Military diplomacy has become a routine activity over the past decade. It is testimony of India's enhanced stature in global affairs. Its growing power, strategic location and independent foreign policy have led many states to seek to engage India. In turn, India has expanded the footprint of its influence by reaching out beyond its immediate neighbours to states in the outer arc of its area of interest, and even further away in Africa and South America.

Long standing military cooperation apart, India has not only deepened its relations with its 'strategic partner' the United States; but has also conducted joint exercies with its northern neighbour, China. Such engagement has - out of necessity - been of varying intensity and scope, depending on the respective mutual advantages sought. Thus we have various mechanisms of engagement, such as defence policy groups, joint working groups, joint training and exercises, exchange of visits and so on. This article reflects on implications of this phenomenon with respect to Indo-US military cooperation.

Defence cooperation has a wide ambit, defined by the Ministry of Defence in its Annual Report as: "a tool to conduct a country's foreign policy and security affairs. It is an important aspect of national security and strategy encompassing activity undertaken by defence forces to avoid hostility, build up of trust and contribute to confidence prevention and resolution." Military cooperation is only a part of this, since defence cooperation would also include issues handled mainly by the Ministry and its departments rather than service headquarters - such as engagement with other states in the fields of defence technology, procurement and joint production.

India's engagement with the US has recently culminated in the Indo-US nuclear deal. This is touted as the only successful foreign policy initiative of the Bush administration. It was designed to get India on board the 'great power' shortlist. With the liberalisation of India's economy in the early 1990s, the US started reaching out to India. The first step was the 1991 'Kickleighter proposals', named after the then commanding Admiral of US's Pacific Command. Thereafter, there have been a number of steps such as the 1995 Agreed Minute on Defence, the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) undertaken in the tenure of the NDA government and finally the 2005 Framework Indo-US Defence Agreement. The framework provides for a Defence Policy Group at the apex level with four sub groups: technology, technology security, procurement and production and military cooperation.

Under the latter, exercises are now routinely held with the US Army, in particular with its Special Forces. India's SU 30 fighters took part in the Red Flag exercise in the US. The eighth of the Malabar series of Indo-US naval exercises took place off the coast of Goa this year, in which an aircraft carrier from each side participated. The last one was an ambitious one in the Sea of Japan with other regional navies. The latest visit has been that of the US Army Chief to India; this caught the news mainly for his visit to Siachen, which Pakistan objected to.

The Indo-US nuclear deal is touted as the only successful foreign policy initiative of the Bush administration.

 •  Making nuclear sense The outcome of such exercises is that it builds 'interoperability'. This translates as mutual understanding, shared procedures, cohesion and with time could eventuate in a common world view and attitudes. This is necessary in the likelihood of future deployment in coalition operations. That last bit - the possibility of being deployed in a battle as part of a coalition - should prompt a mid-course review of the necessity for greater military cooperation.

India has been propositioned even earlier, for troops in Iraq, for instance. Sections in the government that were agreeable to this request were thwarted from the initiative by an alert parliament and considerable opposition from other the media and public too. And thought it is not officially being considered, in the media there has been some discussion of the possible deployment of Indian troops in Afghanistan. Having barely managed to scrape through a parliamentary challenge to the Indo-US nuclear deal, the government is in no position to consider this question, however.

The key thing to note, though, is that this question periodically returns. Before long, commentary on the desirability and necessity of Indian contribution to such operations, already present, would enlarge its constituency and votaries to become the strategic 'common sense'. A future government that is without the check of a strong opposition could strike out on a course that is markedly divergent from India's past record of abstinence from geo-political conflicts. Having given itself the capability for such participation through military cooperation, India could - at some time in the future - venture uninhibited into the field under the belief that it is fulfilling its manifest destiny as a great power.

To argue that closer military engagement is not always a good thing, we must first be clear on the extent and nature of the opposition. The argument goes that the US, being the sole superpower, would in any case do what it intends to in any future conflict. Therefore it would be in India's interest to get into its good books by playing along as much as possible, and in the process derive as much mileage as possible. The Indo-US nuclear deal is an example in which India has managed to derive certain benefits in high technology in the nuclear, space and industrial sectors by being amenable to US interests, without straying overly into the American orbit. India thus could benefit from being a 'partner', even without being an 'ally'.

This is fairly straightforward and impeccable, but - and maybe for that reason - it also obscures the downside. The US has a larger gameplan. This is self-evident from the no strings attached Indo-US nuclear deal. It is fairly clear that the US is not looking only for commercial benefits, for the $32 billion market would have to be shared with an eager France and expectant Russia. The strategic outcome the US seeks is to have a rising India on its side in the reshaping of the world order from the post-Cold War unipolar moment to a multipolar configuration.

The challenge of China, reemergence of Russia and the waning of the military alliance NATO requires the US to insure the future, with it at the helm and India and other nations in tow. Therefore it has attempted to build India into a major power. Should India buy into this scheme uncritically, as most in the strategic community are wont to, then it would amount to a radical reshaping of its foreign policy. This is not a far-fetched proposition, given the right wing buildup in India's domestic polity in light of its past record and future vision for India.

The muted celebrations of the Indo-US deal suggest that India cannot afford great power pretensions at the moment. This was compelled by the political turmoil in wake of the series of bomb blasts in India's metros. Thus, what was intended as a grand victory to carry the government into election mode was pushed off the headlines by an internal Indian reality at odds with its intended global role.

However, the argument for a greater global role approaches this differently. It depicts an India under siege from Islamism from the West and China from the East, in keeping with Huntington?s infamous ?clash of civilizations? thesis. This requires an Indian counter with the assistance of the US. Since this assistance would also be beneficial to the US itself, this is seen as the beginning of a co-equal relationship - one that could therefore be progressed. This perspective is increasingly becoming dominant in strategic circles, aided by some timely reinforcement from US think tanks. Since this is a political question, it should be raised on the election trail as a national security issue.

With elections looming, our reasons for a new foreign policy should be debated more widely and critically, so that the choices made are not merely reflective of who wins the elections, but also of what specific outcomes are in India's national interest.