Defense analysts in the United States say the wisest strategic move to pursue in Asia is to grow closer ties to India, because that would provide a check on Chinese power.
That’s the thrust of a new study by a foreign policy and defense think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The report notes Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, while visiting India, said, “Cooperation with India is a linchpin,” of U. S. strategy.
Also cited is President Obama, who told Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, “India is a big part of my plans.”
Heritage Foundation Defense Policy Analyst Lisa Curtis says the report’s emphasis on a growing military partnership with India as a balance to China is sound.
“The U.S. and India would mutually benefit from a stronger defense partnership to cope with the challenges posed by a rapidly rising China,” Curtis said.
China has been extending its territorial claims to include more and more of the East and South China Seas and reports have said China is developing its long-range ballistic missile technology.
A defense and military analyst who asks not to be identified for security reasons agrees, saying China’s growing power looms large over the Pacific.
“The reason is more geostrategic, seeing that India would serve U.S. interests to contain a more assertive China. The concern is more with China due to that country insisting that the East and South China Seas are its area of influence and that other militaries – including the U.S. military – need to keep out,” the defense analyst said.
The U.S. is also standing with India as the south Asian country extends its reach into the Pacific region – including the South China Sea.
“The U.S. also is backing India in New Delhi’s deals with Vietnam in oil and mineral drilling in the South China Sea to offset China’s claims to all aspects of exploration in the South China Sea. India is moving military assets into the region and the U.S. is backing it,” the defense analyst said.
Tensions between India and China have increased over the past year. Both countries have launched fighters in response to airspace violations near the India-China border.
But the defense analyst says another reason for the U.S. to cooperate with India is the issue of Pakistan.
“The U.S. sees India as a counter to Pakistan in a post-NATO Afghanistan out of concern that Pakistan will allow its militant creation, the Taliban, to eventually take over the Karzai government which the U.S. created,” the defense analyst said.
India has taken steps to fill in the gaps that will be left by a U. S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he said.
“India has security agreements with Afghanistan now to train Afghan security personnel once the U.S. and NATO leave the country,” the defense analyst said.
The CSIS study proposed further defense cooperation, including joint development of defense technology.
“The 2013 Defense Authorization Act, signed into law earlier this month by President Obama, contains a provision cosponsored by the co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus – Senators Mark Warner and John Cornyn – calling on the Pentagon to examine the feasibility of engaging in co-production and co-development defense projects with India and to consider potential areas of cooperation,” the study said.
The report adds that the U. S. wants to go beyond simply selling military hardware.
“Whatever area is chosen, and if then codified in a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with India, it would be a prominent symbol of bilateral defense cooperation and mark a concrete step toward what Secretary Panetta forecast in his speech in New Delhi,” the report said.
“Over the long term, I am certain that we will transition our defense trade beyond the ‘buyer-seller’ relationship to substantial co-production and, eventually, high-technology joint research and development,” the report said, quoting Panetta.
However, questions remain on the wisdom of jointly developing defense technology with India because of India’s continued defense relationship with Russia.
India signed an agreement in December to jointly develop a new fighter and a new line of helicopters with Russia.
Curtis says caution is obviously appropriate.
“Since Russia is still one of India’s biggest defense providers, especially with regard to sensitive dual use technology items, the U.S. must be prudent in how it moves forward with its defense relationship with India,” Curtis said.
The defense analyst says the major obstacle to any cooperation with India isn’t India; it’s India’s concerns about the U. S.
“There remains in the minds of Indian policymakers a hesitation with the U.S. in any long-term strategic relationship,” the analyst said. “That makes it possible that India will lean more toward its long-time relationship with Moscow.”
However, Curtis says the U. S. should move ahead with plans to work with India.
“It would be strategically short-sighted, however, to allow close Indian-Russian ties to hold the U.S. back from exploring how it can safely pursue deeper military ties with India,” Curtis said.
Curtis adds that any U. S. defense agreement with India needs to include safeguards.
“Co-production of defense equipment should be a long-term goal for the relationship but will only be possible when India agrees to sign certain end use monitoring agreements that the U.S. requires for sensitive defense technology transfers,” Curtis said.