By Eric Beidel
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta kicks off a nine-day tour through Asia during which he will speak at length about U.S. plans to expand military presence in the area, and about his desire to strengthen ties in the region.
Although no trade delegation will be joining him on this trip, sales of big-ticket weaponry will be part of the agenda. The five largest arms importers over the past five years — India, South Korea, Pakistan, China and Singapore — are Asian powers, and account for 30 percent of global weapon sales. An accelerating arms race in Asia is seen by the Obama administration as an opportunity to boost U.S. manufacturers and help bolster economic growth.
Defense cooperation across the board, including possible sales of U.S. weaponry, will be the focus of Panetta’s two-day stop in Delhi next week, where he will meet with India’s Defense Minister AK Antony.
India’s military now accounts for 10 percent of global arms imports, according to the latest data reported by SIPRI, a Swedish research center.
“U.S.-India defense ties are extremely important,” said a senior defense official who briefed reporters May 29. “We see India as a partner with which we have a lot of common interests.” He noted that India is the only country that is mentioned specifically in the Pentagon’s new strategic guidance as an Asian partner.
Defense trade with India has been on a “constantly upward trajectory,” the official said. “Defense cooperation is going to be on a steady roll.”
Without citing any specific weapon systems that Panetta might mention during exchanges with Indian leaders, observers are speculating that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter could be among the topics of conversation. India’s decision to acquire France’s Rafale fighter jet last year dealt a major blow to U.S. aerospace firms Lockheed Martin Corp. and The Boeing Co., which had offered F-16 and F/A-18 fighters, respectively. India in recent years has signed several foreign military sales agreements with the United States, but American firms would like to see much bigger deals in the future.
As much as the administration hopes to increase military sales to India, it is not likely to grant that nation the special trade status that the United States has given to allies such as the United Kingdom and Australia. Such special status under the International Traffic in Arms Regulation makes it easier for sellers and buyers to navigate the notoriously complex and extensive U.S. export licensing process.
Panetta does want to boost U.S.-India technology cooperation and plans to step up efforts to “align our systems,” the defense official said. Instead of pursuing “episodic cooperation on specific sales or particular transactions,” he said, Panetta would like to see “systematic cooperation that becomes institutionalized and streamlines how we work together.”
Thomas McVey, an export-controls expert who works with U.S. firms, said that defense companies increasingly are targeting the Asian market, particularly as they face declining Pentagon sales and rapidly shrinking European military budgets.
The Obama administration, he said, has made it a priority to help U.S. exporters. “The president is very strongly behind a reform of the export rules based on principle, with the goal to increase exports for U.S. companies,” said McVey. “The president and secretary of defense have been putting considerable pressure on the Defense, State and Commerce departments to revise and simplify rules to allow more products to be exported.”
Panetta, accompanied by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and U.S. Pacific Command chief Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, is expected to discuss defense cooperation issues and weapon sales with Asian allies during the 11th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 2. The event, organized by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, is a high-level gathering of defense ministers and senior military officials from Asia-Pacific and other nations.
Financial sponsors of the event include several defense firms, such as The Boeing Co., Mitsubishi Corporation, Singapore Technologies Engineering and EADS.
Among the most sensitive exchanges expected at Shangri-La will be Panetta’s meeting with Chinese officials, who are scheduled to participate. The Obama administration has come under criticism for the “pivot to Asia” strategic guidance to the U.S. military, partly for being too belligerent against China, experts have said. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright blasted the strategy for “demonizing” China and for undermining U.S. standing with other allies around the world.