On August 29 this year, >Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), an agreement that the U.S. has assiduously pursued since 2002 and which India had, till now, resolutely refused to endorse. Both Mr. Carter and Mr. Parrikar have consequently gone to great lengths to explain that LEMOA does not amount to a military pact. Their explanation could appear disingenuous to many. It may also not find too many takers.
The agreement does not mention the setting up of “permanent bases” in either country. According to the signatories, LEMOA only facilitates establishing “mutual basing facilities”. This would be on a case-by-case basis, intended to help speed up humanitarian relief operations as also emergency evacuation from conflict-prone regions. In certain circumstances, it could also help smoothen operational logistics between the navies of the two countries.
A Chinese shadow However, strategic experts, especially those in the West, are of the view that the LEMOA is a critical link in the U.S.’s plans for a larger pivot towards Asia. Also, that it is intended to meet the threat from an increasingly assertive China. Erasing such impressions will not be easy.
India-U.S. relations have been on an upswing since the turn of the century. U.S. President Bill Clinton made the initial move to break the logjam in India-U.S. ties dating back to the Cold War period. It was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who during a visit to the U.S., made bold to hint that it was time to “move beyond the hesitations of history”; hopes which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2004-2014) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (since 2014) have fulfilled in more than ample measure. There has been no looking back since and U.S. Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have vied with each other to strengthen U.S.-India relations. With India’s economic profile and growth rates steadily going up, India has become a particularly attractive target for the U.S. — and the West.
Realistically speaking, the strategic build-up between the two countries commenced during the first term of Mr. Bush, when the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership heralded a sea change in U.S.-India relations. In his second term, Mr. Bush was able to establish a “special relationship” with Dr. Singh. Energy and strategic issues greatly benefitted from the relationship. It is inconceivable that the iconic India-U.S. civil nuclear deal could have been concluded under any other set of circumstances, and without the personal initiative and warmth present in the Bush-Manmohan Singh relationship.
The relationship derived its strength from a mutual desire to strengthen cooperation between the world’s two largest democracies. Containment of China was not the primary objective, though like “Banquo’s ghost”, China hovered in the background. No pressure was exerted on India to become part of a wider alliance against the new “regional hegemon”.
However, it is worth recalling that during the entire period of negotiations on the nuclear deal, apart from Mr. Bush and his National Security Adviser, two other ardent supporters of the deal were U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney and the Pentagon’s Bob Gates. The State Department and the Department of Energy, on the other hand, tended to be equivocal in their approach to the deal. Ascribing hidden motives to the Pentagon’s tilt in favour of India — and despite Pakistan’s strident opposition — would however be tendentious.
It was in 2005 that India and the U.S. signed their first Defence Cooperation Agreement. This agreement was renewed and expanded in 2010 and 2015, leading to a loosening of strict controls that existed regarding the transfer of excluded categories of technologies. Around 2007-2008, the U.S. made initial moves to get India to sign three foundational agreements viz., the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA); the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA); and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geo-spatial Cooperation. While India welcomed the idea of relaxation of technology norms, it resisted signing the foundational agreements on the ground that it undermined India’s strategic autonomy.
Dynamics of U.S. policy June 2016 proved to be a defining month in India-U.S. relations. The joint statement issued on the occasion of Mr. Modi’s visit to the U.S. talked of “the two countries providing global leadership on issues of shared interest”, along with the announcement that the U.S. recognised India as a “major defence partner”. In his address to the U.S. Congress, the Prime Minister proceeded to observe that “India had moved beyond the hesitations of history”. The two largest democracies in the world thus appeared finally to be on the same page.
With LEMOA in place, it is almost certain that pressures would intensify to sign the other two foundational agreements — CISMOA and BECA. If India were to do so — and if credence were to be given to what Mr. Carter said on a visit to India previously, viz., that there was a strategic confluence between India and the U.S. today, and renewal of the U.S.-India Defence Partnership was leading to increased strategic cooperation — it could convey an impression that India had gone from becoming a “major defence partner” to a significant “non-NATO ally”.
India-U.S. relations are hardly a “zero-sum game”. Overcoming “the hesitations of history” is one thing; not ignoring the lessons of history is equally, if not more, important. The U.S. is a true practitioner of the art of “realpolitik”. Changes in policy are constantly effected to suit its global requirements. In Europe, for example, today the U.S. seems to be preparing to jettison its long-standing “special relationship” with the U.K. In West Asia, as U.S.-Iran relations improve, Saudi Arabia is now the new villain on the block. The U.S. had always been suspicious of India’s relations with Russia, that go back to the period of non-alignment. And today, as U.S.-Russia relations are at their nadir since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. can be expected to try and further weaken India-Russia relations that are lately facing some strain. Furthermore, given Pakistan’s location, it would be a mistake to believe that the U.S. would completely detach itself from Pakistan.
Fast-paced alignments The geopolitical situation across the region is more confused today than it was only a few years back. Geopolitical alignments are changing at a bewildering pace. As India moves closer to the U.S., Russia is seen to be coming closer to China. At one level, Russia is strengthening its links with China economically and strategically, and coordinating more closely with the latter on the issue of the South China Sea. At another level, Russia is engaging with China to oppose U.S. attempts to install its Missile Defence System in Asia.
Russia is simultaneously seeking to reinforce its long-standing strategic ties with Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam. Russia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) appear to have come closer. At the Russia-ASEAN Summit earlier this year, there was even talk of a “strategic partnership for mutual benefit”. In Eurasia, Russia is currently carving out a zone of influence for itself. India does not figure in any of these plans.
When the strategic balance across the entire Asian region is undergoing a seismic shift, India cannot be seen to be playing a losing hand. The main players, today, are the U.S., Russia and China. The current effort of countries such as China and Russia is to restrict, if not exclude, U.S. influence from the region, labelling it as a non-Asian power. On issues such as the South China Sea, even many of the countries directly involved, specially the Philippines, are willing to make their peace with China. The U.S.’s role in the region is thus becoming restricted, leaving it with few alternatives.
In global affairs, timing is of great significance. Hence, India’s leaders need to reflect whether this is the opportune moment for the country to reset its compass and move away from its long-term insistence on strategic autonomy. It is also hardly the time to be seen to be the ally of One Power, that too one whose power seems to be waning. It might diminish India’s image in the region and beyond.
M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.