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US, India move forward on joint military projects; Part of effort to build relations in Asia

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NEW DELHI — After several years of bureaucratic delays, the U.S. and India are moving ahead with two joint research projects for the military that officials hope will set the stage for greater defense cooperation in the years ahead.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar were to sign a defense agreement Wednesday, as part of a broader U.S. effort to improve what has been a rocky relationship between the two countries. The U.S. views India as a key ally in the Asia Pacific, in part as a countermeasure to China and a lynchpin in America's effort to deepen military and diplomatic ties with countries at Beijing's doorstep.

Carter acknowledged the difficulties on both sides in breaking through the red tape to achieve more development cooperation, but said things are moving forward.

"There is a legacy and historical burden of bureaucracy in both countries, and it's a constant exercise in stripping that away," he told reporters traveling with him. "It's the burden that we carry forward from the fact that we were two separated industrial systems for so long during the Cold War. It just takes time to get the two of them together."

The latest, more tangible progress in the development projects, include two $1 million research ventures. While small, defense officials say the two-year projects will set the groundwork for future collaboration.

"Some of the projects that we're launching just now are, in part, intended to blaze a trail for things to come," Carter said.

One of the projects moving forward is the development of a high-tech mobile power source for the Marine Corps that would work on solar energy, be smaller, more portable and efficient, and could be used in remote outposts.

The other is a protective suit for the Army that would be more lightweight and effective when used in chemical and biological hazard incidents. Other possibilities down the road include collaboration on some aircraft carrier and jet engine technology.

PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter inspects a Guard of Honor during his ceremonial welcome in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Carter is in India on a three-day visit where he is expected to sign a ten-year defense pact. (AP Photo/ Saurabh Das)
U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter inspects a Guard of Honor during his ceremonial welcome in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Carter is in India on a three-day visit where he is expected to sign a ten-year defense pact. (AP Photo/ Saurabh Das)

U.S. leaders have long hoped to partner more with India as it modernizes its military, but Indian leaders have been more interested in co-development opportunities than in simply buying American-made weapons.

India has also been courting a strong business relationship with China. Beijing sees India as a market for its increasingly high-tech goods, from high-speed trains to nuclear power plants, while India wants to attract Chinese investment in manufacturing and infrastructure.

At the same time, however, India has been concerned about China's quest for greater influence and increased military activities in the Indian Ocean.

One theme of Carter's trip here was greater maritime cooperation, and to underscore that he began his visit Tuesday with a stop at India's Eastern Naval Command in the port city of Vizag. He toured a navy ship, the INS Sahyadri, before flying on to New Delhi.

Carter's visit comes on the heels of stops in Singapore and Vietnam, where strains with China and its land reclamation and other operations in the South China Sea were key topics of discussion. And he repeatedly stressed that the U.S. military will continue to partner with Asia Pacific nations and have a strong presence in the region..

The U.S. effort to do joint projects with India got a boost through the efforts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seen as more eager to work with America and wants his country to play a larger role on the world stage.

Then, earlier this year, during a visit by President Barack Obama, the two leaders formally announced the agreement to pursue four projects under the Defense technology and Trade Initiative.

The initiative was launched in 2012, and was led by Carter, who then was the deputy defense secretary. But progress was slow.

Last August, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a visit to India, urged more defense cooperation, saying that government red tape and other problems should not stymie progress between the two.

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PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaks to a soldier after receiving a ceremonial welcome in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, June 3, 2015. Carter is in India on a three-day visit where he is expected to sign a ten-year defense pact. (AP Photo/ Saurabh Das)
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