US and India take defence ties up a notch

US and India take defence ties up a notch
US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter (L) shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

India and the US have entered a new phase of defence co-operation with the joint development of military equipment, said analysts, who noted that New Delhi was seeking to modernise its forces, in part with an eye on China.

During a three-day visit by US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter that ended yesterday, the two sides renewed a defence framework agreement for the next decade. They agreed to fast-track talks on sharing aircraft carrier design and will work together to develop gear to protect soldiers against chemical and biological warfare and build mobile electric hybrid generators.

Analysts believe these agreements, which were put in motion during US President Barack Obama's visit to India in January, would "set the tone for future co-operation". "The pathfinder projects (protective gear and hybrid generators) are not high-tech areas, but in a way this is the beginning," said Mr Amit Cowshish, a former Ministry of Defence adviser who is now with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

"They have been talking for a long time about prospects of co-production and co-development, and nothing was happening," he added. "These things will be manufactured in India. It means you have taken the relationship to a new level."

Defence ties between the US and India have been expanding, with New Delhi buying US$9 billion (S$12 billion) worth of arms from Washington over the last decade to modernise its military, made more urgent by China's growing military strength.

While the focus of Mr Carter's visit was on deepening military ties and tapping into the defence market in India, which in turn is looking for high-tech transfers, it also takes place at a time when the two countries have expressed intent to increase co-operation in the Asia-Pacific region.

China's land reclamation and other activities in the South China Sea have become a source of tension in the region and the US sees India as a natural ally in the Asia-Pacific to counterbalance China, said analysts.

A joint statement said the two sides had "also reviewed the existing and emerging regional security dynamics" in what is being seen as a reference to the South China Sea.

India has also been concerned about Beijing's growing clout closer to home though Mr Modi had a successful visit to China last month. Last year, India lodged a protest over the docking of two Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka.

In recent months, Mr Modi has wooed its neighbours, except for Pakistan, with a mix of development and infrastructure aid while boosting ties with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Analysts said that while Mr Modi has been upfront in boosting ties with Washington, New Delhi would remain cautious.

"There are things bringing US and India closer as never before, like China reaching out to Pakistan," said Mr Cowshish. "But the objectives may not be entirely convergent. India has its own global aspirations and doesn't want to be seen as some kind of force emerging as a counter to China."

Former Indian foreign secretary Salman Haidar said: "The orthodox view is that there is room for India and China to grow and that approach hasn't changed. But what India has to come to terms with is that China is going to be an ever bigger factor in the neighbourhood."

This article was first published on June 5, 2015.
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