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Chuck Hagel arrives with US-India defence ties at crossroads

Visiting US Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, who will meet top officials in Delhi on Friday, has little reason to believe the ministry of defence (MoD) has changed much from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era. Then defence minister A K Antony made it clear that, despite growing warmth between the two militaries, the MoD would keep the US at arm’s length.

So far, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has not signalled conspicuous warmth. The MoD has turned down a raft of relationship-building proposals that the two armies had agreed to at a meeting of the Executive Steering Group (ESG) in Delhi on March 18-20.

Of the 19 exchanges proposed by the ESG, the MoD accepted four last month. The proposals — which include joint exercises, courses of instruction and exchanges of visits — were agreed between India’s Director General of Military Operations Lt Gen P R Kumar and General Vincent Brooks, ground forces commander in the US Pacific Command (PACOM).

The Pentagon also believes the NDA government is neglecting the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), established in June 2012, to cut through any bureaucratic red tape that impeded the US-India defence relationship. After the November resignation of Ashton Carter, the former US deputy secretary of defence, who had co-chaired the DTTI, the Pentagon named Frank Kendall — currently Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics — as the new co-chair. New Delhi has not yet named a replacement for the former national security advisor, Shiv Shankar Menon, who was the Indian co-chair.

Pentagon sources admit concern over New Delhi’s unconcern, especially since the NDA government had been expected to focus more keenly than the UPA on defence. “We are not coming loaded with expectations. We can see that the new MoD hasn’t had the time yet to formulate its defence outlook, especially given that Mr Jaitley is handling two key ministries simultaneously,” says an official.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told Press Trust of India last week, “The purpose of this trip is to nurture the relationship and not to ink any deal.”

Both sides are also looking to begin negotiations for a new defence agreement to replace the “New Framework Agreement, 2005” that will expire in June 2015. The current agreement was signed in Washington by then defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, at the high-water mark of US-India relations, on June 28, 2005. It was followed on July 18, 2005, by an agreement between the two heads of government to go ahead with the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.

While Washington is keen to renew the defence agreement, there is unhappiness at New Delhi’s “lack of enthusiasm” in collaborating on 13 areas specified in the 2005 agreement. These include collaboration in multinational operations in the common interest; expanding two-way defence trade; expand collaboration in missile defence; conduct exchanges on defence strategy; increase exchanges in intelligence; and conduct strategic-level discussions between the senior leadership of both defence ministries.

India’s defence ministry, in contrast to the Pentagon, is entirely satisfied with the progress of the relationship. “We are doing more and more exercises together, and we have procured major US weapons platforms, which is a sign of a mature relationship,” an MoD spokesperson told Business Standard.

Any new agreement would also build on the “US-India Joint Declaration on Defence Cooperation” that was signed on September 27, 2013. This notes: “The United States and India share common security interests and place each other at the same level as their closest partners.”

Chuck Hagel will, besides his discussions in the MoD, also call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He will separately meet Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and the tri-service chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha. Hagel’s delegation includes the DTTI co-chair, Frank Kendall, and Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs Puneet Talwar.

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