Nirmala Sitharaman was deft enough to steer in India’s favour her joint press interaction with the visiting US Secretary for Defense, and impress the domestic audience when asserting that there would no “Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan” even while pledging to continue India’s multi-faceted assistance to that troubled country.
Although there is no specific evidence of either Secretary James Mattis, or President Trump for that matter, having called for Indian troops to be deployed there, the fact that Gen Mattis did not opt to “clarify” the position enabled the Indian defence minister to dispel possible misgivings about being sucked into a larger American game-plan, and thereby re-affirm the position that Indian soldiers would only go abroad in accordance with a United Nations mandate. A reaction from Washington is awaited.
Equally awaited would be the extent to which Secretary Mattis goes along with Sitharaman’s call to pressure Pakistan to desist from promoting terrorism ~ a point powerfully articulated by the other woman in India’s “big four” at the UNGA in New York a few days earlier.
Gen Mattis did join Sitharman in her condemnation of terror, but that alone does not suffice to turn the screws on the ISI and GHQ Rawalpindi. While it is true that specifics were not on the visiting official’s agenda, there could be some disappointment in New Delhi that his meetings with the Indian leadership were too “up in the air” to determine whether the US genuinely appreciated India’s worries, or was more keen on India expanding its role in the Indian Ocean ~ thereby easing pressures on the US Navy so that it could counter unfavourable developments in the South China Sea.
Of particular worry to India, despite its being aware that no “shopping list” was on the cards, was that the emerging problem of the transfer of top technologies for American platforms which India seeks to “make in India” was discussed only superficially ~ if the joint press conference was a fair indication of the deliberations.
The Indo-US Business Council has indicated that American firms were keen to retain ownership control over key technologies, which could complicate plans to produce in India over 100 F-16 and F-18A fighters for the air force and navy ~ an added problem being the possibility of other western producers taking a cue from Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
True that these are commercial proposals, but technology transfers do have to get governmental approval so an indication from Mattis might have been reassuring. The Tatas have already tied up with Lockheed Martin for the F-16, subject to final approvals.
Nor did the Mattis visit mention anything about the Guardian drones India seeks to protect its warships at sea. Indian defence watchers would hope that such discussions would proceed beyond the glare of publicity.