New times for Indo-US defence ties

Last week's defence framework agreement between the United States and India updates the accord signed a decade ago as the two big democracies took the initial steps towards the tightening embrace they are in today. While the joint projects they announced seem modest - building advanced protective armour against chemical and biological weapons, and a high-tech mobile power source for battlefields - it is what might follow that lends importance to this strategic relationship in a region that is increasingly known as the Indo-Pacific. Already, there is discussion on transferring technologies such as jet engines and electromagnetic aircraft launch systems for carriers.

America and India sometimes were on opposite sides during the Cold War. John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State in the 1950s, called India's non-aligned policy "immoral". In the 1971 India-Pakistan war over Bangladesh, Richard Nixon famously "tilted" towards Pakistan. However, from the Clinton presidency on, ties improved dramatically. The George W. Bush administration publicly committed itself to "helping" India become a major world power in the 21st century.

A lot of this has to do with China. It also does not hurt America's defence industry that India has emerged as the top weapons importer and is keen on diversifying its supply sources. Ever since Washington sold India the troop landing dock USS Trenton eight years ago for a modest price, defence sales have grown. India's armoury now includes US-built C-17 Globemasters, and P-8 Poseidons, given only to close allies like Japan.

That said, it will be a while before the strategic relationship matures into anything like what is shared by Moscow and New Delhi. Russia not only helped India with its nuclear submarine and co-developed the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile, but the two are also collaborating on a fifth-generation fighter aircraft. These factors aside, there is residual distrust in the Indian defence and scientific establishment towards the US, stemming from the technology sanctions imposed on India since its 1998 nuclear test blasts.

Unlike in 2005, the US and India have not published the text of the latest accord. This follows similar secrecy about the India-Vietnam "vision document" on defence last month and fuels speculation that the accords somehow target China. While no one grudges New Delhi its opportunity to pursue balance-of-power strategies, and some of the secrecy may be a deliberate attempt at strategic ambiguity, anything that smacks of China containment may be unwise. India is too old a civilisation, too large a nation and too proud a power to find merit in pledging its troth to one camp entirely.