THE TWO-DAY VISIT of US defense secretary James Mattis to India this week can be described in a single line: an incremental build-up of relations. This has often provided cannon fodder to critics who say that for all the hoopla around bilateral ties, matters are essentially stagnant.
This is more a case of looking at the glass as half-full than anything else. Barely six months ago the relationship was considered fraught. Donald Trump had just become president at the head of campaign that hinted at India ‘unfairly’ gaining at the expense of the US in trade deals. The first meeting between Narendra Modi and Trump had a bated breath quality about it. Since then, much has changed.
For one, the US has realised that helping India in modernising its armed forces is essential if India is to remain a sheet anchor of peace and stability in South Asia. For another, speaking about Pakistan’s perfidy is no longer taboo in Washington DC. Finally, China is seen as the menace it is. India’s adroit handling of the Doklam crisis has led to a deeper, warmer, appreciation of India.
In the meantime, India has been offered important pieces of military hardware—the Sea Guardian drones are an example—even as it has sought equipment that previously was considered out of bounds. Invariably, the exchange of such hardware comes with calculations that are usually opaque. For example, what would be the possible effects of transferring Avenger hunting drones to India? Equipped with hellfire missiles, this drone can stealthily carry out cross-border military missions in which India has to increasingly rely on both its Western and Eastern border. A weapon of this kind in Indian hands will slowly, but certainly, tip the military balance in South Asia to its favour. And this is just one piece of hardware that is on India’s shopping list.
Mattis’ visit is part of this ongoing engagement with India where these questions are raised and sharpened behind closed doors. For too long has India ignored geostrategic questions to its cost. The faux efforts at peace with belligerent neighbours have gone. The requirement now is a careful but steady building up of military capabilities that have been ignored for a long time. Continuous engagement with the US is part of that effort. That is the perspective in which the Mattis visit should be seen.