The Financial Times features two stories today (here and here) on the burgeoning defense partnership between India and the United States. U.S-India defense ties, the FT notes, will receive a boost during President Obama’s visit to New Delhi next month, during which it is expected that the president will finalize a $3.5 billion deal for the sale of ten C-17 transport aircraft. During the trip, there will also likely be some discussion of India’s multi-role fighter acquisition competition, in which two American planes—Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Boeing’s F/A-18—have been bid against four European models for the 126-plane, $11 billion deal.

As Michael Mazza and I argued in a CDS Strategic Briefing last month, it’s difficult, for a variety of reasons, to overstate the importance of the fighter competition for the future of the U.S.-India defense partnership:

Take the issue of interoperability, for example, which is made far easier when two militaries employ the same equipment. Of the countries that fly the other fighters in the competition, which is India most likely to fight alongside in a coalition anytime soon? Sweden, which flies the Gripen? It’s doubtful. France, which flies the Rafale? Not likely. At the same time, India has more overlapping security interests with the United States than it does with Russia or any countries in Europe. Sure, India has deep and enduring historical ties with the United Kingdom (a builder and operator of the Eurofighter Typhoon), but how likely is London to involve itself in a struggle over the Asian balance of power? Only the United States and its Asian allies have shared interests with India in this regard; the greater the interoperability between the U.S. and Indian armed services, therefore, the better prepared they will be in the case of future contingencies.

What’s more, should the fighter competition conclude in the United States’ favor, it has the potential to open the door to greater, more high-stakes defense industrial cooperation down the road. In the years ahead, once the Indian Air Force has settled on its new medium multi-role combat aircraft (or MMRCA, as the as-yet selected fighter is known), it will likely set its sights on acquiring a more advanced, 5th-generation aircraft—like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), perhaps, for which the Indian Navy has already submitted a Request for Information. The U.S.-led F-35 program is already dependent upon a network of international partners, and has thus been touted as much for its built-in coalition (and exportability) as for its combat capability.

The United States’ faces determined competition, however, and opportunities for future U.S.-India defense industrial cooperation may already be slipping away. Earlier this month, India’s defense minister announced that Russia and India had reached an agreement to jointly develop and manufacture a 5th-generation fighter, similar to the United States F-22, over the next ten years. In December, Nicolas Sarkozy will also travel to New Delhi, where he is expected to make the case for the French fighter in the current competition.

If the United States hopes to capitalize fully on its growing partnership with its “natural ally” in South Asia, it will be imperative for President Obama to articulate during his November trip the clear strategic advantages afforded to India through expanded defense industrial cooperation with the United States.

(flickr/#PACOM, U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Sam Highley)

Who’s Going to Win in Afghanistan? China.

by Tim Sullivan

According to a recent CRS report, China’s influence in Afghanistan is steadily increasing. Whether or not that turns out to be a good thing for the United States depends on whether Washington follows through on its recently-reaffirmed commitment to maintain a strategic partnership with Afghanistan post-2011.

The extent of China’s economic engagement in Afghanistan is by now well known. Since 2002, China has pledged nearly $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan (though only a fraction of it has been disbursed, and it remains modest sum compared to the U.S., UK, Japanese, and Canadian contributions). In 2008, a state-owned Chinese firm provided the largest single foreign direct investment in Afghanistan, dropping $3.5 billion to develop the Aynak copper field in Logar province.  And despite the continuing security concerns and infrastructure challenges that have hampered progress at Aynak—the ambitious proposal also called for the construction of a freight railway, a power plant, housing, a mosque, and a hospital—China remains in the running to develop the Hajigak iron ore deposit in Bamiyan province, west of Kabul.

Of late, Beijing has launched a charm offensive in Afghanistan, having no doubt sensed, as with most other states in the region, that the time to begin shaping Kabul’s post-2011 regional alignments is now. Thus, during his March trip to Beijing, Afghan president Hamid Karzai was treated to meetings with Chinese president Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, and Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. In the course of the visit, Karzai and his Chinese hosts signed agreements on expanding economic cooperation, ensuring favorable tariffs on Afghan exports, and creating scholarships for technical training programs across a range of critical fields: commerce, communications, education, health, economics, and counternarcotics.

According to the CRS report, China may now be prepared to expand its engagement in Afghanistan into the realm of security.  The report hinted that within the last six months there had been signs that the PRC could be persuaded to deploy PLA forces to Afghanistan:

“Some diplomats in Washington, DC, indicated to CRS in November 2009 that, should President Obama ask for China to contribute People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces, even in a non-combat role, to Afghanistan, China might agree to that request.”

China has already made some very limited contributions to the training of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In the fall of 2009, the PRC launched a mine-clearing training course for officers from the ANSF and the Iraqi Security Forces at the PLA’s University of Science and Technology in Nanjing. In March, Xinhua reported that Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, following meetings with his Afghan counterpart, Adbul Rahim Wardak, pledged that the “Chinese military will continue assistance to the Afghan National Army(ANA) to improve their capacity of safeguarding national sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic stability.” What’s more, reports have suggested that a senior PLA official may have discussed with Karzai the possibility of training and equipping the ANSF once coalition forces depart Afghanistan.

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Video from Monday’s CDS event on the nuclear balance in South Asia is now available. Check it out here.

Each of the panelists offered a number of thoughtful observations; here’s a brief selection: NDU’s Jack Gill noted that while many analysts and observers base predictions of future Indian responses to terrorist attacks on Delhi’s behavior in past crises — which has been characterized by remarkable restraint — it would be unwise to discount the aggregate effect of further attacks on Indian decision-makers’ strategic calculus. The next straw, in other words, could break the camel’s back. For his part, Feroz Hassan Khan of the Naval Postgraduate School argued for more formal, institutionalized nuclear crisis management mechanisms between Islamabad and Delhi, and called for Pakistan to develop a more transparent nuclear doctrine, one which clearly outlines its nuclear “red lines.” In short, strategic ambiguity remains one the biggest dangers on the subcontinent.

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Afghanistan’s Regional Context

by Tim Sullivan

In an interview on Monday with the Wall Street Journal, General Stanley McChrystal provided some commentary on the regional dynamics which stand to affect U.S. efforts in Afghanistan:

“We get overly fixated sometimes on al Qaeda, but the reality is there are regional issues here that are potentially more important than that and so that needs to be put as one of the key points.”

This was encouraging observation on the part of the ISAF commander, given that the competition among regional players to exert influence in Afghanistan will only become more intense as the United States’ 2011 drawdown date approaches. McChrystal went on:

“Everything in the region affects everybody else. You know it’s like in the solar system: Each planet actually does gravitational pull on all the others. Pakistan is clearly affected by a number of actors, India being large. And Afghanistan is affected by a huge number of actors.

I think the better we can make India and Pakistan relations, the better it is for everyone, particularly a relatively weak nation right now like Afghanistan because as those two significant nations have friction sometimes, it can affect Afghanistan in ways that are just huge. So I think it’s really important that the transparency and the trust with India be part of that calculation. And clearly the Pakistanis are worried about Indian activities inside Afghanistan and sometimes there’s a lot of misperception associated with those, so I think clarity there is essential.”

Reducing India-Pakistan tensions in the near-term may indeed allow the Pakistani military to feel more comfortable in shifting forces from its eastern flank to combat insurgents just inside its border with Afghanistan. We have seen this phenomenon in action, with the redeployment of more than 100,000 forces from Pakistan’s Indian to Afghan border (as reported in the Pentagon’s biannual report to Congress on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan), and the Pakistani army’s continuing operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

But in truth, there is little India — or the United States, for that matter — can do to dissuade Pakistan’s national security establishment that Afghanistan remains a critical source of “strategic depth,” or that India’s engagement in the country — which has taken the form of a broad but low-profile “soft power” campaign — is anything other than an effort to encircle Pakistan. At the same time, India — whose objectives in Afghanistan have been clear and, as Dan Twining noted recently, coincide closely with those of the U.S. — should not be expected to reduce its presence in Afghanistan simply to mollify its rival.

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Not long ago the Washington Post featured a story about a newly constructed park and community center for women in Kabul. Apart from the author’s moving account of the Afghan women’s appreciation for their newfound freedom and opportunities — the center offers a range of vocational classes — one detail stood out: the facility is funded by the Indian government and run by the Ahmedabad-based Self-Employed Women’s Association.

The park is one of many development projects the Indian government has sponsored throughout Afghanistan, having committed $1.3 billion in total to the country’s reconstruction. Major contributions have included power plants, medical facilities, schools, and, most notably, a highway across Nimruz province which links the Afghan ring road to the Iranian border and beyond to Chabahar, an Indian-built port on Iran’s Makran Coast. Delhi’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan has also swelled since 2002, with the opening of consulates in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e-Sharif; India maintains a modestly sized — though according to most assessments, influential — embassy in Kabul, as well.

Delhi is pursuing what amounts to a “soft power” campaign in Afghanistan — one which, according to Ahmed Rashid’s Descent Into Chaos, is “designed to win over every sector of Afghan society, give India a high profile with the Afghans, gain the maximum political advantage, and of course undercut Pakistani influence.” And although India’s efforts have without a doubt unnerved the Pakistanis, Delhi has managed avoid the perception among the other states engaged in Afghanistan that it is actively seeking to antagonize Islamabad — perhaps because of the extent of the services it has provided to the Afghan population. Assuming Rashid is right about India’s desire to cultivate influence among the Afghan citizens, its strategy has been success: an ABC News/BBC poll released in early 2009 indicated that 71% of Afghans viewed India favorably. Only 8% said the same of Pakistan.

But in adopting a “hearts and minds” approach, strategically conceived though it may be, the Indians have naturally foreclosed on other modes of influence. As former Indian diplomat Rajiv Sikri noted in his recent book, “Although India’s security remains deeply affected by what happens in Afghanistan, India’s disadvantage is that it is not involved in Afghanistan’s security in any meaningful way.” Among commentators and analysts in India, Sikri isn’t alone in suggesting that Delhi’s efforts to shape events in Afghanistan — while savvy and subtle — remain disproportionate to its strategic interests in the country.

In recent months, however, there have been signs that could quickly change.

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The Security Legacy of the Raj

by Philipp Tomio

The summer issue of The American Interest features an excellent article by respected South Asia scholar C. Raja Mohan titled The Return of the Raj about the security legacy of the British Raj and the Indian military’s expeditionary tradition. Mohan’s central thesis is that India’s military past under the leadership of the British Raj could be a useful guide to its strategic future.

Telling the tale of France’s recent strategic overtures toward India, Mohan argues that Paris has often been ahead of Washington in “strategizing” about the Subcontinent. France’s continuous efforts, since at least the 1990s, at fostering a strategic partnership with India, Mohan theorizes, may be motivated by the belief in Paris that New Delhi’s “defense orientation” is undergoing profound change. India, one of the world’s largest economies equipped with an increasingly modern and capable military, the argument goes, will eventually step up to the plate and take on a more active role, commensurate with its size, in maintaining the international order.

If so, Mohan points out, this will not be the first time India has done so. It is worth remembering that India’s armed forces fought with the Allies in both world wars and that the British Raj was the “main peacekeeper” in the Indian Ocean and beyond. The West, as well as India’s post-colonial political elite, Mohan writes, is ignorant of India’s expeditionary security legacy under the Raj. Rediscovering and reviving the Indian military’s expeditionary tradition, Mohan says, will provide both Washington and New Delhi with a solid foundation for “strategic cooperation” not only bilaterally but also in concert with the world’s democracies. To achieve this, current bilateral U.S.-India military relations need to be incorporated into a genuine security strategy.

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