This is what I wrote for India Abroad magazine: (http://www.indiaabroad-digital.com/indiaabroad/20160610?pg=46#pg46 and http://www.indiaabroad-digital.com/indiaabroad/20160610?pg=50#pg50
Admiral Harry Harris, the Commander of the Honolulu-headquartered US Pacific Command is a blunt man. As a military leader who reckons China poses the greatest threat to world peace in today’s context because of its reckless actions in East and South China Seas, Adm. Harris doesn’t pull punches when it comes to commenting on China’s ‘adventurism.’
And so it was this March in Delhi when he created ripples by his remarks that “in the not too distant future, American and Indian Navy vessels steaming together will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Asia-Pacific waters, as we work together to maintain freedom of the seas for all nations.” It was a dare to China but more importantly, it appeared to be the clearest signal yet from Washington that it wants India to be part of a coalition against China. India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar promptly rejected the proposal saying, “As of now, India has never taken part in any joint patrol; we only do joint exercises. The question of joint patrol does not arise.”
This public exchange encapsulates, the state of Indo-US Defence relations: Well-intentioned but not on the same page yet. That both New Delhi and Washington recognise the need to deepen their defence partnership is an acknowledged fact. The point of dissonance is the way to achieve it. India, despite a right of the centre government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is not inclined to join the US camp, much to the dismay of US strategic community. Instead, New Delhi wants to follow the principle of multi-alignment. So, even as it seeks to get US Defence technology and is willing to collaborate on some key projects like aircraft carrier, India simultaneously wants to keep its complex relationship with China on an even keel by following the ‘collaboration-with-competition’ approach, a policy followed by Washington with Beijing for a couple of decades now.
So, when US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, considered to be the most India-friendly US official in recent years, came to India in early April, he knew that India will not accede to all demands that US makes on the defence front. He was quite contended to announce—with Manohar Parrikar—that the US and India had made substantial progress on one of the three ‘foundational agreements. The Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), rechristened as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) as an India-specific pact, is still a work in progress despite the United States pushing for it. It will eventually be signed, may be even during Mr Modi’s upcoming US visit but the time taken over finalising its content demonstrates India’s reluctance to be seen as an American ‘groupie.’
It must be noted however that LEMOA is the easiest of the three agreements that the US is keen India should sign. The other two–the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Understanding (CISMOA) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geospatial information)—are politically sensitive issues and even the Modi government, despite its political heft, will be wary of agreeing to their provisions. The CISMOA for instance, may inadvertently lock the Indian military into technology regime driven by the US. About the BECA, Indian authorities have concerns about collection of data by the US private sector that does its job on behalf of the US military.
The LEMOA on the other hand, has its roots in the Access and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACAS), which was signed by the US with its NATO allies and permitted the alliance partners to access supplies, spare parts, servicing from each other’s land, air bases and ports. In the era of Cold War it was essential for allied forces to operate seamlessly anywhere in the world to support possible military confrontation with the Warsaw Pact nations. It provided the legal framework for operational flexibility while ensuring constitutional autonomy of member nations. Since platforms and equipment in the alliance countries had their origin either in the US or Europe, the positioning of spare parts for servicing of these platforms while transiting through any of these alliance nations, provided legal protection against local taxation provisions and adverse public opinion.
As Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, former Commander-in-Chief of India’s Western Naval Command wrote last week: “However, the bilateral relations of US with number of other countries became strategic in nature with changing geopolitics which necessitated similar agreement for more reasons than just the transit access. Slightly modified agreements were signed with Singapore, Afghanistan, Philippilnes and Sri Lanka. None of these countries have lost their strategic autonomy. They deal with China and rest of the world with equal ease. Sri Lanka has often provided logistics support to Chinese submarines and naval vessels at its ports. In fact, they have all benefited by acquiring US hardware, logistics and spares support…”
The discussion on the basic agreements apart, US and India are currently busy operationalising the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). Four pathfinder projects, agreed to during President Barack Obama’s visit in January 2015, are in various stages of finalisation but are yet to fructify. Similarly, India and the US conduct several joint exercises across the three services. The Indian Air Force (IAF), very recently participated in the ‘Red Flag’ Exercise in Alaska; the Indian and US Armies regularly have Exercise Yudh Abhyas while Exercise Malabar, initially a bilateral arrangement between Indian and US navies has now expanded to become a tri-lateral exercise with Japan. In fact, last week, four ships of the Indian Navy have sailed to Malacca Straits, an area of maritime interest to the India. They will be deployed on 75-day long operational sojourn in the South China and North West Pacific. During this overseas deployment, the ships of Eastern Fleet will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia) and Port Klang (Malaysia). In addition to showing the Flag in this region of vital strategic importance to India, these ships will also participate in MALABAR-16, a maritime exercise with the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Forces. This is in keeping with the new spirit of cooperation between Pentagon and the Indian MoD. Remember, a joint statement by Carter and Parrikar during Carter’s latest visit to India in April announced a new Maritime Security Dialogue and discussions on anti-submarine warfare and submarine safety. These flow from the path-breaking 2015 Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued by Obama and Modi.
So where are Indo-US relations headed?
The potential for collaboration in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations between Indian and US forces is immense but there is unlikely to be any joint patrol or joint operations by the two militaries given India’s abhorrence to be seen as a US camp follower. India will always try and nurture its defence relationship with Russia and other European countries such as France by keeping a slight distance with the US which, India’s policy makers feel, has been an unreliable partner in the past. The continued patronage extended by Washington to Pakistan is a reality India cannot ignore despite the recent reports about Washington asking Islamabad to pay for the F-16s it wants from the US.
It is fair to assume therefore that India-US defence ties will be marked by some areas of convergence and some divergence in approach. Fortunately, leadership on both sides is pragmatic enough to understand that their worldviews do not always match and therefore neither expects the other to support blindly. Within that constraint, Pentagon and South Block are doing fine in taking defence relations between US and India to the next level.