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India Gathers Military Might

Analysis by Peter Custers

LEIDEN, the Netherlands, Jan 14 2011 (IPS) - Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev signed a large number of contracts with India during a two-day visit to New Delhi in December. These deals were part of a series of agreements that have placed India in progressively more advantageous positions in global arms markets.

The most prominent agreements, as reported in the world press, relate to arms sales and to construction of nuclear reactors. One order focused on the supply of 300 advanced fighter planes – spread over a period of ten years; Russia is set to sell ‘fifth generation’ military aircraft to India. The order is presently valued at more than 25 billion euros.

Under another agreement, Russia will help India to construct two more nuclear reactors – on top of the two reactors it is already building in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

At first sight, these deals may not seem very sensational. Russia’s military and nuclear relations with India have a long history, dating back to the era of the former Soviet Union. Until the early nineties, roughly 80 percent of the military hardware used by India’s armed forces was of Soviet origin. Subsequently, in the post-Soviet period, relations temporarily ‘dipped’, as both sides quarrelled over India’s outstanding debt – which Russian sources have estimated at 16 billion dollars.

In the later part of the 1990s, military-commercial relations between the two powers were reconsolidated. Today, the majority of the armaments used by the Indian military still hail from Russia.

In light of this, the outcome of Medvedev’s Delhi visit may seem unexceptional. Yet, President Medvedev is not the only leader of a world power who recently prioritised visiting the Indian capital.

Medvedev’s visit was very closely preceded by visits of U.S. President Barack Obama, in November; of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the beginning of December; and of the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

The visits of Obama and Sarkozy are especially noteworthy, if one is to assess India’s current policy regarding foreign military and nuclear purchases. The American president succeeded in finalising two defence deals. The most important of these two covers the sale of ten military transport planes – C-17 Globemaster III airlift aircraft, manufactured by the U.S.’s Boeing Corporation. The plane reportedly can carry tanks and combat troops over 2,500 nautical miles.

The French president brought home contracts for French and European corporations that are equally lucrative. According to the French daily Le Monde, these include: a contract for Thales and Dassault to update 51 Mirage fighter planes, worth 1.5 billion euros; a contract for major European missile manufacturer MBDA, to construct ground-to-air missiles; plus a contract for France’s nuclear company Areva to build two civilian nuclear reactors near the densely populated city of Bombay.

Delhi’s season of foreign military and nuclear orders even at first glance appears quite unprecedented. Yet, it would be wrong to leave it at this, and fail to notice other peculiar coincidences.

Historically, the Indian state maintained intimate relations with Russia’s precursor, the USSR. Yet the above-described military and nuclear deals – both with Russia and with Russia’s former adversaries, the U.S. and France – are best understood against the background of changed relationships between India and the United States.

In July 2005, then U.S. President George W. Bush and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a framework-agreement for nuclear cooperation. The deal brought to an end the West’s previous attempts to stem India’s rise as an atomic world power.

Officially, the aim of the new deal was to help India expand its production of nuclear energy, through promotion of the country’s access to uranium and to international civilian nuclear technology.

Indian newspapers in 2008 speculated that the size of business to be generated through the deal for Indian and foreign enterprises totalled 40 billion dollars.

When the nuclear deal was being prepared, it was severely criticised by the Indian government’s leftwing allies and by leading Indian peace activists. They emphasised that the controversial deal would legitimise India’s status as a nuclear weapons’ state, and that not all of India’s ‘civilian’ reactors would be put under an international inspection regime. India, Indian critics estimated, would be able to manufacture an extra one hundred nuclear bombs at least.

While public controversies in India have rightly highlighted the dubious implications of the deal for India’s status as military-nuclear world power, Indian media in the wake of the signing of the deal also pinpointed other, equally dramatic implications of the agreement.

Coincidentally, I happened to be teaching at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi in September 2008. At the time, consolidation of the nuclear deal had just been cleared by the American and Indian governments. Reading leading Indian dailies, I was stunned by speculation about expansion of exports of U.S. armaments to India under the nuclear agreement.

In an article that appeared in The Times of India for instance, figures were cited for the amount of money India had spent on international arms’ orders since the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan (25 billion dollars), and was ‘poised’ to spend on arms purchases over the next five to six years (another 30 billion).

Arms exports, it was argued, were the U.S.’s objective in the deal. One deal for the sale of weaponry that had already been clinched – described as India’s biggest ever with the U.S. – was one whereby U.S. giant Boeing would supply the Indian air force with eight reconnaissance aircraft.

When Obama visited Delhi in November, further defence contracts were mentioned as having meanwhile been concluded with three U.S. corporations – Boeing, Lockheed Martin and GE Aviation.

According to American sources cited in the Delhi press, U.S. companies had ‘bagged’ 40 percent of military-commercial contracts signed by India.

The deals that have been clinched with the American, French and Russian presidents who were in Delhi in November and December – read conjointly – confirm that the US-India nuclear deal had another goal. It did not just target expansion of India’s production of nuclear energy.

The deal has both legitimised India’s status as a nuclear weapons’ state on the subcontinent, and has also legitimised a new approach of the Delhi government towards handling its international military-commercial relationships.

In the Cold War era, the Indian government needed to walk a tightrope whenever it bought foreign arms. It had to weigh and balance its privileged military relationship with the Soviet Union against its desire to buy weaponry from Western arms’ suppliers.

Now, India is re-strategising its military relations with world powers. India now has a free hand in buying from or co-constructing advanced weaponry with the U.S. and thanks to the U.S.-India nuclear deal – and, one may add, Obama’s follow-up to Bush’s policymaking – India has become a full-fledged participant in the militarisation of the world economy.

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