India may be on the verge of signing several agreements that will strengthen its military ties with the US. But before it jumps on board, India needs to have a clear vision for why it is doing so.
Following Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to the United States last December, his American counterpart, Ashton Carter, waxed eloquent. “We’ve done so much more in the last year, probably more than we’ve done in the ten years before that,” said Carter. “I’m guessing that in the next ten months, we will yet again do more than we’ve done in the last year,” he added.
Carter was merely expressing what most observers believe to be true. Through the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years, former Defence Minister A.K. Antony stood like a Leftist rock against closer military links with the US, despite the views of his boss, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Antony knew he had Sonia Gandhi’s blessings, and he was able to successfully block all measures to enhance the India-US military relationship, which had looked so promising when the two countries had signed the New Framework of Defence Cooperation in 2005, and the Maritime Cooperation Agreement of 2006.
With the IIT-educated, tech-savvy Manohar Parrikar as the Defence Minister of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, the US has made it more than obvious than its military ties with India are on a roll. In February this year, the news agency Reuters reported that India and the US had discussed the idea of joint patrols in the South China Sea. The item, by the world’s leading news agency, implied that the discussions had taken place during Parrikar’s visit, and that there had been follow-up discussions since.
But the next day, a spokesperson in Washington DC issued a clarification, saying, “At this time, there are no plans for any joint naval patrols.” On March 5, at a press conference, Parrikar too said: “As of now India has not taken part in joint patrols, but we do participate in joint exercises. So the issue of joint patrols at this time does not arise.” Neither side is categorically denying the idea of joint patrols; all they seem to be saying is that it is a matter of time.
The foundational agreements
In the run up to US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to India in April, the two countries have been having intense discussions on a range of issues, and joint patrolling is only one of them. The discussion is focussed on the need for India to sign ‘foundational’ agreements which will enable the India-US military relationship to grow deeper roots. The three agreements are the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial intelligence.
Of the three, the LSA is said to be the closest to being signed by the Indian side, despite resistance from the military and civilian officials of the Ministry of Defence. Initially, this was called the Access and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) but later it was renamed the Logistics Support Agreement. The ACSA is a standard agreement that the US has with its NATO allies and other countries like Singapore, Afghanistan, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. The US and Pakistan also signed an agreement in 2002, which lapsed in 2012.
Under the LSA, the two sides can access supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports, which can then be reimbursed.
In the past, India has provided logistics assistance to the US on a ‘case by case’ basis. So for a short while, we permitted the refueling of American aircraft in Bombay during the first Gulf War in 1991. During Operation Enduring Freedom, India permitted US ships to visit Indian ports for repair and fuel. It also offered the US military bases for operations in Afghanistan before Pakistan was coerced into doing the needful. India also escorted US vessels through the Malacca Straits in this period.
The CISMOA would allow the US to provide India with its encrypted communications equipment and systems so that Indian and US higher commanders, aircraft and ships can communicate with each other through secure networks in peace and war.
The BECA would provide India with topographical and aeronautical data and products which will aid navigation and targeting. These are areas in which the US is very advanced and the agreement could definitely benefit India, although the armed forces which use systems from many other countries like Israel and Russia are not comfortable with sharing information about their systems with the US.
India has told the US that it is agreeable ‘in principle’ to all these agreements but wants them to be modified to be ‘India specific’, in other words, allay India’s reservations, wherever they exist.
All these agreements are reciprocal. But only the most obtuse analyst can ignore the fact that in the ultimate analysis, we are talking about a relationship, a partnership if you will, between two very different countries: a country with a global military reach, and another which is hard put to remain afloat in its own region. India may have the potential of being a regional power, but at present and for another decade at least, this potential is all there will be.
Two other agreements are not being discussed, but remain problematic. These are the End Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) and the Enhanced End Use Monitoring Agreement (EEUMA).
The US requires all foreign buyers to sign up to these agreements, and this includes close allies like the UK and Australia. In response to a question about the EUMA in Parliament in 2014, Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs VK Singh said that India had various end use monitoring arrangements with the US since the 1990s.
Then in 2009, the two sides signed a generic agreement to smoothen the process. This is not a formal agreement, but an India-specific arrangement. The EUMA and EEUMA remain major deal-breakers when it comes to India acquiring US equipment, because India cannot always permit the US to access locations where equipment or weapons systems are located. What do you do about, say, air-to-air missiles which are located in operational locations?
Does India need the foundational agreements?
The big question is: Does India need the foundational agreements?
The answer to this is complex. If India intends to maintain its relations with the US at the current level, it can live without them. But if it plans to enhance its ties to the level of strategic coordination, or even cooperation, India would be well advised to sign them.
What would India gain by them? India could definitely benefit from BECA. The LSA can theoretically extend the reach of the Indian Navy deep into the Asia-Pacific region, where it has no base facilities. But this begs the question: does India intend operational deployment in those areas anytime in this decade?
The LSA could also be useful in Indian operations in its backyard in the Indian Ocean, but could it access American facilities in Oman for some future contingency in relation to Pakistan? Probably not.
The downsides of the CISMOA are obvious – it would enable the US to listen in on Indian conversations in operations where the US may be neutral or even adversarial, such as contingencies relating to Pakistan.
It is for this reason that India has refused to accept advanced communications equipment with US made C-130J transports and P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft, and instead outfitted them with non-US communications equipment.
As for the US, it does not quite have to depend on an Indian LSA. It has prosecuted two wars in the past decade and more, without any real need for Indian facilities. But getting India to sign up on the LSA, CISMOA and BECA would serve the purpose of binding India closer to the US militarily, because it would make their equipment interoperable.
The US’ larger goals in its ties with India are no secret.The 2006 version of the National Security Strategy of the United States noted that US interests required a strong relationship with India, and that “India now is poised to shoulder global obligations in cooperation with the United States in a way befitting a major power.”
More recently, at the Raisina Dialogue on March 2, 2016, Admiral Harry B Harris, of the US Pacific Commander called for the two countries to not just exercise together, but “to conduct joint operations.” In the context of India’s exercising with Australia and Japan as well, he said, “As India takes a leading role as a world power, military operations with other nations will undoubtedly become routine.”
But the Indian perspective remains clouded because it has no declared national security strategy, and hence it is difficult to determine what exactly it is seeking from its relationship with the United States. The most obvious and general answer is that it wants high-technology, trade and good political ties with the world’s primary power which would aid its economic growth. Only the US has the clout to line up the Nuclear Suppliers Group to waive its rules governing civil nuclear trade, as it did in 2008. American blessings are needed to get rid of other technology restraints arising from the Wassenaar Arrangement or the Australia Group, and for the big prize – a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.
But would India be game for joint military operations? If so against whom? China or Pakistan, or some other party? These things could be fraught with hazards if they are not thought through. India and the US do not have a common world or regional view – the US may be inimical to China, but its relations with Beijing are denser than those between India and China.
Likewise, it may have difficulties with Pakistan, but not of the kind India has. India views good ties with Iran as a strategic asset, and the US position is different. The same could be said of Russia on whom the Indian military machine will be dependent for at least another decade and a half.
But the American pressure is very much on. The draft US-India Defence Partnership Act which was introduced in the US Congress some weeks back seeks to amend the US Arms Control and Export Control Act to give India a special status equivalent of US treaty allies and partners.
In addition, this act will call on the US president to “develop military contingency plans for addressing threats to mutual security interests” as well as call on the president to “annually assess the extent to which India possesses strategic operational capabilities to execute military operations of mutual interest to the United States and India.” Presumably, if India lacks those capabilities, the US will help to make up the deficit.
The obvious point is whether India wants that kind of a relationship with the US. “Military operations of mutual interest” implies a military alliance. And military alliances come up when there is an imminent sense of danger.
What India needs to do
So, the one calculation that India has to make is whether the balance of power in its region has become so skewed and the situation so dangerous in its relations with China that it needs a military alliance with the US to maintain the balance of power.
If indeed India we feel that we need US muscle to deal with China, we need to clearly assess whether or not Washington and New Delhi are on the same page on issues relating to not just the South China Sea, but the Sino-Indian border, the Sino-Pakistan relationship and so on. We need to gauge whether the US will be there for us if we need them. And that is where we go into an entirely new realm of analysis.
Actually, the real problem with India is its inability to be cynical about its relationship with the US. It tends to go overboard, and this is a special weakness of the NDA which when asked to bend, tends to crawl before Uncle Sam. In 2003, when the US asked for Indian troops to participate in the Iraq War, almost the entire NDA Cabinet backed the decision. It was just one wise man, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who stood against his entire cabinet committee on security lineup, and said “No.”
New Delhi should learn from the way other US allies and proto-allies have dealt with Washington. Countries like Turkey, Pakistan, and even China have gained a great deal of political and strategic support or military aid by lining up with the US. But at the end of the day they have played their own game. The trick, as discerning readers will detect, is not to be carried away by the rhetoric, and to relentlessly pursue the national interest (provided you have a clear idea of what the national interest is).
Finessing the ability to play Uncle Sam is the name of the game. If you are up to it, signing the foundational agreements is not a major problem – none of them are so drastic that they will by themselves alter the nature of the Indo-US relationship. At the bottom of all this is the vision you have for India. If you think partnering with the US will take you there, by all means do so. But first figure out where “there” is. Is it a “great nation” status, or an independent pole in a multi-polar world? Or do we have the gumption to dream, like China does, of becoming the lead – not the MEA’s ‘leading power’ in the future?
Unfortunately, what India really seems to be doing is making up for the lack of vision by bandwagoning with the US.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.