Defence against whom?

Prem Shankar JhaEver since Mr. Pranab Mukherjee signed a ten-year defence pact with the US in Washington last week, Indian spokesmen have taken pains to reassure the Indian media and the rest of the world that this does not reflect any change in India''s foreign policy.

"We have only built upon the 1995 agreement," they point out, referring to the ''Agreed minute on Defence proposals'' signed with the Clinton administration. Technically this is true, but it is not the whole truth. For between 1995 and today two seminal events occurred that have changed the context within which enhanced defence cooperation is being planned, almost beyond recognition, and therefore its significance. The first was the Pokharan nuclear weapons test in 1998. The second was 9 / 11.

India''s motives for entering into the defence agreement stem from the first event. The US'' motives, and much of the world''s uneasiness over the agreement, stem from the second. Pokharan brought down a head-load of sanctions against the transfer of cutting edge technologies to India (and Pakistan). Ever since then India''s goal has been to level the playing field with regard to technology once again and put Indo-US relations back at least where they used to be before May 1998.

In this, it has more than succeeded. For while little has changed in concrete terms, the Bush administration is clearly far more disposed to accepting India''s claim to responsible nuclear status than the Clinton administration was. This is reflected by the sharp rise in technology transfers from the US to India during the past 18 months.

What is more important is the intangible change that has taken place in the tenor of India-US relations. This was captured succinctly by Nicholas Burns, under-secretary of state for political affairs, when he wrote in a brochure describing the state of Indo-US relations that "The United States and India are implementing habits of cooperation that characterise US relations with our closest friends and allies."

But what does the US expect to gain from the agreement? That is the question to which most nations in the world would like an answer. For in conventional terms the agreement makes no sense whatever. What can India contribute to the defence of a country that has no significant enemies, that accounts, singly, for more than half the defence spending of the world , and has a technological edge in its military hardware that no nation on earth can erode?