A firm handshake, not an embrace

April 14, 2016 02:39 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:01 pm IST

Definitive changes in policy do not happen suddenly one day; often they happen over weeks and months, and sometimes years. The three-day >visit of U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter , which concluded on Tuesday, appears to fit into a new security paradigm that is unfurling under the Narendra Modi government. By agreeing to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), India has sent out a clear signal that it has no inhibitions about being bound in strategic engagements with the U.S. Once concluded, the agreement would give American aircraft and warships access to Indian military bases for logistical purposes, including refuelling and repair. In turn, India’s military will enjoy similar access to U.S. bases. This would qualitatively transform India’s relations with the U.S. The logistics agreement had been first proposed officially in June 2004, but the UPA government remained wary of seeing it through. The then Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, in particular was concerned that it was too intrusive and could also be perceived as a signal that India was jettisoning its policy of non-alignment. Indeed, for all the atmospherics of the American visit this week, it appears that the NDA government shares some of the UPA’s reticence, especially on India-U.S. issues that have multilateral implications or that could impact India’s relations with other countries. Significantly, the logistics agreement, one of three ‘foundational agreements’ the U.S. has been insisting on, was not signed in the course of Mr. Carter’s visit, as the Americans had expected. This gives New Delhi time to tackle the ongoing domestic debate over a possible loss of sovereignty.

While the joint statement refers to ensuring freedom of >navigation in the South China Sea , Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been careful to avoid the U.S.’s repeated references to ‘joint patrols’. Even the agreement on sharing data on commercial shipping traffic that Mr. Carter had expected to conclude during his visit will be the subject of another round of talks. The pause is wise. New Delhi must take a considered view of the repercussions that such a strategic alliance may have for India’s relations with other countries. Moreover, the U.S. administration will change in the year ahead, and it would be wise to wait for the next. Significantly, India’s concerns about continued American military funding and defence transfers to Pakistan still remain unaddressed. Meanwhile, Mr. Parrikar and Mr. Carter have agreed to expand collaboration under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, infuse greater complexity in their military engagements and maritime exercises, commence discussions on submarine safety and anti-submarine warfare, and initiate a bilateral maritime security dialogue that would include diplomats and the defence establishments. A firm handshake with the U.S. is welcome, but it need not be an embrace, just yet.

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