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India Gathers Military Might

Delhi’s recent foreign military and nuclear orders appears quite unprecedented. And it would be wrong to leave it at this, and fail to notice other peculiar coincidences.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev signed a large number of contracts with India during a two-day visit to New Delhi in December. These deals were part of a series of agreements that have placed India in progressively more advantageous positions in global arms markets.

The most prominent agreements, as reported in the world press, relate to arms sales and to construction of nuclear reactors. One order focused on the supply of 300 advanced fighter planes -- spread over a period of ten years; Russia is set to sell ‘fifth generation’ military aircraft to India. The order is presently valued at more than 25 billion euros.

Under another agreement, Russia will help India to construct two more nuclear reactors -- on top of the two reactors it is already building in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

At first sight, these deals may not seem very sensational. Russia’s military and nuclear relations with India have a long history, dating back to the era of the former Soviet Union. Until the early nineties, roughly 80 percent of the military hardware used by India’s armed forces was of Soviet origin. Subsequently, in the post-Soviet period, relations temporarily ‘dipped’, as both sides quarrelled over India’s outstanding debt -- which Russian sources have estimated at 16 billion dollars.

In the later part of the 1990s, military-commercial relations between the two powers were reconsolidated. Today, the majority of the armaments used by the Indian military still hail from Russia.

In light of this, the outcome of Medvedev’s Delhi visit may seem unexceptional. Yet, President Medvedev is not the only leader of a world power who recently prioritised visiting the Indian capital.

Medvedev’s visit was very closely preceded by visits of U.S. President Barack Obama, in November; of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the beginning of December; and of the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

The visits of Obama and Sarkozy are especially noteworthy, if one is to assess India’s current policy regarding foreign military and nuclear purchases. The American president succeeded in finalising two defence deals. The most important of these two covers the sale of ten military transport planes -- C-17 Globemaster III airlift aircraft, manufactured by the U.S.’s Boeing Corporation. The plane reportedly can carry tanks and combat troops over 2,500 nautical miles.

The French president brought home contracts for French and European corporations that are equally lucrative. According to the French daily Le Monde, these include: a contract for Thales and Dassault to update 51 Mirage fighter planes, worth 1.5 billion euros; a contract for major European missile manufacturer MBDA, to construct ground-to-air missiles; plus a contract for France’s nuclear company Areva to build two civilian nuclear reactors near the densely populated city of Bombay.

Delhi’s season of foreign military and nuclear orders even at first glance appears quite unprecedented. Yet, it would be wrong to leave it at this, and fail to notice other peculiar coincidences.

Historically, the Indian state maintained intimate relations with Russia’s precursor, the USSR. Yet the above-described military and nuclear deals -- both with Russia and with Russia’s former adversaries, the U.S. and France -- are best understood against the background of changed relationships between India and the United States.

In July 2005, then U.S. President George W. Bush and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a framework-agreement for nuclear cooperation. The deal brought to an end the West’s previous attempts to stem India’s rise as an atomic world power.

Officially, the aim of the new deal was to help India expand its production of nuclear energy, through promotion of the country’s access to uranium and to international civilian nuclear technology.

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