November 08, 2020

Calculate the Cost of Military Alignment with the Empire

B Arjun

THE visit of US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and US defence secretary Mark Esper for the 2+2 Dialogue with their Indian counterparts, in the middle of the second surge in Covid-19 pandemic and merely a week prior to US presidential polls, is being projected as the coming of age of a long-cherished military relationship. One of the highlights of the meeting was the signing of the Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA), at a time when the military standoff across the undefined border with China shows no signs of de-escalation. 

BECA is expected to provide accurate geospatial data helping the Indian missiles to hit their targets with greater precision. It will also pave the way for India to procure armed MQ-9 Reaper drones from the US. BECA is the last of the four foundational agreements, the other three military agreements that form the bedrock of military alignment with America are LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement), GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement).

The Indian government is flaunting its military alignment with the West with the hope to send a clear message to China that the Indian policy of alliance-building will offset the military power differential that Beijing enjoys.

Over the past few months, the strategic discourse in the country has been dominated by: the Quad’s second ministerial at Japan; Australia joining the Malabar series of naval exercises; the Army Commander’s conference taking a decision to re-orient the positioning of the forces to tackle the Chinese; the success of LEMOA and potential of BECA to add to the precision capabilities of Indian guided missiles. 

India's ruling dispensation that has failed on multiple fronts to alleviate the deteriorating economic conditions of the masses, is celebrating the completion of a military-to-military alliance with the US as a victory of Modi’s diplomatic acumen and the acknowledgment of his worldwide appeal. Many are under the false impression that Modi’s dynamism has made America bend its laws to supply sophisticated weaponry to India, little do they understand America is wooing India just as it had taken Pakistan in its embrace from the 1950s.

The media channels controlled by the government are tirelessly projecting the images of US-made Chinook helicopter and C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, acquired by the Indian Air Force, bringing in the much-needed supplies for the soldiers positioned on the mountains in grueling weather conditions.

It is reported that India has received from the US 11,000 sets of extended cold weather clothing system (ECWCS) to meet the challenge of facing harsh winters in the Himalayas. The items were urgently purchased under the LEMOA, which facilitates logistical support, supplies, and services between the armed forces of the two countries. These include clothing, food, lubricants, spare parts, medical services among other essentials.

This in effect means that India has bought items worth crores of rupees at a price negotiated with the contractors by the Pentagon. Some US military contractors, a euphemism for private military companies have already started profiting from the India-China border clash.   Another picture that is extensively used to sell LEMOA to the public is the Indian Navy Ship Talwar refueling with US Navy Fleet Tanker USNS Yukon in the Northern Arabian Sea. Last month, the US Navy’s long-range anti-submarine warfare and maritime surveillance aircraft, P-8 Poseidon, was refueled at a strategic airbase in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (A&N Islands), a tri-services command. 
The government is planning A&N Islands as a key centre of India's defence and security strategy especially in the context of the energising of the Quadrilateral (Quad) strategic grouping aimed at containing China. The Island's geo-strategic location in the Bay of Bengal and its proximity to Malacca Straits (considered the Achilles heel of Chinese marine trade) is being envisaged as an important element in India’s geostrategic calculus. According to some foreign policy experts, the A&N Islands should be made the centre of regional naval cooperation, where the navies of the US, UK, Japan, Australia, France congregate prior to or after the completion of the exercises and operations in the Indo-Pacific.     
Riding piggyback on Pentagon’s military might the so-called Atmanirbhar government is trying to sell to the Indian people that the power asymmetry and technological gap between the Chinese and Indians armed forces have been bridged and the PLA forces can be confronted both in the Himalayas and in the Indo-Pacific with ease.
In nutshell, instead of dealing with the border issue with China, that was lying dormant for the last sixty-odd years, with a simple use of diplomatic agreements, New Delhi is investing its strategic islands and its armed forces within the command and control ambit of the US imperial military.

The irony is that India is mimicking Pakistan’s old tactics of flaunting foreign weapons as a part of its psychological warfare both for external as well as internal consumption. In the 1980s Pakistan enjoyed and exploited its short-lived 'F-16 moment', when the “sketches of F-16 fighter aircraft” pasted on the private buses and trucks plying the national highways was used as a propaganda tool to display “military’s renewed confidence in its ability to fight the country’s enemies and establish security… the fighter aircraft symbolised the cozy strategic alignment with Pakistan’s ally at the time, the United States.”

Going full-ahead in its military ties with America what New Delhi is conveniently ignoring is the Pakistan experience with the US military. One sees that the Indian happiness on the success of Quad and the growth of Malabar naval exercises is not very different from the joy experienced by   Pakistan for being a part of CENTO and SEATO during the period when the American foreign policy was afflicted with “Pactomania”.  But today Pakistan, barring its elite, regrets being a part of that military alliance. The prevalent anti-Americanism in Pakistan clearly informs us that Pakistani masses feel that they have been short-changed by the United States that has only used them as cannon fodder in its imperial wars. The socio-political impact of Pakistan’s alliance with the Pentagon has been worse. According to Stephen Philip Cohen, “Indeed, Pakistan’s current plight and troubled prospects can only be understood in the context of its having embraced the role of America’s “most allied ally.” This legacy helps explain the country’s failure to establish a coherent political system or a framework in which political justice and economic growth can flourish. It helps explain Islamabad’s strained relations with Afghanistan and India.”  

Sooner rather than later, India will have to take stock of the costs that are involved in getting into a cozy alliance with the US. The relationship is unequal. Like Pakistan, India may achieve some pyrrhic victories against its adversaries but the costs it'll have to pay will be heavy. The big question is, will the military alliance draw the Indian military more towards Pentagon than the Indian government? Will America encourage the Indian armed forces (as it did the Pakistani military) to emerge as an alternative power centre?