It’s been a stellar week for Indian security. First, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter visited India, and formally renewed the bilateral framework for defense cooperation with his counterpart Minister of Defense Manohar Parrikar. This entire trip resulted in a brief, eight-point joint press release, which has garnered little attention, but cements forward progress in deepening security ties between New Delhi and Washington. But second, no less importantly, Prime Minister Modi set off for Dhaka on a visit slated to at last resolve one of the world’s most complex borders, and reset India’s ties with the world’s eighth-largest country. The two developments this week mark an intensification of India’s focus on its Asia-Pacific future, and U.S. support for an India with stronger links to its east.
Secretary Carter’s visit to India was his first as secretary of defense, but he had visited earlier while in office as deputy secretary of defense and as under secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics. In these earlier roles, he championed the importance of a strong defense relationship with India and crafted the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), now delivering results. Earlier this week he quietly made history as the first U.S. secretary of defense to visit an Indian “operational military command”—the Eastern Naval Command. Located at Visakhapatnam, the Eastern Naval Command looks out across the Bay of Bengal and connects India across the waters to Southeast Asia. In fact, a direct line following the same latitude leads directly to Myanmar. At a time when India’s “Act East” strategy converges with the U.S. rebalance to Asia, Secretary Carter’s stop at Visakhapatnam reinforces the Joint Strategic Vision on the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific released during President Obama’s January visit to India.
The Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship, signed by Secretary Carter and Minister Parrikar and released publicly, renews the cooperation framework put in place a decade back by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-Minister of Defense Pranab Mukherjee (now president of India). While the framework largely follows the specifics laid out in 2005, two new features deserve mention. One, the new document adds “supporting a rule-based order” to the declared top-level interest in protecting the free flow of commerce. This inclusion clearly demonstrates the concerns Washington and New Delhi share over China’s South China Sea claims and activities. The second new item of note in the 2015 defense framework covers DTTI, “recognizing the transformative effect” it can have. In the Pentagon’s release summarizing the trip, “Parrikar and Carter agreed to expedite discussions” for cooperation on jet engines, aircraft carriers, and others. These complex technologies will require time to determine how the United States and India can work together, but the fact that they will be expedited for cooperation will transform the maritime partnership between both countries.
Which brings me to Modi’s Dhaka visit. As India looks to its east, it has for the last seventy years had an unimaginably complicated border to manage—its longest border, in fact—with Bangladesh. As I’ve written previously, the legacy first of the 1947 partition of India followed by East Pakistan’s secession and 1971 independence as Bangladesh produced a boundary that literally left thousands of citizens in islands of extra-territoriality on both sides. (Look at this map or this drawing for an idea of the enormity of the problem.) There are more than 160 of these enclaves, affecting some 50,000 people on both sides.
Modi has pursued a boundary agreement first attempted in 1974, then again in 2011 by then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Because resolving the border issue and dealing with these enclaves will require a constitutional amendment—the Indian constitution defines the boundaries of India—the agreement has a higher bar to clear than a more typical piece of legislation. Unfortunately previous efforts fell victim to India’s domestic politics. Bangladesh, which requires the same process, approved the precursor to this agreement back in 1974. This is an agreement long, long in the works.
Resolving the border enclaves and essentially regularizing the Indo-Bangladesh boundary will make it far easier to manage. That will on its own merits benefit Indian security. But another agreement on the anvil for Modi’s Dhaka visit will be a transit agreement, which will vastly enhance economic connectivity. India will be better linked to its own northeastern states, otherwise connected to India through a tiny “chicken’s neck” of land known as the Siliguri Corridor to Bangladesh’s northwest. And Bangladesh will be able to transport goods via India to Nepal or Bhutan. It will open up this entire eastern region as a more active economic gateway to southeast Asia.
So it’s been a strong week for Indian security with particular emphasis on the east, and welcome, long-overdue progress on the Dhaka-Delhi front.
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