Evaluating Indo-US defence agreements

By K.N. Pandita

Energy, counter terrorism and defence stand out prominently in eight Indo-US agreements signed recently.

The civilian nuclear agreement opens the path for preparatory work on sites for six AP1100 reactors in India to be built by Westinghouse with US Import-Export Bank assuming financing role. India is energy starved.

A MoU on exchange of terms of screening between their intelligence agencies to provide access to terrorism screening information has been signed. This is a significant move forward in combating terrorism.

However, it is in the realm of defence that India shows interest in revision of her traditional policy. China’s hegemonic posturing and its dichotomy in interpreting terror are catalyst to our long term defence strategy.

Both countries had to travel long and tortuous distance spanning over decades before they came to a handshake.

By virtue of defence agreement, the US recognises India a ‘major defence partner’ noting that US-India defence relationship can be “an anchor of stability”. The implication is that India will share facets of defence technology with the US and her close allies on parity basis.

They have also finalised the text of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) to be signed soon.

Under the Joint Working Group on Aircraft Carrier Technology Cooperation, India and the US have also finalised the text of an Information Exchange Annex.

At home, not unexpectedly, the opposition buoyed by the Left has raised eyebrow on defence agreements and the idea of US recognising India as the “Major Defence Partner”. Obsessed with long defunct non-aligned tantrum, this narrative is alien to their ears.

However, their apprehensions, certainly unfounded, stem from historical hangover. They are ill at ease to witness first major shift in India’s foreign and defence policy after independence.

Critics place their finger on two key defence agreements, Information Exchange Annex (IEA) and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement.

Their argument is that the US military is much larger and its ships, aircraft and soldiers operate across the world. They believe that the US needs more than India needs to boost their operational capability.

In recognizing India as a “ major defence partner” with access to a licence-free range of dual-use technologies, the US has agreed to support the Indian initiative to develop defence industries through the export of goods and technologies consistent with US laws.

The argument that the US would need to use Indian military facilities far more often than the Indian side would need US bases, overlooks the ground realities. As a super power, the US’ political-military reach worldwide is well in place. The US has options or alternatives to fill the gaps if any, be it the vast landlocked Central Asian Steppes or the critical maritime region of South China Sea.

The second is LEMOA or Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. The transformational element of this agreement virtually surpasses MTCR. It will open Indian maritime and aviation facilities for refuelling and other logistics support to the US Armed Forces. The ambit would functionally include the Indian Navy’s use of US ports such as Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Guam and Subic Bay as part of port calls, training and disaster management. The implications go well beyond the functional aspects with India’s almost complete turnaround from a policy of isolationism in this field.

Eschewing reference to South China Sea in the final joint does not minimise geostrategic importance of the region for the US or India, especially when the Philippines have invoked relevant body at the UN to contain China in her ambitious designs in Paracels and Sprtlys islands. A visit of US guided missile destroyer within 20 nautical miles of the islands carried the message.

It is also argued that India signing defence agreements with the US would lead to her gradual estrangement with Russia. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, and especially after its reckless incursion into Afghanistan, Indo-Russian relations did not enjoy the same warmth as in the Soviet era. Soviet reckless policy in Afghanistan caused us much distress; in fact we are still grappling with its fall out.

The lesson of history is that in post-cold war era polarization is getting discredited. While trade and commerce are replacing or reshaping alignment among nations, the concept of military blocs is shifting to defence partnership.

As for Logistics Agreement, the Left Parties are raising an eyebrow that this agreement will have to face serious consequences and all this amounts to abandoning independent foreign policy and bilateral interests with the friendly countries in West Asia (Iran).

No West Asian country has stood up strongly against American interventionist policy. They were complacent with the destruction of Iraq; they are lukewarm on NATO-US action in Afghanistan while they are expectantly concerned on American pedestrianism towards the Islamic Caliphate.
Of course, Iran is a different story. She is hold
ing the nuclear deal with her teeth. It will take her a long time to reap the harvest of investments she will be making in the aftermath of lifting of sanctions by the US.

Defence agreements outreach the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region. India has stakes in the security of maritime routes of Indian Ocean. Maximum of world trade passes through the Straits of Malacca.

Chinese presence in Gwadar port of Pakistan has to be taken note of. Chabahar strategy a part, the importance of India-Pacific region necessitates cooperation and collaboration with the US.

Military and naval exercises with the US are not new to us. Shared responsibility of security means defence cooperation. Defence partnership has gained importance for the freedom of navigation.

Outreach of defence agreements have also to be evaluated in the background of rising crescendo of terrorism holding sway over parts of the Middle East and Karakorum-Hindu Kush region.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, a day after Prime Minister Modi addressed a joint meeting of the US Congress, Paul Ryan, Speaker of the US House of Representatives said that “US-India have a great potential for the future particularly with the seas, in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean, making sure that we help police the global commons and international order, namely China building, you know, runways on islands in contested areas.”

India-US defence agreements are of immense consequences to the global strategy from which India stood excluded for last six decades and half. This notwithstanding, the two democracies know it well that national interests supervene in the policy planning of sensible nations.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University).

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