New Delhi, Feb. 9: The Donald Trump administration in the US has assured India it is committed to a defence technology transfer initiative that became a cornerstone of strategic ties under former President Barack Obama but was under doubt because of the new President's protectionist rhetoric.
The assurance from Trump's defence secretary James Mattis to Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar during a phone call today has helped ease New Delhi's jitters over the future of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), senior officials have said.
But it remains unclear whether the Trump administration will continue to encourage American defence majors to invest in setting up manufacturing facilities in India, a position that would contrast starkly with his pledge to bring jobs back home, the officials said.
Defence firm Lockheed Martin today said it was expecting the Trump administration to take a "fresh look" at its plans to set up a production unit for the manufacture of F-16 fighter jets in India. The unit was approved by the Obama administration and has been welcomed by India.
The DTTI was set up in 2012 but effectively took off after Ashton Carter took over as Obama's defence secretary in February 2015. The initiative is aimed at co-development and co-design of defence equipment, weapons platforms and other military technology and was an outcome of Indian pressure to expand the bilateral defence partnership beyond one where India only buys and the US merely sells.
But though India and the US have begun work on cutting-edge military technology projects together under the initiative, New Delhi was unsure till today whether Trump would want to continue with the DTTI, which involves sharing of high-tech intellectual property.
"Secretary Mattis and Minister Parrikar affirmed their commitment to sustain the momentum on key bilateral defence efforts to include the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative," US department of defence spokesperson Jeff Davis said in a statement on the phone call. "Secretary Mattis committed to build upon the tremendous progress in bilateral defence cooperation made in recent years, underscoring the strategic importance of the US-India relationship and India's role in advancing global peace and security."
Mattis, since being sworn in, has travelled to Japan and South Korea, reassuring the US allies that the Trump administration will continue to defend them, if necessary, from the threats posed by North Korea and China. He has also spoken with his counterparts from Australia and the Philippines, also American allies, tamping down fears that have arisen from Trump's insistence during his election campaign that the US should rethink its role as a security guarantor to allies.
For India, which over the past decade has significantly aligned its Asia Pacific strategy with that of the US, concerns over the future of a series of technology transfer efforts lingered.
The earliest reassurance of continuity came in the form of the National Defence Authorisation Act, 2017, which was passed by US Congress in December and which institutionalised support for the DTTI.
But that law was passed by the Obama administration and India did not know whether Trump would continue to back the initiative politically.
Some of those concerns were assuaged earlier this week when the US commerce department tweaked its export control laws to acknowledge a "presumption of acceptance" of sale of military equipment to India. These changes are a consequence of the Obama administration's decision to declare India a "major defence partner" - an unprecedented tag for a country that is not a treaty ally - aimed at facilitating the sale of military technology to India.
Yet, it is the DTTI that is the principal vehicle the two governments have so far used to cut through layers of bureaucracy on both sides and enable the joint development of military technology, including for sale to a third country.
The US and India have set up two joint working groups - one for development of new aircraft carriers, and the other to design new jet engines. Under the DTTI, the two countries also expected to soon begin research on developing mobile electric hybrid power sources, protection for individual soldiers from chemical and biological weapons, a detection system for biological threats and a digital mounted helmet display. Two DTTI projects - roll-on, roll-off kits and a micro drone - are likely to be dumped, officials indicated.
Deep concerns are however still wracking India's strategic establishment because of Trump's indications that he will punish American companies that set up manufacturing plants abroad.
American defence companies - like Lockheed Martin - were among the first to embrace Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Make in India initiative.
"The Make in India initiative remains robust and a competitive proposition for all foreign partners," foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said today in response to concerns over the rethink hinted at by Lockheed Martin.