 126 US fighters to its arsenal.'

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'American strategy for coalitions during war'

Image: A US marine on patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan
Photographs: Erik de Castro/Reuters
The AEI said that 'India and the United States are uniquely suited for strategic partnership,' and argued, 'both harbour growing anxieties about China's increasing military power and regional assertiveness.'

'Both are acutely aware of the threat from Islamist terrorist networks, and share concerns about the effects of violent extremism on the long-term stability of Central and South Asia,' the think-tank added.

The paper said that 'India is also a rising power, eager to develop a military with global reach,' and urged that 'this is an ambition that the United States can and should help India realise,' and noted that 'time and again, Secretary Gates has stressed the value the United States stands to derive from assisting allies and partners in developing their military capabilities.'

It pointed to a recent article by Gates in the respected Foreign Affairs magazine, where the US defence secretary had said that 'helping other countries better provide for their own security, will be a key and enduring test of US global leadership and a critical part of protecting US security.'

The AEI said, 'Indeed, building so-called 'partnership-capacity' not only serves to ease the burdens on a US military with global commitments, but also creates the capacity for building effective, well-integrated coalitions during a time of war.'

Thus, it argued that 'there may not be a more ideal candidate for such an effort than India,' and predicted that 'if New Delhi is successful in its (military) modernisation efforts, India in the coming decades will achieve the capacity as planned, to (a) carry out simultaneous combat operations against Pakistan and China along both land and maritime frontiers, and (b) project power throughout the Indian Ocean and perhaps into East Asian waters as well.'

Reiterating how important is was to promote a bulwark against China and propounding the long-held neo-conservative argument that India would be the best bet in Asia in terms of providing that buffer, the AEI said, 'In an era of ever-increasing wariness towards growing Chinese power, an Indian military so-enabled would be a welcome development.'

The AEI acknowledged that displacing Russia, India's primary arms provider would not be easy, but said, 'Yet, India's defence trade with Russia is a vestige of India's Cold War strategic alignment, sustained out of habit, convenience, and perceived cost savings.'

'New Delhi will have to ask itself, however, whether this is a partnership it wants to maintain in the years ahead -- or whether there is greater value to be had in increasing its defence-industrial ties with the United States,' the think-tank said.

Arms deal for US endorsement of UNSC seat?

Image: A US Air Force F-16N fighter jet
Thomas Donnelly, the director of AEI's Centre for Defence Studies, acknowledged that the US can clinch the deal for the advanced 126 advanced fighter aircraft during US President Barack Obama's visit to India in early November, or at least nail the $5.8 billion (about Rs 27,260 crore/Rs 272.60 billion) agreement for Boeing's C-17 troop and combat-equipment transport planes is hard to predict.

Donnelly told, "The timing on any arrangement is very difficult to predict. Not only because of squirreling in Washington, DC, but squirreling and uncertainty in Delhi."

He acknowledged that both sides are looking for tangibles. The Indians, he felt, seemed to be teasing the US, vis-a-vis interest in major arms purchases and would continue to do so until the US comes up with a significant quid pro quo, perhaps Washington's unambiguous endorsement of Delhi's bid for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

But he said such an endorsement during Obama's visit or anytime soon was unlikely because "the Security Council issue is in a class all by itself. I would say there are even more smaller, but still very difficult questions to resolve", like the Entities List and the export control restrictions, something which the US was still to ease up on vis-a-vis India.

'Both sides want to have something to crow about during Obama's visit'

Image: President Obama greets Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in Toronto
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
India, Donnelly said, would not give any quarter when it came to the purchase of the fighter aircraft in terms of an advantage to the US, and explained, "we got to also remember where the fighter competition process is -- the first hurdle is weeding out the unfit," among the competition.

"In other words," he said, "there are several steps to go before there is anything close to a decision by the Indian government. The first step is to make sure -- that is to verify that all the competitors are qualified and meet the sort of minimum requirements."

"And so, it would make perfect sense for the Indian government to go ahead and let everybody qualify and see what kind of a deal they could get."

In such a situation, he noted, "These would include what kind of technology sharing, what is the offset arrangement, if any, and so on and so forth."

"I believe both sides really do want to have something to crow about during Obama's visit," he added, "but again, I confess to being a little bit of a sceptic in that. I am not sure that there's any immediate deliverable."

"I wouldn't be surprised if say there was an announcement that along with the Eurofighter and Russian planes and whatever that both the F-16s and F-18 advance to the next stage," Donnelly said. "But whether that would qualify in people's minds or public perception as a sufficient trophy for a heads of State kind of a meeting is very much in the eye of the beholder."

'If India, why not Brazil?

Image: Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, left, and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing
Photographs: Alexander F Yuan/Pool/Reuters
Donnelly said when it comes to US support for India's candidacy for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, "that is almost a holy grail kind of thing in a category all by itself and expectations and desire -- and maybe in many ways it would be quite appropriate -- is not something the United States can deliver other than the sort of rhetorical support."

He acknowledged that "there is a lot of favourable disposition towards that, but that will also require a lot of hard diplomatic bargaining at the UN and you got the China factor, you got the Pakistan factor, and other countries will also say, if India, why not Brazil?"

"That is such a tangled mess," he said, and predicted that at most, in terms of some quid pro quo for India agreeing to some major defence deal, the US may remove the Indian agencies from the Entities List.

"Something like that may be more realistic in terms of the visit," Donnelly felt. "But again, you'd have to be inside the government or even the negotiating room to know what the art of the possibility really is."