On Tuesday US secretary of defense, Jim Mattis became the first member of Donald Trump’s cabinet to visit India. The two-day trip allowed him a quick meet-and-greet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and national security advisor Ajit Doval as well as more substantial talks with defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Sitharaman and Mattis made all the right noises at a joint press conference. On the broader Indo-Pacific, both emphasized the importance of international law. Sitharaman supported ‘freedom of navigation, over-flight and unimpeded lawful commerce’ in the South China Sea. Mattis in turn said there could be ‘no tolerance of terrorist safe havens’.
Three key issues are of particular interest. One is defence production and technology transfers. Last year, the US declared India a ‘major defense partner’. India is now considering offers to partly manufacture and assemble F-16 and F-18A combat aircraft locally. It is also planning to spend $3 billion to buy 22 Predator Guardian UAVs for use as maritime surveillance platforms. The Indian Air Force also wants 90 Avenger UAVs, which can be armed.
If the deals for unmanned aircraft are to include any serious technology transfer they will come under the new Defence Technology and Trade Initiative. But the US will also expect one of its key demands fulfilled: An Indian signature on the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). India has its concerns about COMCASA- specifically that it might reduce operational security and lock India into buying US-origin (or at least US military compatible) radio communications gear.
The second issue is humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. India is concerned China is looking to dominate this key aspect of maritime diplomacy and the Indian Ocean Region and wants to work more closely with the US on it. “I also welcome his reiteration of the US commitment to work with India in ensuring maritime security in the lndo-Pacific and as first responder to HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) situations,” Sitharaman said on Tuesday. More bilateral naval exercises are likely to follow.
The third key issue is Afghanistan. Donald Trump’s new Afghan strategy, unveiled last month, calls on India to do more. However, Mattis probably recognizes that India will restrict its role in that country to development assistance and indirect military support like supplying equipment and training personnel. Last year, India delivered four Mi-25 helicopter gunships to the Afghan Air Force, albeit after several delays. India has also trained Afghan National Army officers for four years as well as some of its special forces. Last week it emerged that the two governments were planning to sign a memorandum of understanding on training Afghan police personnel.
Mattis will be hard pressed to extract much more from India at the moment. And his own government has much to do. Mattis’ next stop after Delhi was Afghanistan. Not long after he left Kabul airport, Taliban forces attacked it with 29 rocket-propelled grenades and other munitions in a failed attempt to assassinate him.