WASHINGTON: “What?? Again???” could well be the reaction in some quarters as US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter returns to India for his second visit in eleven months this weekend. Quite understandable, considering there have been times when eleven years have elapsed before a US defense secretary and an Indian Raksha Mantri crossed each other’s path.
But in a sign that two countries are bent on seizing the tide in world affairs, and having overcome the shallows, are embarking on a new voyage, the scholarly Dr Carter – a double major of physics and history — will arrive in Goa on Sunday to meet his Indian counterpart Manohar Parikkar, a graduate in metallurgical engineering from IIT, Mumbai. Reciprocating Carter hosting him on nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower during his visit to the US last December, Parrikar will entertain him on board India’s Russian-made aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, and give him a tour of his native Goa – including a visit to its most famous temples and churches – before they repair to New Delhi to do formal business.
They will need plenty of blessings to move things along. Despite growing military engagement, there are still residual suspicions and misgivings, particularly in India, about getting into a strategic clinch with a country that has been less than helpful in India’s efforts to bring Pakistan-sponsored terrorism to heel, and is seen an unreliable defense partner which bankrolls and gives military hardware to a toxic neighbor. But in engagements ahead of his visit, Dr Carter, in more than one way, sought to suggest that Pakistan was a minor distraction, and the real elephant – or dragon – on the world stage is China.
“The days are gone when we only deal with India as the other side of the Pakistan coin, or Pakistan as the other side of the India coin. I know that there are those in India and Pakistan who are still glued to that way of thinking. But the US put that behind us some time ago,” Carter said on Friday at the Council for Foreign Relations. The US, he added, has much more to do with India today than with Pakistan; there is important business with respect to Pakistan, but it has to do largely with terrorism and regional stability, whereas there is “a whole global agenda with India, agenda that covers all kinds of issues.”
Part of that agenda, in the eyes of strategic community, is drafting India as a US ally in Asia without going through he formality of coaxing it into a treaty that New Delhi’s prickly politics and independent streak does not allow. “What we are looking for is a closer relationship and a stronger relationship as we can, because it is geo-politically grounded,” Carter said earlier in the week at the Centre of Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, arguing that Washington’s Asia pivot segued perfectly with India’s “Look East” policy. But the US was not going to rush things. “They (India) want to do things their own way…that’s fine. So we’re not looking for anything exclusive,” he added, even as word trickled out that he was jettisoning the China leg of his trip amid continuing friction over Beijing’ s militarization of the South China Sea.
Still, absent a formal defense treaty with India, the two sides are striving to arrive at a series of “foundational agreements” that would align the two militaries to enable technology transfer and defense co-production. US defense and industry teams are already in India, discussing, among other things, co-production of the Lockheed Martin F-16V and Boeing F/A-18 fighter jets, even as critics are warning against jettisoning India’s multi-country sourcing and becoming U.S-dependent for its defense needs. Indian officials have indicated that whether New Delhi will bite at the offer depends on what kind of assurances India gets, given the fickle nature of US processes and alliances.
But Washington will be patient, Carter indicated, allowing New Delhi time to arrive at its own decisions. “Indians are, like many others, also proud. So they want to do things independently,” he said at the CSIS event, amid speculation that big announcements are imminent. “While these negotiations can be difficult and global competition is high, I have no doubt that in the coming years, the United States and India will embark on a landmark co-production agreement that will bring our two countries closer together and make our militaries stronger,” he added in New York.