While explaining that the intention behind the “transformation of US-India relations” pursued by former US president George W. Bush was not to contain China, Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India, once remarked, a bit mischievously, “…there is no better way to clear a room of Indian strategists than to advocate containing China”. This witty formulation captures an important aspect of the public debate that has ensued, albeit a bit late, in the wake of India and the US moving forward on the three “foundational agreements,” namely, the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).
In their fourth meeting held – within a year – last week, US secretary of defense Ashton Carter and defense minister Manohar Parrikar arrived at an “in-principle agreement” over “a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement,” or LSA. The two sides will continue to work on CISMOA and BECA.
LSA, tailored to address Indian concerns, will provide a framework to exchange logistics support and services like the use of each other’s bases and will provide for fuelling and replenishment facilities on a reimbursable basis.
The debate on these agreements has, however, been riddled with superfluous issues. Two of them need to be addressed immediately. One, the signing of these foundational agreements has been equated to a military alliance between India and the US. This is incorrect. As Carter has himself made it clear, the LSA will not allow US troops to operate from Indian bases without the consent of New Delhi. The possibility of India being ensnared into effecting regime changes in the war zones of the Middle East is out of the question.
These agreements can, in a legitimate political reading, be construed to be steps towards a military alliance. Many analysts in Pakistan and China will nevertheless interpret the LSA itself as a military alliance. If Munir Akram’s piece (The Indo-US alliance) in the Dawn is anything to go by, strategic thinkers in Pakistan have already declared India and the US allies, and have suggested Pakistan to multiply its military and nuclear arsenal to meet the forthcoming challenges. Pakistan has yet another excuse – the previous one was the Cold Start doctrine – to keep building its military-industrial complex.
Two, an assumption has been made that these agreements will upset China and therefore India should show more caution. Even if the assumption is well grounded, the conclusion certainly is not. The most immediate utility for New Delhi of these agreements is the expected gains in defense co-production with the US as the latter eases the terms of technology transfer. It should not be lost upon anyone that India needs to boost its capabilities, especially in the maritime domain, to prepare for the inevitable expansion of China from the Western Pacific to the Indian Ocean.
New Delhi is not interested in sabre-rattling in the South China Sea, though it shares the concerns of China’s smaller neighbors regarding freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. But India is well within its rights to take measures that will help it maintain dominance against the growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, even if it upsets Beijing. Besides, an India that looks to appease Beijing is likely to garner less respect from its giant neighbor than one that negotiates from a position of strength.
These debates have obscured the real questions that should have been asked. One, the signing of these agreements should be strictly made contingent on US assurance on transfer of technology. Washington’s reluctance to share high-end technology has been the major impediment – greater than India’s red tape and offset policies – in the defense partnership. Two, as a “lynchpin” – to use the words of Leon Panetta, one of Carter’s predecessors – for the US’s Asia strategy, India should demand greater sensitivity for its concerns about America’s policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan. While this quid pro quo involves both the Pentagon and the US state department, political will in Washington can navigate this divide.
Three, India should be more worried about the Russian, rather than the Chinese, response to the signing of these agreements. Russia still remains India’s most reliable partner and every step must be taken to keep Moscow in confidence while New Delhi escalates its ties with the US. The last thing India needs is a Moscow-Beijing-Rawalpindi axis, even if it comes with Indian preponderance in the waters of the Indian Ocean.
Interesting years are in store for Asia’s geopolitics.
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