India and the United States signed a landmark defence agreement on August 30 at Washington D.C. The agreement, signed by Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and US Defence Secretary Aston Carterwill, has increased military cooperation between the two countries.
Earlier in 2008, New Delhi and Washington concluded the civilian nuclear cooperation deal much to the annoyance of Beijing and Islamabad.
The new defence agreement would make joint operations between their militaries logistically easier and more efficient, will allow the navies of India and the United States to have an easier time supporting each other in joint operations, exercises and when providing humanitarian assistance, will permit access to each other's military bases for repairs and re-supplies.
The Indian Minister said the United States would be allowed neither to set up military bases nor deploying troops on Indian soil. US Defence Secretary has made closer military ties with New Delhi a priority and said a special unit has been formed within the Pentagon to promote military cooperation between the two defence forces.
President Obama called the relationship with India "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century". The United States is the second largest supplier of defence equipment to India valued about $4.4 billion in the past three years.
The United States has signed over 100 defence agreements with countries around the world mainly to promote war-time partnerships though it hardly engaged itself in warfare because of the defence deals. The most prominent defence deals signed are the ones with Egypt and Israel. The United States army undertakes close partnerships with the Egyptian and Israeli militaries for the past over forty years.
What is significant is that India, which was a torch-bearer of the Non-Alignment Movement and maintained a position of neutrality during the Cold War era, has now made a complete reversal of the principle it used to nourish in the past and embraced a defence deal with one of the superpowers. This is of course not the first time New Delhi leaned towards a super-power. In October 1971, India concluded a defence deal with the then Soviet Union which obligated both countries to come to the aid of each other in case of being attacked by a third country. When the Bangladesh War of Independence broke out in December 1971 and Pakistan attacked India, Moscow extended unconditional diplomatic support to New Delhi. Russian military did not intervene.
Since the end of the World War II the thrust of the US foreign policy centred round containment of communism in Asia. It chose Japan as one of the pillars of its containment policy. Following the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent countries, the United States tried to keep both countries under its fold, especially after China emerged under the leadership of Mao Zedong. President Truman invited prime ministers of India and Pakistan to visit the United States. Liaqat Ali Khan responded to the invitation and made an official visit to Washington. Pundit Nehru, however, first went to Moscow and months later when he came to Washington he was warmly received by President Truman. During the visit and subsequently the United States made concerted efforts to establish a special relationship with India.
As Pundit Nehru was determined to pursue a balanced policy towards Washington and Moscow the US administration patiently dealt with New Delhi. In 1951 a Defence Assistance Agreement was signed between the two countries which enabled India to receive military assistance from the United States. On the following year, Indo-American Technical Cooperation Fund was established and the US pledged $250 million over a period of five years. Pundit Nehru realised that India has nothing to lose by pursuing a neutral external policy. When the US decided to accord recognition to Taiwan, Indian President Rajendra Prasad denounced and characterised it as "military mentality of seizing countries."
Soon after President Kennedy took office in 1961 Vice President Johnson visited a number of countries, including India and Pakistan, in order to explore tactics to embrace non-communist countries to American side. While in New Delhi Johnson declared, "I am confident without reservation that India and the United States will continue to build a friendly and wholesome relationship which is very much welcome on the part of America." In the same year the Consortium pledged $2.2 billion to India out of which United States alone pledged $1.45 billion. A few months later when Pundit Nehru visited Washington President Kennedy compared him with Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt. In the same year India annexed Goa and despite opprobrium in the United States the Kennedy administration refused to condemn India's invasion.
In October 1962, the Indian army at the Ladakh and NEFA was routed by the Chinese military. The defeat and humiliation of Indian army provoked deep anger and resentment. An Indian General then posted at Ladakh, in his book the Himalayan Blunder, blamed Nehru for utter failure to equip the army. People openly demanded Nehru's resignation. The United States, however, as per 1951 Defence Agreement, began pouring in military assistance to India. Kennedy lobbied the United Kingdom for providing ammunitions to India. At that time differences arose between Moscow and Beijing and the former joined the US and the UK in supplying arms to India. The arms supplies to India by the West continued until Indo-Pakistan war broke out in September 1965. The United States suspended supply of arms to India and Pakistan in order to force the warring nations to halt the war.
The Tashkent Agreement in 1965 brought semblance of peace in the sub-continent and since then Moscow began to exert greater influence in the region. Notwithstanding its long-term friendship with New Delhi, Moscow refused to take a side during the war and rightly assumed the role of arbitration in bringing the war to an end. India and Pakistan restored diplomatic relation, returned the prisoners of war and settled down to the pre-war border. Moscow also began to favourably consider Islamabad's request for economic and military aid.
Pundit Nehru's successors followed the trajectory laid down by him. India remained cordial to Moscow but friendly to Washington as well. New Delhi's position in Vietnam remained unchanged. It condemned America's military intervention in Vietnam and demanded withdrawal of its troops from South Vietnam. President Nixon and his advisers came to the conclusion that notwithstanding massive economic and military aid New Delhi would not join the bloc led by the United States and it would be prudent not to allow Islamabad to drift too far. By that time Pakistan had drawn a new boundary with China in Gilgit and concluded a number of trade and defence agreements with Beijing. China reciprocated by extending unconditional support to Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir.
Nixon also realised that US policy on China was devoid of reality and the international community did not endorse its position on recognising Taiwan ignoring the government of the mainland China. Beijing pursued its external and economic policies independent of Moscow and it would be wise to make some sort of accommodation with China. Islamabad was too willing to build a bridge between Washington and Beijing. Kissinger discreetly flew from Islamabad to Beijing in the summer of 1971, met the Chinese leaders and laid the groundwork of reconciliation between the two former adversaries. Consequently China joined the United Nations and became one of the permanent members of the Security Council vacated by Taiwan.
India remained steadfast and refused to be drawn into the camp of the superpowers during the Cold War but secured massive economic and military assistance to protect its border against external threats.
The new US-India agreement has been concluded at a time when the United States has increasingly turned its focus on countering China's growing assertiveness in South China Sea. Washington is also eager to let India play a greater role in its network of regional alliances. It remains to be seen whether India, under the changed circumstances, would orchestrate hegemony over its neighbours or usher an era of friendship in the region.
The writer is a former official of
the United Nations.