Has PM Modi Developed Cold Feet Over The Logistics Agreement with the US?
The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi is conflicted and confused about just how close it wants India to get to the United States. The intimacy was to be cemented with the signing of the first of the three “foundational agreements”, the standard Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) the US insists on with its allies and strategic partners suitably tweaked for Indian sensibilities and called the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). It will permit US forces to refuel, replenish stores, afford rest and recreation (R&R) to its military personnel in India, and otherwise sustain their extended deployment in the “Indo-Pacific” region. It is a hallmark agreement that was supposed to crown the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter’s second visit to India, April 11-12, 2016.
The media was agog with this development, the public discourse leading up to it being peppered with reports and news commentaries welcoming the many benefits India stood to reap from this new and novel twist in foreign policy, one predicated on formal military ties with the United States. But then, virtually at the last minute, Prime Minister Modi had second thoughts and stopped the proceedings in their track, leaving Parrikar to lamely announce at the end of the delegation-level talks that LEMOA was only “a concept” of logistics support. Moreover, seeking an escape route for the BJP government, he added, that this agreement could be “signed in months, if not weeks”. What was left unstated was that, if it meets with hostile reception and turns into a political liability, the timeline could well stretch to never. Like the impetuous announcement by Modi in Paris to buy 36 Rafale fighter aircraft and peremptorily bury the medium multi-role combat aircraft procurement process, the decision on LEMOA, initiated with much enthusiasm, too could become a bilateral issue without closure.
The West-oriented English language media, quite unaware of the apprehensions creeping into the government’s calculations, went overboard. The unsigned document notwithstanding, a Times of India headline, for instance, screamed “Indian bases to open doors to US warships, planes”! Such was the tenor of most press reporting on LEMOA. By raising expectations and giving it a too positive spin, the media has exacerbated the situation for the Modi regime, which is caught between balancing public opinion and dealing with the growing political opposition to foundational agreements with the US led by the Congress party. The erstwhile Defence Minister, A.K. Antony slammed this accord as “a disastrous decision” and demanded its retraction, tartly reminding the country that “When UPA was in power, India had all along resisted such proposals [and] always resisted pressure from everybody to be part of a military bloc.” Not to be elbowed out of the picture, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) called it a “dangerous and anti-national” move, asked for its reversal, accused BJP of “crossing a line that no other government has done since independence”, and warned, it could end in “converting India into a full-fledged military ally of the United States.”
Parrikar has made much of the fact that LEMOA is limited in its ambit, and is not a license for stationing US troops and military wherewithal in this country. This is to miss the larger point that the mere fact of India’s agreeing to aiding and abetting the US in its military objectives is to compromise India, its national interest, and to introduce a foreign extraneous element into India’s strategic calculus and military decision-making. There will be no getting around the objective reality of US forces staging out of Indian bases and ports in military ventures India will have no say in. Absent Indian expeditionary policies, only the US will resupply in India – making this arrangement completely one-sided. The financial reimbursement for Indian supply of fuel, victuals, and other support, and for military infrastructure use, will do more to re-hyphenate India with Pakistan in US’ reckoning than almost anything else. Look at the hoops Islamabad has to jump through by way of US Congressional scrutiny to get the money legitimately owed it to understand the humiliations awaiting India.
While the response of the Leftist parties was along expected lines and the Congress party’s criticism a bit rich considering it was responsible for the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal with the US that has stymied the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities, such reaction is precisely what the Modi government fears will allow the opposition parties to mock BJP’s “nationalist” credentials, make light of its patriotic effusions, and undermine its pretensions to militant guardianship of the national interest. This is no small political risk for the ruling dispensation to take because of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s somewhat cautious attitude to its America-friendly overtures, but more worrisome still, of the Obama Administration’s actions, in the traditional US policy mould that are guaranteed to rile Indian public opinion – Washington’s transfer of F-16 combat aircraft and Viper attack helicopters to Pakistan even as it talks up friendship with India. With friends like the US, who needs enemies?
The foundational agreements also fail to address the core issue of whether and how political and military intimacy with the United States serves India’s national interest. Yes, it is a strategic imperative for India to counter and neutralize China. Yes, it helps for India to join the rimland or littoral states in Southeast and Northeast Asia in configuring a strategically effective collective security system designed to crimp Beijing’s room for military and diplomatic maneuver. Yes, the emerging scenario demands that India more proactively use and deploy its military forces and strategic fighting assets in concert with the other affected countries on China’s periphery, who singly cannot offer resistance to China but together can firm up a strong front against China. This much is basic geostrategics. Should the US want to join in such an organically Asian security enterprise, India should have no objection.
But it is definitely detrimental to India’s vital national interests, its reputation as a would-be great power and, not least, its amor propre, for the Modi government to reduce the country to another cog in the American military machine and accept legally binding agreements that will compel India to provide assistance to American forces in the Asian theatre on missions now and in the future that may directly imperil friendly regimes, such as in Iran, undermine Indian interest, and undermine long term Indian political goals and strategy. But of far greater significance is the potential harm that will be caused to relations India has nurtured over time with putative foes of the US – in the main Russia.
Moscow alerted Delhi to the likelihood of immense injury to the traditional military supply relationship should Modi approve CISMOA (Communications Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement), for example. A draft-CISMOA was apparently ready for Carter’s and Parrikar’s signatures. It will result in Moscow promptly pulling the Akula-II nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) out of the Indian Navy. More problematic, other collaborative programmes, such as Russian assistance in designing and developing a powerful nuclear reactor for the two indigenous aircraft carriers after Vikrant, and offers of super-advanced armaments, such as the latest variant of the Shkval anti-ship missile that, in its terminal stage, pops out of the water and homes in on target at hypersonic speeds, will shutdown.
Moreover, if one were to tally the sensitive technologies and hardware Russia has given, transferred, and is prepared to part with, and compare it with the sorts of technology the US is eager to sell India – the 1970’s vintage F-16 and F-18 combat aircraft and M-777 light howitzer and, as part of the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), development of tactical drones, battery pack, etc., it is laughable. That DTTI is touted as the vehicle for Modi’s “Make in India” programme, makes this a grim joke.
If all this wasn’t bad enough, the Modi government seems to have bought into the nonsense Condoleeza Rice peddled 15 years ago during Bush Junior’s US presidency, namely that Washington will help India become a “major power”. The gullible Manmohan Singh regime swallowed it whole, ignoring a small detail – no great power in history has helped an aspiring state become a consequential power and thus grow its own rival. True, the US duo of Nixon-Kissinger in the Seventies violated this axiom and gave China a leg up. Look where that’s gotten Washington. The US is confronted and confounded by an economic and military monster, China, it created. But India is not China, and even with all outside help it may not make it and, in any case, Washington won’t repeat that mistake. Recall in this respect that in return for New Delhi’s fulfilling the conditions of the nuclear deal, Washington had promised India “the rights and privileges” of a nuclear weapon state and entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. India has complied fully but the quid for the quo is nowhere in evidence.
One had so desperately hoped – and this analyst was amongst the first to voice this hope as far back as 2011 -- that the advent of Modi, a plucky provincial politician, who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, would root a liberal rightwing Edmund Burke-ian type of conservatism in the country, an ideology based on liberty and small government, and one that put a premium on the individual’s desire to better his lot by the dint of his own effort, and in so doing improve society and country. Most of all, one fervently prayed for the articulation of a grand national vision and the injection of commonsensical precepts into foreign and strategic policies. Instead, the BJP regime has not deviated an iota from the Congress government’s pusillanimous approach and outlook. India continues to acquiesce in security schemes on terms dictated by extra-territorial powers -- US and China. For this to happen, rulers in New Delhi have had to be compliant and/or complicit, otherwise a country India’s size and potential simply cannot be manipulated.
BHARAT KARNAD is professor for national security studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and author most recently of “Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)”.
(Photograph: Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and US Secretary of Defence, Ashton Carter)