May 22, 2016

India: America's New Junior Partner

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE NDA government has decided in principle to be a full fledged military partner of the United States. After the visit of the US secretary of defense, Ashton Carter to Delhi in the second week of April, it was announced that India would be signing a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) under a slightly different name. The new agreement would in theory allow the US army to access Indian military bases. Carter and his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, jointly announced the decision on signing the important military agreement at a press conference in New Delhi. Parrikar told the media that the expansion in Indo-US military ties justified the creation of “new mechanisms”. The two sides, he said, agreed to finalise a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in the coming months. The Indian defense minister indicated that a draft agreement will be ready in weeks. He tried to give a spin to the LEMOA saying that it was different from the LSA the US has signed with its other close military allies. India, claimed Parrikar, would have the right to refuse assistance to US troops on a case by case basis. But there are very few takers for Parrikar's convoluted defense of the decision to sign the LSA.

In the joint statement released after the announcement, there was no attempt to hide that the new military alliance being forged between Washington and Delhi was mainly focused against China. The joint statement “reaffirmed the importance of maritime security and ensuring the freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, including the South China Sea”. The statement indirectly characterised China as the aggressor in the South China Sea dispute and that it was Beijing that was preventing “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. The fact of the matter is that the US and its allies want perpetual access to China's coastal waters and control of the important maritime sea lanes through which much of the world' trade passes.




The agreement on LSA comes at a time when the US military is moving the bulk of its assets to East Asia. Carter, first as deputy defense secretary and later as the secretary has been working overtime to convince the Indian government to sign on to the LSA and other military agreements that would in effect make India a junior partner in the alliance that is being cobbled up in region against China. As part of America's diplomatic efforts, senior American officials have been wooing New Delhi for the last eight years. President Barack Obama is the first serving American president to visit the country twice. After the signing of the LSA, Carter said in Delhi that the militaries of the two countries have become closer than they have ever been before. The US-Indian relationship he said is destined to be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.


The UPA government had laid the groundwork for the close military and strategic relationship that now exists between Delhi and Washington by entering into a “global strategic partnership” with the US. In 2012, the UPA government had also signed a Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) agreement with the US aimed at co-producing advanced weapons systems. Washington's goal was to cash in on the lucrative arms purchase and modernisation spree of the Indian armed forces and also importantly to make the Indian military interoperable with the American military and dependent on US technology and supplies. America is likely to emerge as India's number one defense partner in a few years time.  America now holds the most number of annual military exercises with India.

The UPA government was however loath to sign the LSA and other agreements which would have made a bigger mockery of India's non aligned status and claims of having an independent foreign policy. After the LSA, Washington wants India to sign the two other “foundation agreements” the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Understanding (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The US has said that CISMOA and BECA are important for the transfer of US military technology to India and for better military to military communications. The NDA government has given broad hints that it is not averse to signing these agreements in the near future.

If the NDA government actually goes ahead with the LSA and the two other agreements with the United States, the NAM which has over a hundred members, will have reason to question India's credentials as a leader of the movement. China too will be expected to take adequate retaliatory action as Washington finds success in patching up a grand coalition of countries against it in the Asia Pacific region. Many Indian security experts as well as political commentators have been warning that signing these agreements would mean the end of “strategic autonomy” that the Indian government has in foreign and defense affairs.  Russia, with which the US has a tense and adversarial relationship these days, will also not take kindly to these new developments on the Indian sub continent.

“For decades as a leader of the non aligned movement, India had shied away from entering into strong alliances with other countries, particularly large world powers. But under prime minister Narendra Modi and wary of the growing power of its regional rival, China, the Indian government has moved closer to the US”, said a report filed by the New York Times after the LSA announcement. During President Barack Obama's India visit last year, Modi had committed to deeper military integration with the US as outlined in the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region statement that was released. Modi's “Act East Policy” is becoming convergent with the Obama administration's “pivot to the East”. Carter in his speech in Delhi highlighted this strategic convergence between India's “Act East” policy and the Obama administration's “rebalancing to the East” policy. The BJP, despite its proclivity towards hyper nationalism, once in power has noticeably been more pro-American than the Congress Party. The national security adviser to the first NDA government, the late Brajesh Mishra, had during an official trip to the US, called for a Washington-Tel Aviv-Delhi axis in international affairs. The Modi government wants to convert this dream into a reality if its recent actions are any indications. 

The opposition parties have voiced their strong criticism of the LSA deal that the Modi government proposes to sign with Washington. “The NDA government's decision to sign the Logistics Support Agreement with the US is the beginning of the end of the independence of India's foreign policy and strategic autonomy”, the former defense minister, AK Anthony said. “It is a disastrous decision. The government should retract from the decision and should not sign this agreement and other foundation agreements”. The Left parties have characterised the NDA government's move as “dangerous and anti-national”. The CPI(M) has accused the NDA government of “crossing a line”  that no other Indian government had done before. The Party accused the government of not only compromising the country's strategic autonomy but of converting the nation into a “full fledged” military ally of the US.

The CPI(M) said that parliament should have been taken into confidence before the government took such an important step in regard to “such critical policy matters”. The US has only signed LSA type agreements with close allies like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. The Party has warned that the terms of the LSA agreement would see the stationing of American troops on Indian soil on a regular basis. “Along with this agreement, the defense minister has indicated that two other agreements are on the anvil. The CISMOA and the BECA. This will make Indian armed forces command and control structure integrated with the US armed forces”, the CPI(M) statement emphasised. Other opposition parties like the JD(U) have also strongly condemned the NDA government's stealthy move to become the junior military partner of the US in the region.

The head of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, who was visiting Delhi in March this year, predicted that the navies of the two countries “in the not too distant future” would be jointly patrolling the Indian and Pacific Oceans. He also urged India to engage in a “quadrilateral security dialogue” with the US and its closest allies in the region, Japan and Australia. Admiral Harris even suggested that the next trilateral naval exercises involving India, the US and Japan be conducted off the Philippine coast, adjacent to the very area where China is embroiled in territorial disputes with its neighbours.  




From India, the US defense secretary headed straight to the Philippines to sign an agreement which further enhances the strong military links between the two countries. The new agreement will permit the US to build permanent facilities in five Philippine military bases. The Americans had to leave their two military bases in the country, the Clark Air base and Subic naval base, in 1991 following nationwide protests. China has responded strongly to the US agreement with the Philippines, saying that Washington is determined to “militarise” the region. Carter announced that the US and the Philippines will start conducting joint air and sea patrols in the South China Sea.

In October last and in January this year, an American missile guided destroyer had entered the 12 nautical mile territorial limit of Chinese administered islets in the South China Sea. Carter gave a press conference on board the American aircraft carrier the USS Stennis that is currently on patrol duty in the South China Sea after his visit to Manila recently. Chinese policy makers are aware that the US is exploiting the territorial disputes it has with its neighbours to further Washington's military and strategic goals in the Asia Pacific region. Many analysts are of the view that the US is preparing for a military showdown in the region as it tries to stymie China's peaceful rise to superpower status. India has no reason to be embroiled in such a military adventure.