The US government has recently re-articulated its Asia Strategy. The term in use now is Indo-Pacific as opposed to Asia Pacific. From India’s perspective, this fits well into her ambition to be a global player in strategic affairs but one that comes with added responsibility. From the US perspective, this will have to essentially mean helping India build the required capabilities to justify its pivotal role.
One area where the future of this relationship will majorly hinge is ‘Defence’. A greater defence collaboration between India and the US can help accomplish several goals. Not only will it help increase India’s defence capability and, thereby, add heft to its credibility in international affairs, it could also provide fillip to India’s manufacturing industry and job-creation agenda. Empowering India is in US interest too as that will ensure that the US will have a stable ally in the region with proven democratic credentials.
But for this relationship to fructify, there are a number of things that India would need to put in order. First, the key will be to sort out bureaucratic hurdles that make the procurement process lengthy and inefficient. For instance, currently, India’s defence procurement process follows a practice that rewards the lowest bidder. Experts have opined that as a guiding principle this may undermine procurement efficiency. A better model may be perhaps a more qualitative assessment with some flexibility in evaluation. In other words, offers that add strategic value despite acceptable deviation from RFPs should also be considered. The second key aspect is that India would need to move away from vendor procurement system to a partnership model with the industry. Typically, these partnerships will be long-term and hence they need not only be based on strategic need but also on trust.
Traditionally, Indian Defence complex has faced trust issues with the private sector and, as a consequence, has relied on public sector monopolies. Such fears in today’s time may be unfounded. Here India may want to look at examples from other countries which have successfully integrated private industry into defence manufacturing. Third, India must understand that strategic defence relationship cannot be built overnight. There will be differences and thorny issues between partners and between countries but as long as there is bipartisan political consensus on strategic aspects at the domestic level and maturity in behaviour between partnering countries at the international level, such storms can be weathered in pursuit of greater commonality of interest.
Fourth, India has to internalise that in the US recognition of India as a major defence partner is an implicit expectation that India will share some of the burden that is currently upon the US shoulders outside the American territory. While this may mean an opportunity for India to extend its soft power in other countries through aid initiatives, it implies a certain cost. Therefore, India will have to judge for itself whether such costs are in her best interests or not. The gist of President Trump’s address at the World Economic Forum that every country must put its own interest first, should be among the first principles here.
Fifth, India must also see the defence collaboration as an opportunity to give a fillip to the innovation ecosystem in the country. There is enough literature that suggests that defence has significant spin-offs for economies with a relatively large defence industrial base. This means that it could have potential positive externalities even for civilian sectors in terms of scientific innovation and technological progress.
India currently procures defence equipment in the range of $20 to $25 billion and in addition also imports components for what it manufactures indigenously. This indicates a huge potential to capitalise on the positive spin-offs of military spending and technology transfer that it may have with the US.
While these aspects could determine the broad contours of India-US defence partnership, India must realise that its biggest asset across its borders is its soft power and this must not be traded with any temptation to lean in favour of hard power. This would be a tricky thing to do with enhanced military prowess that may come through increased defence collaboration.
Further, India must also realise that US defence budget has not seen an increase in proportion to its global footprint and hence if this is to continue for long, there will be a shelf life to Indo-US defence collaboration.
Lastly, we must remember that India’s military restraint has been rewarded time and again in international diplomacy. The civilian nuclear deal is just one example of that. While India has shown restraint, it has not stopped short of taking decisive military action when the situation demanded so. Paradoxically enough, American recognition of India as a major defence partner is also in a strange way a reward for India’s restraint which others might call a proven responsible behaviour that adds to India’s credentials.
Perhaps an articulation of a National Security Doctrine by India would be an apt way to set in motion its defence partnership with the US, and for that matter with countries as well.