20 April 2024 08:35 AM



Here’s How India Is Consolidating its Security Dependence on the US

2+2 Talks

A nation can lose its sovereignty, defined as the ability independently to make decisions in its own interest, in a rush or incrementally.

The signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement with the United States this past week is the latest such increment in a series that began with the Jaswant Singh–Strobe Talbott “strategic dialogue” and Next Steps in Strategic Partnership under the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee which prevented India from developing a genuine 12,000-mile range intercontinental ballistic missile, and the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal negotiated by the Congress party regime of Manmohan Singh which with a “voluntary test moratorium” as the basic predicate, capped the Indian nuclear weapons capability at the boosted-fission level and well short of the tested and proven high-yield two-stage thermonuclear armament – the ultimate adjudicator of differences between countries.

The BJP government of Narendra Modi too has done its bit in eroding India’s sovereignty by signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in 2016 that will permit America to stage military operations from Indian air, naval, and army bases in the Indian Ocean region, and by following up last week in the ‘2+2 Talks’ with the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) – which will leave no part of the country’s most secret communications grid within the government and the military unexposed to US control.

The 2+2 Meet involved the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries – Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman clearly overmatched by Mike Pompeo and General James Mattis.

Thus, in a span of 18 years India has lost its sovereign policy space, wrecked its pretence of strategic autonomy, and consolidated its growing status as a comprehensive security dependency of America. Hardly to be wondered then that India has garnered the status of a treaty ally of the US in Asia akin to Japan, South Korea and Philippines. Ironically, it is at a time when European states, fed up with the record of American unreliability and arm-twisting, are planning a NATO of their own minus the United States. That the so-called “nationalist” BJP and the more “internationalist” opposition Congress party are equally responsible for bringing this country to this pass, tells its own sad story.

Why is COMCASA significant?

It will allow the US to comprehensively penetrate the secure Indian communications network, including all command and control links not excluding the Strategic Forces Command (SFC).

It means that with the US listening in on the most secret communications traffic within the government and between the Indian government and other governments, it can take measures to preempt decisions and shape policies to ensure Delhi doesn’t depart from the US line.

It will also be in a position to hinder military communications between senior field commanders and frontline units, between theatre commands and Services Headquarters and the Indian government, and between the prime minister and the SFC in a nuclear crisis and, potentially, to override the authority to fire nuclear weapons.

This potentially fatal vulnerability was the reason the Indian military initially opposed COMCASA. But when have the armed services really mattered, or even really been in the national security decision loop?

Washington has always banked on the malleability of the Indian government and its functionaries, to get its way. This owes not little to the ecosystem in place in Delhi to promote and increase the US tilt in India’s stance, led by the Indian chapters of Washington think tanks peopled by senior Indian diplomats and the like – Brookings and Carnegie – funded, incidentally, by Indian corporates.

The ecosystem, more tellingly, works because of serving senior Indian civil servants and military officers suborned, in the main, by offers of “green cards”, work visas, and “scholarships” for their progeny. It constitutes the new set of inducements to sell the national interest down the drain; secret offshore bank accounts are passé. (The entire ecosystem is detailed in a section in my new book that’s just out — Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition.)

The provisions in COMCASA prohibiting Washington from doing any of the bad things, including the sharing of information and data with adversary states, are but paper assurances reflecting the credulity of the prime minister and the Ministry of External Affairs.

In reality, there is absolutely no enforceable guarantee that Washington won’t violate these provisions. Worse, with the P-8Is, and antique platforms like F-16s and the Sea Guardian drone that Delhi is being pressed to buy, fitted with communications gear linked to a “blinking” US Global Positioning System and, more generally, to all platforms and guided ordnance in Indian employ, the entire Indian arsenal will be exposed to technical misdirection.

The second test of the Agni missile in the 1990s had to be aborted, for instance, because the US GPS it was plugged into blinked. India cannot prevent such mischief because it lacks the technical means to monitor and shut down COMCASA misuse.

For giving up so much, what has India got in return? It has lost its policy latitude and freedom. The waiver from sanctions for the Indian buy of the Russian S-400 air defence system under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act as Washington has made clear is only a one-off thing, not a blanket waiver. In other words, CAATSA sanctions are, in effect, a cocked pistol held to India’s head.

It is a sign of things to come that the day this accord was signed Trump threatened India with the denial of trade concessions, and the departing Pompeo advised Delhi to meet the November 3 deadline for the cutoff of Iranian oil flow to India, lest CAATSA sanctions are activated.

India would have been strategically empowered had a deal been negotiated to string the US along by approving contingent hookups by Indian forces utilising the jerry-rigged system, facilitating short-term interoperability of the kind that enabled the Malabar naval exercises, and case-by-case access to Indian military facilities, to match the CAATSA waiver mode. This way India would have furthered the principle of strict reciprocity and retained its own counter-leverage and leeway, as well as high-level cooperation with Russia and Iran.

With a fairly integrated Indian military communications network, however, Moscow will be fearful of the US’ reach into America-sourced aircraft compromising Russian-supplied Su-30MKI fighter planes in the Indian Air Force, and especially the Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarine with the Indian Navy. Small wonder that talks for leasing the second Akula are stuck.

Does Modi expect the US to make up for this critical capability void?

Remember, US companies are not willing to part with the upgraded avionics technology of even the 50-year-old F-16 fighter plane! And, even more, how does Delhi propose to manage the evolving Russia-China-Pakistan concert that Moscow has begun giving substance to with the first batch of Pakistan military officers heading for stints at the higher military training institutions in Russia, when it has failed miserably to handle the lesser Pakistan-China nexus?

The trouble is Modi’s tilt is less strategic than aspirational. His apparently unconditional love and admiration for America and a subaltern's way of thinking have together imposed a low ceiling on India’s ambition. This explains why he has tolerated personal slights, from denial of a US visa when he was Gujarat chief minister to, as The New York Times reported on September 2, President Donald Trump making fun of him by frequently mimicking his accent in internal White House discussions.

That Modi is willing to swallow such insults is his business. Preventing the erosion of India’s sovereignty, national interest and security are the Indian people’s concerns.

(Cover Photograph: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Defence Secretary James Mattis with PM Narendra Modi.)