India-US Defence Partnership: Why it’s not an embrace?

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New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama shake hands during the Joint Press Interaction held at the Hyderabad House, in New Delhi on Jan 25, 2015. (Photo: IANS/PIB)

Three day visit of the US Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter to India between 10th and 12th April culminated into the signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), a variant of the logistics support agreement (LSA) that the US has with its NATO allies. This agreement is ‘in principle’ sheds the traditional ambivalence of India, unfolding the pragmatic Modi-fied security paradigm in India’s foreign policy.

The ‘paradigm shift’ didn’t happen overnight, for the US had proposed the LSA during UPA’s time too.

Other two components of the foundational agreements are Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA).  However, the then Manmohan Singh government remained sceptical of inking it for the fear of losing the element of ‘strategic autonomy’ in its foreign policy, as well as its ‘non-aligned’ posture. In 2005, both signed the New Framework for the India-U.S. Defence Relationship (renewed in 2015 for another 10 years), and in 2012 the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). As soon as Modi government came into power, it started to push these initiatives of the UPA regime with more vigour and assertiveness. Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar during his US visit in 2015 hinted that India may reconsider its stand on the foundational agreements. Therefore, the signing of the LEMOA should not be seen as a surprise.

The gradual yet steep strategic engagement with the US shows that India is willing to deepen defence cooperation by elevating dialogue on joint research and development on its own terms keeping in view its national interests. The converging strategic interests between India and the US perhaps take into cognizance the asymmetric comprehensive national strength between India and China, and also the deep rooted contradictions between two on bilateral, regional and global issues. Modi government is aware that given this asymmetry with China, it would be difficult to expect concessions, be it the border, cross-border terrorism or China’s forays into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). It is perhaps owing to these contradictions and China’s ‘all weather’ military cooperation with Pakistan including PLA’s projects in the Indian claimed Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), that Modi government has issued statements in tandem with the US, Japan and Vietnam on the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea (SCS) much to the displeasure of China even though India has not agreed to the US request for ‘joint patrols’ in the SCS.

Secondly, through deepening cooperation with the US, India eyes at high technology, indigenising defence technologies by way of co-development and co-production,  building a solid Defence Industrial Base, reducing dependence in foreign weapon systems, and  boosting the defence export etc. For example, both sides have been exploring the possibilities of cooperation  on aircraft carrier design and operations, jet engine technology, and  fighter aircraft etc. For such a technological cooperation to materialise, the US had insisted on for signing the foundational agreements. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how India will respond to LEMOA’s implementation in real time conflicts where both the countries would be involved, of course the question remains a hypothetical one before the actual agreement is concluded.

Thirdly, though some in India believe that it is a message to our ‘neighbours’ however, they are also quick to assert that by doing so India is not allying with the US. Even if India is increasingly aware that the maritime security boundaries of both India and China have expanded and stretched from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, however, India will not be averse to cooperate with China on selective Maritime Silk Road (MSR) to invite investments.

On the sidelines of the Maritime India Summit, 2016, Modi released his pet project, the National Perspective Plan of the Sagarmala Programme,, which aims to modernize India’s ports and integrate them with Special Economic Zones, Port based Smart Cities, Industrial Parks, Warehouses, Logistics Parks and Transport Corridors. I believe there is a tremendous scope for bilateral cooperation between India and China on these projects.

Modi government is of the belief that expanding cooperation with the US and countries in the Asia Pacific on the one hand and aggressive economic engagement with China on the other will ultimately help India to alter some of the contradictions with China on bilateral, regional and global level to India’s favour.

Finally, India would jeopardise its relations with China, if it acts like a front state of the US. In the same vein, if the US would like to offset China’s geopolitical pull in the region and globe by way of India confronting China, certainly the US is mistaken, for I believe, India is too large to play a second fiddle to the US. Nonetheless, India has seen an invaluable geopolitical strategic space for itself in the Indo-Pacific and is attempting to capitalise on it. It is in this background that if at all India would like to be a ‘swing power’ between China and the US, we need to be a swing power as far as cooperation and healthy competition is concerned not the confrontation and conflict, which is neither in India’s interest nor in the interest of China and the US.

(Professor BR Deepak teaches at Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own)