Putting an end to much speculation, the Indian government recently announced that it had shortlisted the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault's Rafale for the Indian Air Force's mammoth $10 billion deal for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft. This means that both American aircrafts, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin's F16IN Super Viper, have failed to make it on the IAF's shortlist. Besides the two American aircraft, the two other failed bids were those from Sweden's Gripen and the Russian MiG35.
The very next day, U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer resigned, setting tongues wagging. While the Ambassador cited "personal, professional, and family considerations" for the resignation, he had in the past made the selection of an American aircraft in the MMRCA deal as a sort of "litmus test" for the emerging Indo-U.S. relationship - which did not go over well with many in India.
However, there are many other considerations that are seen as been responsible for the Indian government choosing the European aircrafts over the other bids. Firstly, as far as Lockheed Martin's F-16 is concerned, one of its main drawbacks is that it is also in service with the Pakistan Air Force.
Secondly, in the recent days, the Manmohan Singh government has been on the back foot over a series of WikiLeaks disclosures which painted the government as being too close to and unwilling to go against the Americans. Some of the cables sent in September 2005 indicate that India's decision to vote with the U.S. against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency had in fact been coached by Washington. These cables have provided fresh fodder to the Indian opposition, who already had the government on the mat over a series of scams that have been unearthed recently.
Thirdly, India's booming economy has ensured that the government is flush with cash, which in turn has allowed it the geopolitical leverage to push its national interests hard. At the recent Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit in Sanya, China, these countries - including India - passed a resolution supporting "the reform and improvement of the international monetary system, with a broad-based international reserve currency system providing stability and certainty".
Fourthly, as India's rejection of the MiG-35 shows, the Indian Air Force's needs have been given primacy over political and strategic interests. By rejecting the MiG-35, India has indicated that although it has a range of Russian aircraft in its ranks, it now wants to diversify its inventory.
However, this is not the end of the road as far as Indo-U.S. defense cooperation is concerned. During the last few years, the United States has sold aircrafts like Boeing Business Jets and Long Term Maritime Patrol Aircraft to India. Lockheed Martin has sold C-130J Super Hercules tactical transport aircraft to the IAF, while the Indian Navy has bought the Landing Ship Dock USS Trenton - rechristened INS Jalashwa.
There are many areas of strategic complementarity between India and the U.S. Afghanistan is a prime example, since both countries have an interest in seeing that the Taliban is kept out of the power structure in Kabul. Though India has not committed boots on the ground in Afghanistan, it has helped rebuild the country with a bilateral assistance programme of around $2 billion.
There are, however, a couple of sore points in the strategic ties. India is miffed over what it perceives as America's overindulgence of Pakistan, while knowing very well that Pakistan is running with the hares and hunting with the hounds. Another area of contending interests is Myanmar (or Burma). While the U.S. wants India to speak up for democracy in Myanmar, India would be wary of doing this, since it does not want Myanmar's generals to cosy up further to China. India also abstained from voting on the recent UNSC Resolution 1973, which authorised airstrikes on Libya.
India and the United States are bound to have differences on some issues, just as any two other countries might. However, it is important not to miss the wood for the trees. Ambassador Roemer's resignation at this juncture is sure to send some wrong signals, but his tenure will be remembered for President Obama's visit to India last year, where he had voiced America's support for India's permanent Security Council bid. The aircraft deal is just one of the many bids that American defense majors can try for in the coming years, and although Boeing and Lockheed Martin lost out in this particular bid, "one swallow does not a summer make".