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James Mattis’s India visit: 5 key issues to watch out for

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-09-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: India and the US will seek to boost their defence partnership to higher levels during the 26-27 September visit of US defence secretary James Mattis to India. Mattis is the highest ranking US administration representative to come visiting after US President Donald Trump took office in January. India has been designated major defence partner by the previous Obama administration last year, a status endorsed by the Trump administration earlier this year in a sign of continuity in US policy towards India.

The Mattis visit to India comes almost exactly a month after President Trump unveiled a new South Asia and Afghan policy on 22 August, giving India a publically key role in stabilizing Afghanistan while censuring Pakistan for perpetuating terror camps and sustaining terrorists on its soil—also in public. Coincidentally, Mattis is to travel to Afghanistan after India and Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah is expected in New Delhi later this week.

Mattis’ visit also comes almost a month after India and China ended a 73 day long military standoff on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan on 28 August and US disenchantment with China over a spike in tensions in East Asia over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. “The United States views India as a valued and influential partner, with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia,” a Pentagon statement said.

On Tuesday, Mattis will meet his counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman and Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval. He is also scheduled to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Here’s a look at five key issues to watch for during the Mattis visit:

■ Discussion on the US policy towards Afghanistan: Mattis is seen as one of the handful of key Trump administration officials who drew up the new US’ South Asia policy that was outlined by Trump on 22 August. In it, Trump berated Pakistan for giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” Mattis, during his visit to New Delhi, will likely expand on Trump’s idea of a role for India in Afghanistan.

Trump had said that he wanted India to “help us more with Afghanistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” India has already pledged $3.1 billion dollars in assistance to Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Earlier this month, India announced it would take up 116 high impact projects in 31 provinces of Afghanistan, boosting its development cooperation partnership with the war torn country.

According to news reports, India is expected to train Afghan police personnel. India is already training some Afghan army personnel and has handed over 4 attack helicopters to Kabul as part of its assistance package. While India is unlikely to send troops to Afghanistan, New Delhi is seen as keen to step up its footprint in a country where its role has been limited thanks to Pakistan’s reservations—that were accommodated by the US in the past.

■ Will there be an announcement on the sale of Guardian unmanned drones to India? One has to wait and see, say analysts. The US offering the sale of Sea Guardian drones was announced in the joint statement issued after talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Trump in the US in June. The 22 drones that are on offer to India cost $2 billion and its acquisition could see the Indian navy in possession of the world’s most advanced maritime reconnaissance drone. With China making increasing inroads into the Indian Ocean, the drones are seen as an effective system to keep a close watch on Chinese activities in India’s periphery.

Maritime security and peace in the broader Indo-Pacific is seen as a shared objective of both the India and the US. If a deal for the drones is concluded, this would be the first US sale of the Sea Guardian to a non-Nato partner nation and the first sale of an extremely sensitive US system under India’s “major defence partner” status, said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at the London-based King’s College.

■ Mattis during his visit could discuss the proposal to manufacture the F-16 and F-18A under Modi’s Make in India campaign, along with efforts to identify new projects under the ambitious Defence Technology and Trade Initiatives (DTTI). The Trump administration wants to sell F-18 and F-16 fighter planes to India, built by American companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin respectively. And India wants to ramp up its manufacturing sector, attracting foreign companies to use India as a base for manufacturing their products.

“I think what both sides will try and work out is how to work towards a relationship that is more than buying and selling – ie enhance India’s Make in India programme and sync that with US’ aims to sell sophisticated technology to India,” Pant said adding these could be discussions on bringing the priorities of the two governments in sync with each other in order to lay the foundation of a strong partnership.

■ To take the relationship to the next level, including more military exercises and sale of high-technology defence equipment, Mattis could suggest that India instead of signing some key foundational pacts, now focus on some India specific documentation that would provide institutional framework for deeper cooperation. This addresses India’s concerns as well as meets the Congressional-mandated legislative requirements required for such technology transfers. According to government officials, there could be some discussions on this during Mattis’ talks with Sitharaman.

■ Message to China: Mattis’ visit to India comes after India’s 73 day Doklam standoff with China as well as waning US confidence in China’s abilities to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme. Given that India and the US have spoken of working together for peace and security in the Asia Pacific region, it is natural that the rise of China will be an issue on the table for talks that Mattis will have with his Indian interlocutors. At a premier strategic dialogue forum in Singapore in June, Mattis warned China that the US would not accept China’s militarization of man-made islands that Beijing has been building to bolster its claims in the South China Sea. This came after doubts from countries like Japan over the US commitment to Asia after the new Trump administration takeover and its more insular approach.

China’s territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea are contested by several nations. For long, the US has been pushing India to take on a more active role in Southeast Asia with its “Look East” policy. In 2011, then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had asked India not only to “look east” but “act east” as well.

In 2012, then US defence secretary Leon Panetta had described India as a “lynchpin” of its rebalance to Asia strategy to counter an aggressive China. At that time, India had shown marked reluctance to play such a role. But with the Modi government taking office in 2014, New Delhi has pursued a much more vigorous “Act East” policy—extending a $100 million credit line to Vietnam for defence hardware purchases as well as reportedly selling Brahmos missiles to Hanoi.

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