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While Defence and Technology being the focus of his state visit to the US, Prime Minister Narendra Modi coined a Retronym for AI (Artificial Intelligence) as ‘America and India’. With US presidential elections and India’s general elections scheduled next year, mainstream media on both sides are going overboard to score maximum for respective sides. However, there is need to closely examine the developments, including whether there is a strategic shift in India’s foreign policy.
Three highpoints of PM Modi’s visit are the jet engine deal between GE and HAL, India importing armed Sea Guardian drones from the US, and US assistance to the Indian semiconductor industry; others include bringing together startups of both countries, whose technologies could potentially serve both militaries, and ISRO joining NASA’s mission to put a man on the moon. At an event organized by America’s National Science Foundation, PM Modi presented a five-point proposal to energize Indo-US collaboration in education and research, including: integrated approach combining government; industry and academia; encouraging teachers and student exchanges, and; mutual recognition of vocational skill qualifications.
The GE-HAL jet engine deal is to power India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, as also the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). DRDO’s Kaveri Engine, meant to also power the LCA, remains unsatisfactory despite 27 years of development since 1996 and crores of rupees spent on the project. However, GE is not transferring technology of essential components, crystal blades included, which DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) is unable to develop. Therefore, our LCA and AMCA jets will always remain dependent on the US. Time schedule to begin co-production of the GE-414 engine would also be contingent upon what the US wants. Significantly, the GE-HAL MoU signed on June 22, 2023 are to manufacture 99 jet engines. There is NO mention of technology transfer or joint production. Delivery of 99 jet engines is subject to approval of US Congress.
India cleared the import of 31 x MQ9 Sea Guardian drones from the US on June 21, 2023, just before PM Modi departed for the visit. Considering that the US Congress had approved the sale of these Sea Guardian drones to India four years back, Washington obviously pressured India to clear the import. However, the US reportedly prevailed upon India to drop the ‘Make in India” clause; requiring ToT from America’s General Atomics. Presently, there is no clarity if ‘Make in India’ would be added as also time schedule of the delivery since price negotiations and other procedures could take months or years. Without ‘Make in India’, India will remain dependent on the US dor spare parts and maintenance of these drones.
As for US assistance to India’s semiconductor industry, US chipmaker Micron is to invest $2.7 billion in an “assembly and test” facility in Gujarat’s upcoming semiconductor fab – the first in India. The Micron facility has been approved under the ‘Modified Assembly, Testing, Marking and Packaging (ATMP) Scheme. In another development, America’s Applied Materials is to invest $400 million to build a collaborative Engineering Centre at Bengaluru for developing and commercializing technologies and semiconductor manufacturing equipment.
American arms, equipment and technology always come at exorbitant prices compared to other sources. There is speculation that America has been nudging Taiwan to ‘go-slow’ for assisting India in setting up factories and training talent for fabs, in order to keep India captive on US technology. Any assistance to our fledgling semiconductor industry will remain welcome till we become self-reliant although the US will always aim to undermine India becoming self-reliant in any field, leave aside semiconductors.
It needs no intelligence to decipher that the US had appreciated the outcome of the recent visit by US Secretary of State to Beijing before he departed for the visit, given that Beijing had already snubbed US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin by refusing any military-to-military dialogue with the US. But Blinken’s visit to China followed by Biden publicly calling Chinese President Xi Jinping “Dictator” and mocking him for the US having shot down China’s spy balloon was timed with Biden standing alongside Modi – a signal to China and Russia?
Senator Mark Warner, co-chair at the Senate India Caucus, announced at a news conference on June 20, 2023, that he and Senator John Cornyn (from Republican Party) will be introducing a standalone bill and an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act, for adding India to the NATO Plus 5 arrangement. What happen if the US Congress passes this bill, for which it does not have to consult India? NATO Plus 5 is against both China and Russia.
What happens to India-Russia relations and will passage of this bill not lead to further strengthening of Russia-China relations with adverse consequences for India? Isn’t the US deliberately pushing India into such a situation under cover of “limited” ToT, having done zero ToT over the last 13 years under the India-US Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) established in 2012, and while agreeing to sell 28 x F-16s to Pakistan in 2008.
It may be recalled that when questioned about Pakistan using F-16s against India on February 27, 2019, the US unashamedly justified it by saying that the supply of F-16s to Pakistan was for counter-terrorism and for “deterrence against India”. How then can a double-headed, double-faced snake like the US ever be trusted?
The real face of the Biden Administration while demonstrating effusive affection for Modi and India can be gauged from the situation report dated June 21, 2023 in Foreign Policy magazine, which says that there are “some big asterisks to this defence-heavy US-India love fest. Many democracy and human rights advocates are worried about the health of India’s democracy and the dangerous flavor of authoritarianism that Modi seems to have ushered in. India’s free press and judiciary are under attack….The targeting and harassment of India’s Muslim minority population has also stepped up significantly under Modi’s rule. At least three progressive Democratic lawmakers will boycott his (Modi’s) address…..this visit will give Biden 10 points for his China strategy, but minus several million for his global democracy and human rights strategy. Whoever said foreign policy was easy?”
Some analysts are of the view that India has made a strategic shift towards the US because of the ongoing standoff with China for more than two years. Others feel war with China is inevitable (forget Modi’s cliché “this is not the era of war”), only the timing cannot be predicted, so why not warm up to the US and get better weapons and technology. A third cross-section feels there is no need to go overboard with the GE-HAL engine deal, few Sea Guardians and assistance in establishing fabs since technology-wise catching up with the Chinese military could take two-three or more decades; so why align with the US. One thing is for sure, India was already walking a fine line to balance its global relations; that line has become thinner.
For Biden, Modi’s visit was a welcome diversion from his Project ‘Ukraine’ with the Ukraine counteroffensive faltering badly. For India, the attention got diverted from the volatile situation in Manipur which is likely to deteriorate further. There appears to be no move to find a political solution to the problem. For years, China had been training and arming the PLA of Manipur, who are Meitei. Beijing now has the opportunity to “also” arm Kukis through multiple proxies in Myanmar. Ironically on our side the focus appears to be MLAs switching loyalties and getting then back using coercion and/or money power.
The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views expressed are personal.