US ambassador to India Kenneth I Juster

by Sujan Dutta

NEW DELHI: The US has proposed a dramatic scaling-up of strategic relations with India that would involve posting of military liaison officers at each other’s combatant commands. The proposal was put forward by the US ambassador, Kenneth I Juster, here as he sketched the Trump administration’s agenda for India.

The objective was to take relations “from the strategic to the durable”.

Juster did not put a timeframe on the posting of military liaison officers but he firmly put on the table an issue that has so far been mentioned only behind closed doors. He did not say by when military officers would be cross-posted but set it out as an objective.

“Over time, we should expand officer exchanges at our war colleges and our training facilities, and even at some point post reciprocal military liaison officers at our respective combatant commands,” he said in his first speech after taking over office.

Juster also proposed a multi-service military exercise, involving the armies, navies, marines and air forces of the two countries. Though India and the US have a series of annual military exercises, they are restricted to single services. India has had only one multi-service exercise so far with Russia. But India has the maximum number of military exercises with the US.

The US ambassador’s suggestions ride on the back of the US National Security Strategy put out by Washington in December that described India as a major world power. Kenneth Juster repeatedly said that the US sees India as a major power in “the Indo-Pacific and beyond”. The phrase “Indo-Pacific” has gained greater currency since the Trump takeover and is aimed at emphasizing the centrality of India in the US’ scheme in the region earlier described as the “Asia-Pacific”.

“A related and equally important objective is to continue our support to India as a net provider of regional security, capable of responding successfully to threats to peace, especially in the Indian Ocean and its vicinity. We can advance these objectives in several ways, which we expect to discuss this spring in our new 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue and incorporate in a roadmap to drive action on both sides,” said Juster.

The 2 + 2 dialogue refers to the joint talks between the ministers of defence and foreign affairs of both countries.

The US expects that issues between the militaries – such as the signing of a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) – would be resolved. He also expected major defence deals by 2019.

“We need to patiently make step-by-step progress on these defense initiatives rather than expect to resolve all issues at once. With that in mind, perhaps in the next year we can announce major agreements enabling cooperation in areas such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms; fighter aircraft production; and the co-development of next generation systems, including a Future Vertical Lift platform or Advanced Technology Ground Combat Vehicles,” he said, adding “ ‘America first’ is not incompatible with ‘make in India’.”

Juster suggested India should take advantage of the nervousness among US companies operating in China and attract investment. He said the focus on military-to-military relations over the past 17 years that has resulted in business worth more than $ 15 billion for US companies should be contrasted with economic relations. “Perhaps it is time to put a strategic lens on economic ties,” he said.