US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be in Delhi Oct 24 to further what he says is President Trump’s new South Asia strategy. At a curtain raiser to the visit he made a speech at a Washington think-tank Oct 18 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
A bit grandly, he conceived, in effect, a 100 year partnership with India in the Indo-Pacific region to which he believes the “world’s center of gravity is shifting”, just so it emerges as a counterweight to China that, “while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order.” Other than running FONPs in the South China Sea, that he alluded to, and talking up a “security architecture” that the Japanese PM Shinzo Abe exactly a decade back described as the “security diamond” involving India, the US, Japan, and Australia, Tillerson said little of note, other than emphasizing America’s “constructive relations” with China.
Nor did he depart from the script on issues pertaining to the subcontinent. He made much of the fact that he had designated Hizb-e-Mujahideen as “a Foreign Terrorist Organization” without saying much about containing the most problematic India-centric terrorist outfit being run by the Pakistan Army’s ISI — the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT). And, he pushed into India’s lap the program for financing and running socio-economic development in Afghanistan, something the Trump Administration washed its hands off by saying it will not any more engage in “state building” projects. Meaning it will fight Boko Haram and Daesh-IS affiliates in Western Africa, station US Special Forces in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban there to a standoff to the extent the US society is able to tolerate the unending return of American soldiers in coffins, and Washington is willing to fund such activity, but otherwise leave the Afghans (and the African states– Chad, Niger, etc) to their own devices in shaping a political order according to their respective native norms.
And on the most important subject of transfer of advanced military technology, Tillerson did not budge a millimeter, referring to the minor sale of Guardian maritime surveillance drones as indicative of a changed, more catholic mindset, of the US. Indeed, he offered the clearest statement by any US official yet about why India — designated “major defense partner” can expect no cutting-edge military technology, EVER. When asked by CSIS head John Hamre, the Clinton-era US Deputy Secretary of Defence about the Indian grouse about not receiving US military hi-tech, Tillerson said this, and ‘am quoting this in full, so people in GOI appreciate what was said: “I think as everyone appreciates, the U.S. has the finest fighting military force on the planet, first because of the quality of the men and women in uniform – all-volunteer force, but they’re also equipped with the greatest technologies and weapons systems that are unmatched by anyone else in the world. So that’s an enormous advantage to our military strength, so we don’t provide that lightly, and that’s why we have such rigorous review mechanisms when we get into technology transfer.” In other words, India does NOT pass muster and therefore will not be allowed to avail of such technology. Modi, MEA and MOD, all of whom have put a lot of store by US technology, may wish to pay attention.
This is in line with what I have long maintained in my books and writings from the early 1990s, namely, that the US will not, for love or money let alone “shared values” — which the Secretary of State repeatedly stressed — risk eroding in any way the technological edge the US military enjoys over its counterpart forces the world over. And that India will have to be content with that stock of old and antiquated weapons, or non-lethal stuff like “aircraft carrier technologies”, namely the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch system (EMALS) that is so unaffordably expensive the US Govt feels compelled to unload it on undiscriminating buyers, such as the Indian Navy, to help amortize the R&D costs of this system. So, in Tillerson’s words, what India will get are “Guardian UAVs, aircraft carrier technologies, the Future Vertical Lift program, and F-18 and F-16 fighter aircraft, … all potential game changers” and, MARK this reference, “for our commercial and defense cooperation”. “Commercial” is just that because EMALS makes no military sense, for the reasons elaborated in past posts and in my book ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’. This to say that being a “major defense partner” makes not a whit of difference to the level of technology India will be permitted to access.
The only anomaly here the “Future Vertical Lift Program”. This relates to one of two things — the follow-on to the tilt-rotor Osprey that was supposed to revolutionize the US Marines’ mobility, except the Osprey has witnessed no end to problems, especially for pilots when the plane transitions at 300-500 feet heights from vertical lift to horizontal flying. Or, it concerns a new combat helicopter. The fear I have is this: as Modi’s Rafale buy for IAF sidelined the Tejas LCA by robbing it of financing, so will this helo project completely decimate the HAL’s Light Combat helicopter and ALH and its armed variant, Dhruv and follow-on indigenous programs. Washington wants India to come in on one or both these programs with its money — for COMMERCIAL reasons — but with absolutely no sharing of IPRs nor any technology transfer for any product developed, if it ever is, thereof. It will be Indian monies once again down a sink. That’s how foolish Washington estimates the Indian govt and military to be. After all, did Delhi not agree to precisely this when its funds kept alive Russia’s Su-30 program in the mid-90s? So why shouldn’t American defense companies not swill at the same Indian trough in the same way the Russians did?
Yes, India has to be part of an Asian security architecture, but it has to be a security diamond MINUS the US, just as I have argued India should try and engineer a BRICS WITHOUT China, or BRIS. That’s the Strategic Vision Modi and Delhi should work to realize for India’s benefit, not latch on to every passing bandwagon as has become Delhi’s habit.