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NATO Missile Defense Cooperation with India?

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By Matthew Wallin

In recent days, news has emerged of NATO’s potential invitation to engage in ballistic missile defense cooperation with India.  Wait—what?  If these reports are true, a countless number of questions arise regarding the strategic purpose of such a proposal.

Recently, NATO has been focusing on traditionally strategic countries like Turkey (a NATO member) for the placement of elements of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shield.   With this in mind, I’m curious about the role India would play in the greater picture of ballistic missile defense (BMD).  Given NATO’s insistence to Russia that a shield is intended to protect against the rogue threats from nations like Iran, one wonders how India fits into the larger puzzle, or if it fits at all.

At first, second, and third glance, it would appear that missile defense cooperation with India simply doesn’t make much sense.  The reports on this topic indicate that a high level NATO official explained:

“Democracies face challenges that are common. We need to work together and resolve. We need to cooperate, because individually we cannot deal with such threats. It is better to deal with such issues commonly than deal with them individually.”

Reports claim the official further added:

“…even though the threats of missiles come from different directions, we don’t necessarily see the threat that you see, because your strategic situation is different from ours.”

Where to begin with this?  While joint confrontation of common threats is typically perceived as being a good thing, the common threats shared by NATO and India remain unclear.  If, according to this NATO official, the common threats are those “from different directions,” India’s most serious threats happen to include a state with which NATO must work in partnership.

So something really doesn’t quite add up here, causing me to question the validity of the reports, as well as the logic behind BMD cooperation with India.  The two major military threats facing India are China and Pakistan, nations which could be provoked into a nuclear arms race by increased Indian BMD.   Given the relatively low numbers of nuclear weapons employed between these countries, a shield does have the potential for regional destabilization.

Also, assuming the value of Pakistani cooperation with respect to the war in Afghanistan and against terrorism, what strategic interest is served by possibly increasing Pakistani fears of Indian military might?  Further complicate this by India’s interests and presence in Afghanistan and it makes even less sense, given Pakistan’s fear of encirclement.

Then there’s India’s ongoing troubled relationship with its largest competitor, China.  The Pentagon has even noted recent Chinese efforts to strengthen its nuclear deterrent against India.  The two countries have come to blows over territorial disputes in the past, but it would seem there is greater interest in promoting the general warming of relations these two behemoth nations have experienced in recent years.

And just to drive the point further, if we look at the security goals of the US and NATO in the region, undertaking endeavors that would further increase potentially damaging military cooperation between China and Pakistan makes this proposal seem even less desirable.  Remember, there has been suspicion that Pakistan recently let China examine sensitive American military technology abandoned during the Bin Laden raid, though both countries deny the accusation.

Quite frankly, it’s an overcooked spaghetti plate of interests primed to splatter tomato sauce well beyond NATO’s fork.  Besides, the Indians seem quite content to build their own ABM shield.

However, it’s important to not discount the potential benefits from cooperation with India, so let’s give it a fourth glance, and maybe a little wink.  There is no doubt India has extremely strong science, technology, and innovation programs.  Different perspectives, Indian technological contributions, and joint collaboration could help produce better BMD systems for both NATO and India—and that echoes the NATO official’s statement.

Furthermore, as with many science diplomacy programs—and missile defense is fundamentally science—cooperation on projects of mutual benefit helps foster relationships, create bonds, and unite countries in a variety of ways.  Senator John McCain has actually publicly called for cooperation with India in the field of BMD.  Unfortunately, the elaborate international political climate just seems to outweigh the benefits in this case.  Seems the first three glances would discourage a harder look.

In the end, courting India as a partner in the realm of global security is certainly a logical and commendable goal.  The question is, how can it be done responsibly while taking regional concerns into consideration?  If anything, the US and NATO should be investigating how to better build confidence between India and her neighbors, rather than undertaking projects which could further erode their relations.

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