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National Strategy Lecture - India's Defence Cooperation with its major traditional & New Strategic Partners

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  • April 01, 2011
    Speeches and Lectures

    Chair: Mr. N. S. Sisodia

    The Director General of IDSA, Mr. N.S. Sisodia introduced Ambassador Ronen Sen to the audience by briefing them about his impressive career and the positions that he held in vital countries at the time of political transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall. After paying his personal tribute to late K. Subrahmanyam, Ambassador Sen began by stating that his talk’s focus on defence cooperation with the erstwhile USSR and then Russia, and with the United States did not imply in any way his lack of appreciation of the importance of cooperation with Western Europe and Israel.

    Defence cooperation and partnership in high end technologies need to be viewed from the perspective of dynamics in geo-politics. Convergence of interests in the long run informs countries deciding to pursue strategic partnerships. In India’s case, security and economics – trade and market access - drive such long term partnerships. Ambassador Sen then provided a historical perspective on India’s defence cooperation with major powers. After independence, India was supplied defence equipment by the British and it was supplanted by the Soviet Union which remained predominant till the eighties when the Government of India began to diversify the sources of its defence supplies. Nevertheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union posed many challenges to India’s defence preparedness. Successfully transiting this tumultuous phase, India cemented its partnership with Russia. In the present phase, cooperation with the US and Israel has coincided with a peak in defence modernization program. The common element in all transitions, according to Ambassador Sen, has been the resistance to change inside the establishment.

    India’s current defence modernization program is taking place in the context of Chinese force projection. Ambassador Sen analyzed the evolving positions of Russia, US and Western European powers in this regard. India, due to its impeccable track record in fulfilling the contractual obligations with regard to technology transfer, will continue to receive defence supplies from the United States unlike Pakistan. In the case of China, despite the economic interdependence, Washington continues its arms embargo policy against the country. Defence cooperation between Moscow and Beijing is strong, but not immune to mistrust and future difficulties.

    Focusing on defence cooperation with the erstwhile Soviet Union ambassador Sen stated that there were troubles even through the 1970s and 80s despite mutual goodwill and robust assistance by the Soviet. Defence cooperation and convergence on various international issues between the two countries did not stop the Soviets from seeking leverage with Pakistan through clandestine supplies of armaments. With regard to Kashmir, the Soviet position was not aligned with India as they persisted seeking a mediatory role, and incorrectly depicted Indian borders similar to Western maps. Restoring defence cooperation with Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union was one of the most difficult tasks according to Ambassador Sen. After initial difficulties largely due to domestic factors within Russia, success was achieved by revival of efforts to build a long term partnership involving joint research and development, and co-production. Over time, Brahmos missile joint venture was finalized along with cooperation on nuclear submarine and the deal on Sukhoi-30 MK I multi role combat aircraft. In the years ahead, the challenge lies in imparting greater economic content and in modernizing the Russian defence industry to sustain cooperation between both the countries. India has big stakes in Russia overcoming the challenges facing its defence industry.

    Defence cooperation with the United States began in the eighties initiated by Prime Minsiter Rajiv Gandhi. At that time, General Electric engines were supplied for India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). The real impetus to the relationship however was given during the tenure of President Bush and Prime Minsiter Vajpayee. They jointly announced Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) which envisaged cooperation in civil nuclear, civilian space, high technology trade and missile defence. After the NSSP, the most important agreement was the India – US New Framework in defence cooperation signed during the visit of the then Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee in June 2005. In the process of deepening the engagement, the US is learning to deal with a partner that is particular about its strategic autonomy in spite of shared values and convergent interests. At the domestic level, perceptions of unreliability of the US need to be balanced by increasing public awareness about the extent of American support to India’s national security interests. In addition, Ambassador Sen felt that there is a need for better understanding of the broader benefits that would result out of technology cooperation with the United States.

    Service to service cooperation has become a strong component of Indo-US defence partnership. So far, there have been fifty joint exercises between the armed forces of both the countries. However, at the command level, the same level of cooperation that exists with PACOM (Pacific) does not exist with CENTCOM which covers Af-Pak and the Middle East. Despite approval for having India’s liaison officers at both the commands, there has been no follow-up yet. In addition, perceptual differences remain in case of Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) and Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). India’s approach to pending issues including Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) reflects not only India’s own perceptions but relates to self-perception as well. There is a need for less ideological posturing and a more open debate on participation in global regimes for self interests. Aspiring a global role does not match with the tendency to remain fence-sitters.

    In the Q&A session that followed, Ambassador Sen said that each transition phase brings with it its own set of difficulties. But with passage of time, things change so rapidly that it is important to read the pattern in a holistic manner and avoid analyzing each change in isolation. To a question of attitudinal change of the US Congress towards India over time, Ambassador Sen elaborated on how bipartisan support in Washington was built during his stint. Individuals were reached out to with tailor-made presentations to make them feel part of the process. In addition, the embassy and the consulates reached out to the local media to influence congressmen in a positive manner. To another question, he said the perception that the Indo-US relationship was bad during the cold war is wrong. The reality is that the cooperation was significant even at the height of the Cold War. Green revolution, skilled migration and people to people contacts were cited as examples. He also emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication with all countries including China. In his view, a clinical appraisal is required of all relationships from New Delhi’s perspective.

    The Director General of IDSA, Mr. Sisodia concluded the event by thanking Ambassador Sen for his insider views and for sharing his experiences about conduct of diplomacy.

    Report prepared by Sundar M.S, Research Assistant at IDSA.