United States

Military nexus

Print edition : May 13, 2016

Near Bikaner, Rajasthan, an India-U.S. joint military exercise in 2012. Photo: Dinesh Gupta/AP

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar (left) and U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter exchange documents after the signing of an MoU in New Delhi in June 2015. Photo: PTI

Admiral Harry Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Photo: Cliff Owen/AP

The government’s plans to strengthen military ties with the U.S. will sound the death knell for India’s foreign policy independence and strategic autonomy.

THE BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY-LED (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has decided in principle to be a full-fledged military partner of the United States. After the visit of U.S. Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter to New 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 will in theory allow the U.S. Army to access Indian military bases. Carter and his Indian counterpart, Manohar Parrikar, jointly announced the decision at a press conference where Parrikar told the media that the expansion in India-U.S. 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.

Parrikar indicated that a draft agreement would be ready in some weeks. He tried to give a spin to the LEMOA by saying that it was different from the LSAs the U.S. had signed with its other close military allies. Parrikar claimed India would have the right to refuse assistance to U.S. troops on a case-by-case basis. But there are very few takers for Parrikar’s convoluted defence of the decision to sign the agreement.

In a joint statement released after the announcement, there was no attempt to hide the fact that the new military alliance being forged between the U.S. and India was mainly focussed against China. The 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 U.S. 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’s trade passes.

The agreement comes at a time when the U.S. military is moving the bulk of its assets to East Asia. Carter, first as Deputy Defence Secretary and later as 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 being cobbled up in the region against China.

As part of the U.S.’ diplomatic efforts, senior American officials have been wooing New Delhi for the last eight years. Barack Obama is the first serving U.S. President to visit the country twice. After the signing of the LSA, Carter said in New Delhi that the militaries of the two countries had become closer than ever before. The U.S.-India relationship was destined to be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century, he said.

The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had laid the groundwork for the close military and strategic relationship that now exists between the two countries by entering into a “global strategic partnership” with the U.S.

In 2012, it also signed a Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) agreement with the U.S. 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 U.S. technology and supplies. The U.S. is likely to emerge as India’s top defence partner in a few years. It now holds the most number of annual military exercises with India.

The UPA government, however, was 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, the U.S. wants India to sign the two other “foundation agreements”: the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Understanding and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement. The U.S. has said that these two pacts are important for the transfer of U.S. military technology to India and for better inter-military communication. 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 and initials the LSA and the two other agreements with the U.S., the Non-Aligned Movement (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 the U.S. 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 the “strategic autonomy” that the Indian government has in foreign affairs and defence matters. Russia, with which the U.S. has a tense and adversarial relationship these days, will also not take kindly to these new developments in the Indian subcontinent.

“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 U.S.” The New York Times said in a report after the LSA announcement.

During Obama’s India visit last year, Modi committed to deeper military integration with the U.S. as outlined in the U.S.-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”. In his speech in New Delhi, Carter highlighted this strategic convergence between India’s “Act East” policy and the Obama administration’s “rebalancing to the East” policy. Since coming to power, the BJP, despite its proclivity towards hyper-nationalism, has noticeably been more pro-American than the Congress. The National Security Adviser (NSA) to the first NDA government, the late Brajesh Mishra, had during an official trip to the U.S. called for a Washington-Tel Aviv-New Delhi axis in international affairs. The Modi government wants to convert this dream into a reality, if its recent actions are any indication.

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 LSA with the U.S. is the beginning of the end of the independence of India’s foreign policy and strategic autonomy,” former Defence Minister A.K. Antony 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 Communist Party of India (Marxist), or 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 converting the nation into a “full-fledged” military ally of the U.S.

The CPI(M) said that the NDA government should have taken Parliament into its confidence before taking such an important step in regard to “such critical policy matters”. The U.S. 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 would see the stationing of American troops on Indian soil on a regular basis. “Along with this agreement, the Defence Minister has indicated that two other agreements are on the anvil. This will make Indian armed forces command and control structure integrated with the U.S. armed forces,” the CPI(M) said in a statement. Other opposition parties like the Janata Dal (United) have also condemned the NDA government’s stealthy move to become the junior military partner of the U.S. in the region.

The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry B. Harris, who visited New Delhi in March this year, predicted that the navies of the two countries would be jointly patrolling the Indian and Pacific Oceans “in the not too distant future”.

He also urged India to engage in a “quadrilateral security dialogue” with the U.S. and its closest allies in the region, Japan and Australia. Harris even suggested that the next trilateral naval exercises involving India, the U.S. 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 U.S. Defence Secretary headed straight to the Philippines to sign an agreement that further enhances the strong military links between the two countries. The new agreement will permit the U.S. 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 the Subic Bay Naval Base, in 1991 following nationwide protests. China has responded strongly to the U.S. agreement with the Philippines, saying that the U.S. is determined to “militarise” the region. Carter announced that the U.S. and the Philippines would start conducting joint air and sea patrols in the South China Sea.

In October 2015 and in January this year, an American missile-guided destroyer 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 USS John C. Stennis, which has currently been on patrol duty in the South China Sea, after his recent visit to Manila.

Chinese policymakers are aware that the U.S. is exploiting China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours to further the U.S.’ military and strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific region. Many analysts are of the view that the U.S. 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.

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