External Affairs

The Basement Sale of India’s Sovereignty

By drawing even closer to the United States and signing binding agreements, India is giving up years of carefully calibrated balance in its foreign policy.

File picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama in the White House in June. Credit : PTI

File picture of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama in the White House in June. Credit : PTI

This is the first of a three-part series on India’s foreign policy.

In two lacklustre years of governance the BJP has done very little to fulfil its promise of economic revival and vindicate the trust that the people of India had bestowed upon it. That may be why its propagandists have worked overtime to portray the signature of the Logistics and Supply Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the USA, and President Obama’s designation of India as a “major defence partner” as a huge success in his foreign policy.

With very few exceptions, commentators in the national media have fallen in line with this assessment. Only a few have noticed that in his eagerness to cement a closer defence relationship with the US Modi had given away India’s most prized asset – its zealously guarded independence of foreign policy – in exchange for a barrage of flattery and a bunch of verbal assurances that do not even add up to the proverbial thirty pieces of silver .

Declaring India a major defence partner has cost the US nothing. Unlike NATO or the US’s defence treaty with Japan, it is not a mutual defence pact and does not bind the US to coming to India’s aid if it is attacked. The most that India can possibly aspire to is a relationship somewhat similar to that of the US with Israel, where the US constantly reiterates its determination to come to Israel’s aid if it is attacked, but not via a defence treaty.

But India is not Israel. Its India-born American community is rich, and becoming politically more influential by the day. But it can never, even remotely, aspire to the power to shape US policy. American military power is not, therefore, ever likely to be deployed against India’s two main adversaries, Pakistan and China: Pakistan because it too is ‘a major non-NATO ally’, and China because it is simply too big for an already war-weary nation to take on.

In sharp contrast, the commitments that India has made to become worthy of this award (for that is all it is) are concrete, onerous and, worst of all, open-ended. Indian diplomats who have been involved in the negotiations insist that, unlike the Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA) that the US has signed with its other allies, it does not give the US Navy and Air Force an automatic right to use Indian bases while waging its wars. What it will facilitate automatically is the refuelling, restocking and repair of their craft at Indian naval and air bases during joint exercises, anti-piracy and other UN-sanctioned operations in the Indian Ocean.

This is the assurance that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had rushed to Beijing to give to the Chinese after postponing the signature of LEMOA at the last minute during US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to Delhi in April. But in practice, these caveats against automatic involvement in America’s wars are hollow because Delhi will find it exceedingly difficult to deny these facilities to the US once the latter has committed itself to a military operation – because of the angry reaction that will provoke in the US media, and the Congress.

LEMOA is also only the thin end of a rather fat wedge. The US has made it clear that signing it will make it easier to acquire sensitive dual-use technologies. But to get the most out of it, India will have to sign two supplementary “foundational” agreements, the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).

The US needs these to ensure that sensitive technological information shared with India does not get passed onto ‘unfriendly’ countries. But this concern will cut both ways. Its immediate result will therefore be to cut India off from access to cutting edge Russian armaments and technology.

A big loss

This will not be a small loss. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Soviet Union began to come apart, it could have been argued that India did not really have any alternative but to turn to the West for advanced weaponry. But that is no longer true. The S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries, Sukhoi-35 multi-role aircraft and long-range cruise missiles that Moscow unveiled in Syria last year show that the technology gap between the US and Russia has not only narrowed but, in some important areas, reversed.

There is nothing comparable to the S-400 in the western armoury, and the Su-35 costs a quarter of what India has committed itself to paying France for the Rafale. So no matter how Modi’s propagandists try to dress it up, these three agreements will lock India into permanent dependence upon American, European and Israeli suppliers and make it pay through the nose for what it gets.

Thus when CISMOA and BECA have been signed, India will lose its capacity to act independently and will become a permanent appendage of the Western alliance. To see how this could work out in practice, Modi has only to pick up the phone to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif or, better still, ask General Pervez Musharraf about how Pakistan came to join the War on Terror after 9/11.

The difference between Modi and his predecessors is that the latter were not prepared to pay this price. Manmohan Singh, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao had coped with China’s rise by assuaging its anxieties about Indian intentions in Tibet and rapidly deepening the economic relations between the two countries. But they had simultaneously asserted India’s right to deal independently with the countries around the South China sea, to continue sheltering the Dalai Lama and to allow him to run a virtual government in exile from Dharamshala.

All three also steadily deepened India’s relationship with the US, but carefully avoided making military commitments that would limit their options in the future. Vajpayee refused President George W. Bush’s request for Indian troops to pacify Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and Manmohan Singh studiously refused to sign the logistics supply, and its supporting agreements, with the US throughout his time in office.

The success of this careful balancing act is testified to by the fact that during this period it was not only the US but also China that began to woo India. Modi’s precipitate action – taken without any of the open discussion and extended parliamentary debate that had preceded the signing of the Indo-US nuclear agreement in 2008 – has ended this hard-won equidistance and the power to influence world events that went with it.

What is even more disturbing: while it has crowned Obama’s attempt to yoke India to his goal of containing China with success, it has wantonly thrown away the best opportunity India had, or may ever have again, of making a lasting peace with China and harnessing its enormous financial, technological and managerial resources to accelerate India’s industrial development.

Breaking from Nehru’s legacy

The US must have sensed its opportunity when Modi signalled his willingness, probably during his first visit to Washington in 2014, to make a clean break with Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy in foreign policy. Barack Obama lost no time in capitalising upon this and accepted Modi’s invitation to be the guest of honour at the 2015 Republic Day celebrations. The reason why he did so at such short notice surfaced when the two leaders signed the ‘U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region’ on January 25.

Encased in the fluff of mutual praise was the one paragraph that mattered: “Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” As Srinath Raghavan has pointed out in The Wire, China has a far stronger interest than the US in preserving the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea because all but a small fraction of its trade, and more importantly its import of oil, travels through it. What the US is insisting on maintaining, therefore, is the freedom of navigation for military vessels and aircraft.

In April 2015, this agreement bore its first fruit when four Indian warships joined a US-Japan task force spearheaded by the American super-carrier, the John C. Stennis, ostensibly to assert freedom of navigation in the South China sea. This one action, which received virtually no mention in the Indian media, revealed how little they, and Modi himself, understood the basics, let alone the nuances, of the power-struggle that is taking place in international relations today. For at the time this happened, he was within days of making his first state visit to China.

It is possible that Modi was only paying China back in its own coin for timing its intrusion into Ladakh’s Chumur sector to coincide with President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014. But if this was indeed his intention, then he had not been briefed about the overtures that China had been making to forge a closer strategic relationship with India ever since 2009 and the strategic convergence that had taken place in their world views since then.

Prem Shankar Jha is a ‘senior journalist and author of Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West?