A wider partnership with the US will equip India further with advanced weaponry and vital information. Joint operations may be possible, but we must guard our own interests

After many false starts, India and the US appear confident of consolidating their defence ties, upgraded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump to what was described on Tuesday as a “comprehensive global strategic partnership". The first of these four words is an addition to the relationship’s lexicon, the other three having been adopted after Modi’s parleys with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama in 2014 and 2015. While India-US cooperation is expected to cover a range of fields—from the sharing of logistical facilities to vital information—the pivotal part would be the access our forces get to some of the “most feared military equipment on the planet", as Trump put it. New Delhi is reportedly scheduled to sign deals worth an estimated over $3 billion to buy 24 Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky MH-60R “Romeo" naval helicopters, called the “Swiss Army knives of choppers" for their versatility, and six Boeing Inc.’s AH64-E Apache attack helicopters. The former are meant for the Indian Navy, which needs to enhance its strike capability if it is to hold sway across the high seas of the Indian Ocean and further east.

The context of the joint India-US intent to keep the eastern hemisphere free and open for seafarers is the aggression displayed in recent years by China, which has sought to project power beyond its littoral as part of what analysts see as its “Go" strategy of encircling adversaries. It has not gone unnoticed that Beijing is doubling down on its naval strength and, accordingly, India and the US have stepped up joint military exercises in seas far from the Indian coastline. The convergence of interests on this front is obvious. If Washington views the rise of Chinese might as a challenge to the global world order as set by the West, New Delhi needs to resist any threat posed by a northern neighbour whose sphere of influence looks set to widen in the years ahead. That Pakistan and China are “all weather" allies adds urgency to that objective. Moreover, if this is inevitably to be an Asian century, given the economic trends of the times, then India must take on some of the responsibility to ensure it does not diminish the freedoms that were so hard won in the American century of the 1900s.

Even as India gets closer to the US in a common quest to counter Chinese domination of the Asian continent, if not yet the world, New Delhi has begun to reform the command structure of its armed forces to maximize operational efficiency in case hostilities break out. India now has a chief of defence staff to coordinate all three wings of the forces. A plan has been worked out for the creation of theatre commands, by which a single commander will direct all forces in a particular zone of war. An optimal way to mount military missions, however, increasingly involves making the most of data that’s gathered, crunched and deployed in real time, across multiple hardware platforms. Given the expansion of our security relations with the US, it seems likely that the Pentagon will share high-value data with our forces for joint operations. This will be an enabler, no doubt, to meet common goals. But none of this should be at the cost of India’s own security agenda, as determined by a government answerable to the country’s citizens. While strategic partnerships are welcome, what counts for most is strategic autonomy.