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Ashton Carter visits India to build military ties

With a dash of the requisite South Asian pomp and a heap of expectations for the future, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter met on Wednesday with senior Indian officials to inch forward with military ties to a country that the United States sees as a crucial future partner in Asia.

Neither side made any big announcements during the visit. The trip mainly involved making progress on initiatives that were first worked out when President Obama visited India in January. Mr. Carter is scheduled to sign a defense framework agreement — basically, an outline for how the countries can work together — and finalize details of two small research projects that the American and Indian militaries will conduct together.

In both cases, American officials say, the point is to get Washington and New Delhi, which spent much of the Cold War at a wary distance, accustomed to working with each other. Progress has been slow so far, and the relationship is still very much in the courting stage, despite years of talk from the Bush and Obama administrations about India’s importance.

The difference now is that India’s relatively new prime minister, Narendra Modi, came to office last year with a broader vision of India as a global power, and a far greater affinity for the United States than his predecessors. And at the same time, China has begun aggressively looking to project power into the Indian Ocean and beyond, giving both the United States and India a tangible reason to build closer ties, especially on defense matters.

Mr. Modi has also made domestic manufacturing of products including military hardware a priority since taking office, and a substantial coproduction deal with the United States would be “a significant move forward,” said Sanjeev Shrivastav, an analyst at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a research center based in New Delhi.

To stress the importance of maritime defense and manufacturing ties, Mr. Carter stopped in the southeastern city of Visakhapatnam on Tuesday to see the headquarters of the Indian Navy’s eastern command, the first visit to an operating Indian military command by an American defense secretary. There, Mr. Carter received a short briefing from the Indian commander, and quickly toured a frigate that was designed and built in India (though its engines were purchased from General Electric, and many of its other systems also came from abroad).

India is “not only rising economically and militarily, but is also a regional security provider,” Mr. Carter told reporters on Wednesday before he met Manohar Parrikar, the Indian defense minister, to sign the defense framework. Earlier in the day, he laid a wreath at India Gate, a towering arch in the center of New Delhi that commemorates the country’s war dead.

Though American officials do their best to avoid actually saying “China” when discussing the Obama administration’s so-called rebalance toward Asia, that country’s growing assertiveness has loomed over Mr. Carter’s entire trip, which began eight days ago in Hawaii. There, he publicly chastised Beijing for building artificial islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea, and said American warships and military aircraft would continue to travel through skies and sea lanes that China now claims fall within its territory.

Days later, he repeated those statements at an annual meeting of Asian defense officials in Singapore, and outlined a broad American vision for all of the countries claiming parts of the South China Sea, through which more than half the world’s trade passes each year, to halt the building of artificial islands and the militarization of existing outposts.

Vietnam, where Mr. Carter next stopped, has dozens of small outposts in the South China Sea, and he did press officials there on a land-reclamation freeze (they were noncommittal). But the focus of Mr. Carter’s visit to Vietnam was on building closer ties to a country whose defense establishment fears China but remains suspicious of the United States, as do many defense and security officials in India.

Mr. Modi, however, is eager to work with the United States. “I think his close group of advisers are very committed to it,” a senior American official said. “But that doesn’t always translate effectively or immediately translate into the bureaucratic levels, and so that’s a challenge that we face.”

The American official and others who are taking part in the trip to India spoke on the condition of anonymity at the insistence of the Pentagon, though they were not discussing classified matters, sensitive internal deliberations or delicate talks with another government.

Despite the historical wariness between India and the United States, the tenor on both sides was optimistic on Wednesday. The Pentagon now has a special India team meant to help senior officials cut through their own bureaucracy, for instance, and American and Indian defense officials have talked about exchanging technology on major military items, like jet engines and launch catapults for aircraft carriers.

“Jet engines, aircraft carrier technology are big projects that we’re working very hard on,” Mr. Carter said, “to blaze a trail for things to come.”

India also seems to be overcoming its fears that if it works with the United States on major military hardware, spare parts or other support will be cut off in the event of a conflict with Pakistan, a longstanding American ally, said Mr. Shrivastav, the analyst.

The two research projects announced on Wednesday definitely qualify as small. One is for a mobile power generator that could use solar energy, internal combustion and other fuel sources. The other is for advanced gear to protect soldiers from chemical and biological attacks. The price tag for each project — $1 million, with each country contributing half — amounts to what would basically be rounding errors in the government budgets of both India and the United States.

Source: The New York Times

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