I was in Washington DC for a panel discussion on “India’s Asia-Pacific Outreach and Relations with China” at the Heritage Foundation on May 25. In the three days spent in the US capital meeting a number of Beltway thinktankers, what was palpable was the disappointment on several counts with the right-of-centre Bharatiya Janata Party government. The Wall Street Journal (May 26) published an interview-commentary as a curtain raiser to prime minister Narendra Modi’s second visit in two years that highlighted his inability or unwillingness to initiate “big bang” economic liberalization measures. Modi was damned, if not in so many words, as a waffler and only a more bombastic version of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh.
The economic interests in the US will be pacified if Modi signs up for a gigantic and manifestly unaffordable contract for Westinghouse and General Electric light water reactors as power plants under the rubric of controlling carbon emissions and climate change. The danger to India from the deal and from the dependency on imported power plants has been detailed in my writings and those of nuclear stalwarts like the late Dr PK Iyengar, AN Prasad, and A Gopalakrishnan against the nuclear deal — arguments that were convincing enough to fire a public campaign that all but stopped that deal with the US in its tracks in Parliament in 2008 (and available in the 2009 book comprising a voluminous compilation of these writings — ‘Strategic Sellout: Indian-US Nuclear Deal’ [New Delhi: Pentagon Press]).
In the ultimate analysis though, whether India matches the economic pace of the East Asian dragons or remains the perennial laggard matters less to US security enclaves who, with the strategically assertive China in mind, increasingly define the US interest in India. One of the metrics held up to judge the success of the visit is whether Modi will sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. LEMOA, a differently worded version of the standard Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) the US insists on with its treaty allies and partners, is one of the three accords considered as prerequisite for close US military cooperation with India, along with the Communications Inter-operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement concerning geo-spatial information (and the sharing, for instance, of digitized target coordinates). It will allow US armed forces to repair, replenish, refuel at Indian air and naval bases, and to afford its fighting personnel rest & recreation, enabling the US military to pull sustained operations in the Indian Ocean region and to cut a more active profile landward.
Peninsular India as supply-support base perfectly fills the logistics gap in the large oceanic and air expanses between the US bases in Bahrain in the Gulf and Diego Garcia in the southwestern Indian Ocean, and Singapore on the southeastern littoral.
Washington’s perception is that in recent years India has wriggled out of committing forcefully to contain China owing to two factors of Cold War vintage: America’s inhibition about selling and transferring advanced military technology to India, and its worrisome relations with Pakistan. The US is minimizing the basis of these “excuses”. In the past fortnight, the US Congress voted an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act placing India in the same league as Japan and South Korea, and removing the legal barriers to its acquiring advanced US military technology.
Islamabad’s policy of asymmetric warfare using terrorist groups to discomfit India has boomeranged because many of these same outfits (the Haqqani Taliban faction, in particular) are fighting the Pakistan army and US forces instead upending, in the process, the peace plan for Afghanistan and raising the human and financial costs of American military intervention. So, US Congress has mandated vetting of Islamabad’s anti-terrorist stance prior to the disbursal of some $450 million in annual aid. Further, the US legislature vetoed the subsidy component in the $750 million deal for the sixteen F-16 combat aircraft on order, requiring Pakistan to ante up the full cost. The bad optics of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will establish a Chinese Naval presence in Gwadar in the future, haven’t helped Pakistan either.
But such de-hyphenation measures do not preclude US’s continued contributions to critically enhancing Pakistan’s military capabilities. Such as providing technical fixes for the naval Harpoon missile so it can be fired from F-16 aircraft to attack land targets – the reason why the Modi government strongly protested the sale of this fighter plane to Islamabad.
The developments at the US end are motivated by a higher geostrategic purpose, of course, but are being dressed up as uniquely India-friendly actions. The scheduled address to the Joint Houses of the Congress during his June 7-8 visit by Modi is to massage his ego in the hope this will get the Obama Administration what it wants. Lest the Prime Minister be overly impressed by this gesture, he should be alerted to the fact — which MEA surely hasn’t done — that, considering it is election season in America, he’ll find the benches filled mostly by young Congressional pages and petty officials instructed to fill the hall rather than by US legislators who will be in their constituencies.
Because LEMOA is sort of an American litmus test, it is imperative Modi appreciates what is at stake, and the gravity of the situation that will obtain should he make the wrong decision.
The draft-LEMOA has not been made public. But its wording is unlikely to violate the existing LSA parameters, or deviate much from Section E2.1.10 of the US ‘Department of Defense, Directive number 2010.9’ which describes the “Logistics Support, Supplies, and Services” that India is expected to provide. It will formalize the US basing option in India. So, calling LSA by another name will not detract from the reality of the US gaining the right to pre-position stores and set up military base structures and mechanisms in India under its control, and requiring related jurisdictional agreements to protect American military assets and personnel.
As has been detailed in previous posts on this subject, the fallout will include a grounding of the Indian conventional military forces as Russia will retaliate by slowly choking off the spares supply, and begin seriously to explore the sale of sophisticated armaments to Pakistan and, most damagingly for India, possibly consider pulling out of sensitive Indian strategic R&D programmes. And, extremist Islamic groups everywhere will gear up to attack the politically juicy US military targets in India and completely roil the already uncertain conditions of internal security.
To sum up, formally allying with the United States will result in a loss of India’s ‘Russia card’ and its room for diplomatic maneuver and policy freedom, which New Delhi has hitherto prized and jealously guarded. It will gut high-value weapons development projects, militarily strengthen Pakistan, encourage terrorist activity in the country, disturb domestic politics, spawn unmanageable internal security problems, and reduce India to the status of an American camp follower. How does this serve the national interest, especially when China can more effectively be constrained, as repeatedly argued on this blog, by India and the US acting separately but unpredictably to dilute the Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean region and in Southeast Asia?
The Modi regime, however, is entertaining a slightly different agenda of gaining membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to achieve which aim the PM will go, cap in hand, for support among the extant members of NSG as disparate as Switzerland and Mexico (included in this foreign trip). This is a show of unnecessary desperation that will fetch India nothing. Try as Washington might — and there are serious doubts about how much the Barack Obama Administration will put out for India, its NSG admission depends on China’s not objecting to it. Beijing has made it clear that its contrary hyphenation scheme — India gets in only if Pakistan too is admitted, is what it will stick with. The problem for New Delhi is that it wants to rouse the bulk of the NSG states to separate India and Pakistan and contest China’s position when, quite honestly, no one gives a damn whether India gets in or not. So, it will be, as usual, a futile effort with Obama making the usual promises to push India’s case, which means nothing.
This is what comes of nearly five decades of the Indian government raising Pakistan’s status as this country’s primary military threat — when it is nothing of the kind. Except it has helped, and continues to help, US, China, Russia, and any other country which wants to play the game, to place the two South Asian countries on the same scale — an end-state GHQ Rawlpindi cannot but be overjoyed by.