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The outcome of Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s recent visit to the United States to meet with his counterpart Ashton Carter has met with approval from all corners. Even critics of the Narendra Modi government were somewhat muted for once, as several columns reported that the agenda for the visit indicated a shift in Indian foreign policy from style to substance. Two projects critical to Indian defence modernisation, the development of jet engines and aircraft carrier technology, have received greater impetus under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Calling the US-India relationship an anchor of global security, Carter expressed satisfaction with the new pace defence cooperation between the two states has taken. “We’ve done so much more in the last year, probably than we’ve done in the 10 years before that,” Carter said. “And I’m guessing that in the next 10 months, we will do yet again more than we’ve done in the last year.”

The United States’ approach to India underwent a sea change during the presidency of George W Bush. Although the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 would end up absorbing much of the administration’s energy, Bush and his team had come to office with the aim of curbing the rise of China. The Bush White House moved from the previous regime’s view of China as a strategic partner to one where the Asian giant was a strategic competitor. The neoconservative world view, as David Frum, speechwriter for Bush, explained it later, sought close ties with India and a pragmatic relationship with China that combined economic engagement with military containment. Part of the US strategy was to make India a part of the international system and midwife its rise asa counterbalance to China. The Indo-US nuclear deal was part of that plan, as was the DTTI. As Philip Zelikow, a counselor for the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had said, the goal was “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century.”

From the US point of view, however, defence relations could have developed much faster had India accepted what the Pentagon calls “foundational agreements.” These pacts, typical military alphabet soups like the LSA (Logistics Sharing Agreement), CISMOA (Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement), and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation), facilitate military-to-military cooperation primarily at a tactical level though they can be developed further into strategic cooperation.

The LSA, for example, allows the navies and air forces of each country to share each other’s facilities for berthing and refueling without making payments each time; instead, accounts would be settled periodically. The LSA also negotiates several practices that are presently decided upon on a case-by-case basis such as the pre-positioning of military materiel in each other’s countries (Cooperative Security Location – CSL), playing host during exercises, and permitting operations of the other in-country. The LSA is similar to the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA) that the United States has with over 75 countries, including its NATO partners and Sri Lanka in India’s own neighbourhood.

Similarly, the CISMOA allows interoperability of Indian and US equipment. For example, if Indian troops wish to call in a US airstrike at a certain location, or if US Special Forces are “lighting up” a target for a precision munitions strike by an Indian bomber, their hardware, which is normally encrypted, must be able to communicate with each other to relay information accurately and quickly. In a crowded theatre of operations that nowadays involves non-state actors, drones, Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), coalition militaries, and electronic warfare, spectrum management is crucial.

Admittedly, the Indian Navy has been able to operate the Boeing P-8I Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft without the advanced communications equipment it would have come with had India signed the CISMOA. The gaps were filled with indigenous electronic equipment that did not diminish the aircrafts’ capabilities. However, in a multi-nation environment, be it during a humanitarian relief mission or anti-piracy operations, these gaps would have been felt acutely.

The purpose of BECA is to facilitate the exchange of geospatial information between governments for military as well as civilian use. It includes maps, charts, satellite imagery, geodetic, geophysical, geomagnetic, and gravity data. One practical application of this for the military is that aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster III and the C-130 Hercules can fly very close to the ground and evade enemy radar; another is improved accuracy of munitions. India cannot rely on foreign global positioning system in times of war and has therefore developed its own Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System. However, the coverage of this system is yet limited and geospatial data from the United States can improve its performance. The civilian application of geospatial data can contribute to infrastructural and other requirements as well.

The United States’ eagerness for closer ties with India is plain. The Bush White House made that very clear, as did Wikileaks in a collection of cables that expressed Washington’s priorities in the Indo-Pacific region and suggestions on how to achieve them. As the US embassy in New Delhi wrote to the Under Secretary for Defence, Michelle Flournoy, in October 2009, the way forward lies in “nudging India to expand their commitments by signing the foundational agreements and by moving forward with military sales [which] will provide opportunities for a sustained relationship far more robust than exercises and exchanges. If we can continue our trend of major military sales, we will cement a relationship for the next several decades with the most stable country in South Asia.” India is not doing the United States a favour by signing the foundational documents and nor is the case vice versa.

What none of these agreements do is compel India to side with the United States in any conflict, allow Washington to permanently station troops on Indian soil yet under the jurisdiction of American courts (that would be the Status of Forces Agreement – SOFA), or permit hostile military action against other countries from bases in India. These agreements are also reciprocal, giving the Indian military access to American facilities around the world. This could come in particularly handy at Diego Garcia or Guam, for example, in anti-piracy or regional collective security operations. The sharing of supplies has not only a strategic argument but an economic one as well: Indian forces can resupply at any US facility and pay back in kind when American forces travel through the Indian Ocean, an especially useful arrangement during extended war games.

It is unlikely that the Indian side has not seen the material benefits of these agreements. Certainly, the Indian military can operate without subscribing to an American framework but doing so will drastically expand its capabilities until such a time as when Delhi develops its own defence network. When the subject of India signing on to the foundational agreements was first broached, several senior Indian military officials played down their importance, saying that the pacts make no difference to the Indian operational scope. Such opinions might be dismissed as being bound by political views of the time – non-alignment, and an intellectual inertia that was sold as pacifism. However, with a new and more ambitious government in Delhi, the time might be ripe to conclude these agreements.

India’s equivocal response to the Pentagon’s protocols does have a legitimate basis – a deep-rooted suspicion of the United States. For earlier generations, this was ideological: India eschewed the free market, embraced state socialism, and was in closer orbit to the Soviet Union diplomatically and militarily than it was to the West. For the younger generation, mistrust of Washington stems from what appears from Delhi as unwavering support of a hostile neighbour, Pakistan. Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, Foggy Bottom sees Islamabad as a close non-NATO ally and supplies it with advanced military equipment that includes nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets. The United States has also earned a reputation as an unreliable patron, ironically from both India and Pakistan. Foggy Bottom cut off arms supplies in 1965 as well as in 1971 when war broke out between India and Pakistan; in 1974 and in 1998, after India’s nuclear tests, it became the subject of US sanctions. Delhi worries that if it relies too much on an American defence framework, it might find its options in a conflict circumscribed by US interests and worldview. More recently, Washington’s ridiculous good Taliban/bad Taliban routine got no chuckles in Delhi.

Delhi’s greater concern is that forging closer military-to-military relations with the United States may appear to other important powers, particularly Russia and China, as an Indo-American alliance. Given the proximity of these powers to India and an overt US desire to contain their power, Indian action might speak louder than Indian intentions and antagonise them into a firmer response. Indian accession to the treaties will certainly stir otherwise friendly waters with Russia and likely precipitate a reaction from China that India is not ready for yet. Russia is already flirting with the idea of weapons sales to Pakistan and seeing US warships in Vishakapatnam might tilt the scales unfavourably to India. These treacherous diplomatic waters must be navigated by the Indian Foreign Service, convincing India’s partners that logistical cooperation with the United States would not hurt their interests. It might even be worth considering expanding logistical support to Russian, Australian, or Japanese naval vessels at Indian bases. In the meantime, India might also consider the spate of weapons deals and joint military exercises it as had with the United States – there is no need of deals to divine which way the geopolitical winds are blowing.

In January this year, it was reported that Modi gave his officials a non-paper on the Pentagon’s foundational agreements. It is a new India now, and the ambitions of the Modi government are substantially more than the timid considerations of the Congress regime. Delhi is striving to forge strong bonds around the Indian Ocean rim as well as with Japan and contribute to regional security and stability. Its aims of taking a no-nonsense approach to its borders in the northeast as well as the west demand better infrastructure, logistics, and hardware. While there might have been no need for India to consider the Pentagon’s pacts earlier, an India aspiring to fill the role of a regional power certainly does. Modi’s muscular foreign policy needs a defence doctrine to match, and loose coalitions are a healthy way to test the waters. As the subhashita advises,

न अभिशेको न संस्कार: सिम्हस्य क्रियते वने |
विक्रमार्जिता सत्वस्य स्वयमेव मृगेन्द्रता ||

There is no official coronation ceremony held to declare lion king of jungle He becomes king by his own attributes and heroic actions.


This post appeared on FirstPost on December 22, 2015.

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