While the India-US military logistics agreement was a major milestone, New Delhi and the Washington are quietly working towards a framework that will be far more consequential for the future of defence ties between them.
They are discussing a document India gave the US ahead of the Monday meeting of defence minister Manohar Parrikar with his US counterpart Ashton Carter here on Monday.
The paper, which has not been made public by either country, was described by Carter at his presser with Parrikar as “very lengthy, detailed and … a very constructive paper”.
He had gone on to say, “I’ve read that, studied it very carefully you know … that’s an excellent basis for the implementation of the major defence partnership.” But he offered no details.
Neither did Parrikar. Indian officials refused to share contents of the document, and there was no response from US defence department to a request for details till late Tuesday.
The document is an attempt to flesh out the classification of “major defence partner” that the US coined for India during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June visit, a source said.
“It’s a new classification altogether,” the source said, adding, “that’s a third category of partners the US has — after treaty allies and non-treaty allies.” India is neither.
In a way, both New Delhi and Washington DC are in uncharted waters here, and are working towards putting together, first, a framework and then, second, fill it with details.
The framework will determine, the source said, how the US shares sensitive technology for co-production or co-development with a country that is not an ally in the traditional sense.
The US has emerged as India’s second biggest supplier of defence equipment with $4.4 million worth in contracts in the last three years alone, behind Russia’s $5 billion.
It has moved aggressively to expand defence trade in recent years under Carter’s watch by making it easier for India to buy from it, especially sensitive dual-use technology.
During Modi’s visit in June, the US declared it would work towards “technology sharing with India to a level commensurate with that of its closest allies and partners”.
That was the purpose for recognizing India as a “major defence partner”, a classification the two countries are now beginning to flesh out as a workable framework.
Ben Schwartz, a former defence official now with US-India business council, said logistics pacts — such as the one signed on Monday — have received far more attention than needed.
India and the US signed the logistics exchange memorandum of agreement (LEMOA) on Monday granting their militaries access to logistics support on a reciprocal basis.
It’s one of three defence pacts — called foundational agreements by Americans — that the US has been pressing India to sign, arguing they are intended to improve interoperability.
Schwartz, who headed the India desk at Pentagon, said he believes the two countries need to get past these agreements and move on to “more pressing topics”.
“India and the US have common security concerns and geopolitical interests,” he said. “Our leaders ought to focus on ways of partnering together to pursue those interests.”
He added: “How this question is answered will determine what ‘major defence partner’ really means.”