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Arming the Indian elephant

by Brahma Chellaney

The rise in U.S. arms sales to India is being widely cited as evidence of the two countries’ deepening defense relationship.

But the long-term sustainability of the relationship, in which India is more a client than a partner, remains a deep concern for Indians. Does the recently issued Joint Declaration on Defense Cooperation, which establishes intent to move beyond weapons sales to the co-production of military hardware, mark a turning point, or is it merely a contrivance to placate India?

The factors driving the strategic relationship’s development are obvious. Since 2006, bilateral trade has quadrupled, reaching roughly $100 billion this year. And, over the last decade, U.S. defense exports to India have skyrocketed from just $100 million to billions of dollars annually.

With U.S. military spending slowing and other export markets remaining tight, American defense firms are eager to expand sales to India, which is now the world’s largest arms importer. And the political environment is amenable to their plans: India now conducts more joint military exercises with the United States than with any other country.

For the U.S., displacing Russia as India’s leading arms supplier was a major diplomatic triumph, akin to Egypt’s decision during the Cold War to shift its allegiance — and its arms supplier — from the Soviet Union to America. The difference is that India can actually pay for the weapons that it acquires.

And the bills are substantial. In recent years, India has ordered American arms worth roughly $9 billion. It is now purchasing additional U.S. weapons systems — 22 Apache attack helicopters, six C-130J turbo military transport aircraft, 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, and 145 M-777 ultra-light howitzers — worth $5 billion. The value of India’s arms contracts with U.S. firms exceeds that of American military aid to any country except Israel.

Nirupama Rao, India’s ambassador to the U.S., has called such defense transactions “the new frontier” in U.S.-India relations and “a very promising one at that.” But, while it is certainly a positive development for the U.S., for India, it represents a new frontier of dependency.

The problem is that India’s defense sector has virtually nothing that it can sell to the U.S. The country has yet to develop a credible armament-production base like that of, say, Japan, which is co-developing advanced weapons systems with the U.S. In fact, India depends on imports — not only from major suppliers like the U.S. and Russia, but also from Israel, the world’s sixth-largest arms exporter — to meet even basic defense needs.

Moreover, India’s leaders have not leveraged the bargaining power afforded by its massive arms purchases to advance national interests.

They could, for example, try to persuade the U.S. to stop selling arms to Pakistan, or secure better access to the American market for India’s highly competitive IT and pharmaceutical sectors, which are facing new U.S. nontariff barriers.

Applying the recent declaration on defense cooperation will not be easy. For example, efforts to identify specific opportunities for collaborative weapons-related projects are to be pursued in accordance with “national policies and procedures.” But the two sides cannot truly “place each other at the same level as their closest partners” unless national policies and procedures — especially in the U.S. — evolve sufficiently.

Similarly the declaration merely reiterates America’s position that it supports India’s “full membership” in the four U.S.-led technology-control regimes: the Wassenaar Arrangement, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the Australia Group.

Given that U.S. policy is to deny sensitive technologies to those outside these regimes, India’s admission would make all the difference in facilitating technology sharing. But the declaration does not include any commitment from the U.S. to expedite India’s admission.

All of this suggests that the U.S. is pandering to India’s desire for a more equal defense relationship. It is willing to co-produce with India some smaller defensive systems, such as Javelin anti-tank missiles, in order to pave the way for more multibillion-dollar deals for U.S.-made systems. The Indian media are doing their part to strengthen the illusion of progress, latching onto the phrase “closest partners” in their acclaim for the agreement.

The irony is that, while America’s pursuit of a stronger defense relationship with India is aimed largely at offsetting an increasingly assertive China, U.S. President Barack Obama has charted a neutral course in Sino-Indian disputes. For example, the U.S. has declined to hold joint military exercises in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China has claimed as “South Tibet” since 2006.

As it stands, the U.S. sells mainly defensive weapons systems to India, while Russia, for example, offers India offensive weapons, including strategic bombers, an aircraft carrier, and a lease on a nuclear submarine. Would the U.S. be willing to sell India offensive weapons — including high-precision conventional arms, anti-submarine systems, and long-range air- and sea-launched cruise missiles — that could help to deter Chinese military preemption?

As U.S.-India defense cooperation broadens, this question will loom ever larger.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)