India and the US: they're building new defense ties

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NEITHER General Secretary Gorbachev's visit to India late last year nor that of Secretary of Defense Weinberger in October were greeted with great fanfare in the American press. Yet both these trips have considerable significance for New Delhi's relations with Moscow and Washington. At a time when India is reappraising its Soviet ties, Weinberger's visit (the first by a United States Secretary of Defense) may herald a new chapter in Indo-US relations. Hopes of improved relations have been raised before, most notably under the Carter administration. This time however, the hopes appear to be justified owing to the formalization of a major weapons technology transfer agreement. According to well-placed and reliable Indian sources, the origins of the arms deal go back to 1982 when Mrs. Gandhi was still in office. At that time the Indian government expressed interest in certain forms of US field artillery, specifically 155 mm howitzers and TOW anti-tank missiles. According to Indian officials, one of the major US preconditions for the arms deal was reduced criticism of US weapons sales to Pakistan following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Initially, this was unacceptable to Mrs. Gandhi. However, when the Soviet-Indian tie started to show signs of strain, New Delhi renewed discussions with the US not just for an arms deal but for the transfer of weapons production technology, a long-standing Indian concern.

Despite Mrs. Gandhi's assassination in November 1984, the discussions continued. Early this year high-level DREA (Defense Research and Engineering Administration) officials visited India to assess its technological capabilities and also to ensure that the transferred technology might not leak into the USSR. The team returned with a largely favorable report and this in effect provided the basis for the emerging US-Indian weapons production arrangement.

Specifically, the US will help India coproduce a new light combat aircraft which will see the country into the end of the century. It is expected that more than one US firm will participate in the project. Currently, Northrop Corporation is making a spirited effort to sell India the production facilities of the F-20 Tigershark, the aircraft which had been competing with the F-l6 for a US Air Force contract. The US also will help India develop the instrumentation for a surface-to-surface missile range and help in the production of armor-piercing weaponry. (The clearances on the last item may be of some contention.)

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Furthermore, Washington has taken pains to allay Indian concerns about US commitments. Though the exact wording of the memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries is not available for public scrutiny, reliable State Department sources indicate that the US ``pledges best efforts'' to ensure continuities on export licenses. Already, the US has granted licenses for the coproduction with HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) of a small jet engine to power the Dornier dual-use airplane and has provided export licenses for the General Electric-404 engine.

The significance of this deal is manifold. For the first time since 1965 the US has agreed to supply India with significant amounts of weapons technology. (After the 1965 war the US imposed a weapons embargo on both India and Pakistan.) Furthermore, from the Indian standpoint this enables the country to proceed apace on its time-honored commitment to self-reliance in all forms of technology, including weapons technology. Finally, the arms agreement sends a message to the Soviets that Indian support cannot be taken for granted. In the long run, the expansion of US-Indian security ties may indeed mean less Indian dependence on the USSR.

As the Gorbachev visit underscored, India and the USSR have divergent concerns, in South Asia in particular and Asia in general. These differences lead New Delhi to look toward Washington rather than Moscow.

As the Soviets shift ground on the Kashmir question and simultaneously make overtures towards China, the Indian government is questioning the value of continued friendship with the USSR.

After all, the basis of the Indo-Soviet link was not ideology but a perceived commonality of strategic interests in the region. These commonalities were, first, their shared interest in containing China. Second, following the US ``tilt'' toward Pakistan during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, India and the USSR sought to limit US influence in the subcontinent. Since 1971, the Soviets have buttressed their position in India with substantial arms transfers on exceedingly favorable terms. The relationship that developed appeared to serve the interests of both sides. It permitted India to maintain its hegemonic position in South Asia while it enabled the Soviets to limit both US and Chinese influence in the region. This harmony of interests may finally be turning discordant.

Soviet policy toward China and Kashmir is intended in part to discourage Pakistani and Chinese support of mujahideen in Afghanistan. Regardless of Soviet motivations, these moves are of cold comfort to the Indian foreign policy establishment. It is precisely in this context that a major US arms deal with India can pave the way for a greater degree of expansion of Indo-US ties.

Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect a rejuvenation of US-Indian relations overnight. Similar hopes have been nurtured only to see them fail. Differences persist, particularly in terms of the US-Pakistani security nexus. However, given the many lost opportunities to improve relations between the world's two largest democracies, it seems that the time may have arrived when both sides seem able and willing to foster a more congenial relationship.

Sumit Ganguly is assistant professor of Political Science at Hunter College/CUNY and author of ``The Origins of War in South Asia: The Indo-Pakistani Conflicts Since 1947.''

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