Friday, October 2, 2009

India-U.S. Defense Partnership Needs a Rethink

ndian Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram's four-day visit to the United States earlier this month helped take India-U.S. ties to a higher level in the vital areas of counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing. But it also spotlighted a few related security issues that have been left unaddressed.


Cooperation between India and the U.S. in the fields of defense and security is one of the key pillars of bilateral ties identified by the Obama administration and reinforced during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's India visit in July. Chidambaram's visit, too, was a continuation of the same dialogue, focusing on an assessment of South Asia's security architecture and providing India with a better understanding of counterterrorism institutions in the U.S.


On that score, the minister, who asked the U.S. for "closer cooperation in matters relating to sharing of intelligence and working together to improve the skills sets of our scientists, technicians and investigators," dubbed his discussions with U.S. officials as "very fruitful."


While Chidambaram's optimism augurs well for the trajectory of India-U.S. defense relations, there is a lingering resentment in New Delhi about scant tangible progress on two vital fronts. First, the U.S. refused to offer an unambiguous commitment on pressuring Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai terror attacks to justice. And second, Washington showed a lack of urgency in the discussions about Pakistan's continued failure to dismantle its terror infrastructure against India.


Indian experts are of the view that Washington's strategic geopolitical interests, and its reluctance to push a wobbly Pakistani civilian government, have yet again eclipsed India's genuine security concerns.


The issue acquires an added significance at a time when India and the U.S. are forging closer military ties, as illustrated by the signing of the India-U.S. Defense Framework Agreement. Indeed, at this rate, the U.S. might soon edge out Russia as India's largest defense supplier. However, Indian policymakers are dismayed to note that America continues to arm Pakistan with weapons -- like P-3C Orion maritime aircraft, AN/TPS-77 surveillance radars and F-16 aircraft -- that are being directed more against India than against threats from the Taliban.


In fact, in a sensational disclosure, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf recently admitted that U.S. military aid to Pakistan that was intended for the war against terror was instead used to strengthen defenses against India. It was the first such admission by any top Pakistani leader. Musharraf even elaborated that he had violated rules governing the use of the military aid and justified his actions by saying he had "acted in the best interest of Pakistan."


Recently, American military and intelligence officials reiterated suspicions that Pakistan has modified Harpoon anti-ship missiles, acquired from the U.S. in the 1980s, for use against ground targets. The United States has also accused Pakistan of modifying American-made P-3C aircraft for land-attack missions, another violation of U.S. law.


The weapon in the latest dispute is a conventional one, based on the Harpoon anti-ship missiles that were sold to Pakistan by the Reagan administration as a defensive weapon in the cold war. But there is also growing concern about the rate at which Pakistan is building its nuclear weapons arsenal. In fact, according to a report in the New York Times, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is expanding faster than any other nation's. In May, Pakistan conducted a test-firing of its Babur medium-range cruise missile, a weapon that military experts say could potentially be tipped with a nuclear warhead.


As the NY Times further reported, the U.S. accusation comes at a time when the U.S. Congress is poised to approve $7.5 billion in aid to Pakistan over the next five years, while also pressing a reluctant Pakistani military to focus on fighting the Taliban rather than clandestinely directing its expanding nuclear and conventional forces against India.


Pakistan has been the beneficiary of large-scale U.S. economic and military largesse ever since 9/11. Between 2002-09, combined U.S. assistance to Pakistan totaled a whopping $10.94 billion. The Obama administration has also cleared the decks for another monetary infusion of $2.5 billion next year, which will further bolster Pakistan against India. This at a time when, according to a senior Indian security official, Islamabad is augmenting its nuclear weapons delivery capability.


Given this complex backdrop of events, both India and the U.S. will need to tread with caution in view of their budding strategic military partnership. Washington would do well to exhibit more sensitivity to India's growing security apprehensions. For its part, India must realize that it is faced with a partner that is balancing its own strategic interests in the subcontinent with the Afghan imbroglio and a recalcitrant Pakistan.


Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based journalist, formerly with the Times of India and editor of the Asian Age Sunday Section. Her work has appeared in numerous U.S., Asian and European print and Web-based publications.

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