25 May 2024 01:33 AM



India in America's Coils?

NEW DELHI: It is a devastating turn of events – the indication that the Bharatiya Janata Party government will soon sign the three so-called “foundational” accords with the United States that Washington has been fiercely pushing in the past decade.

The Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) is first in line. The other two agreements are the CISMOA (Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geospatial information and data).

LSA, the most significant of these, will permit the military forces of each country to resupply and replenish, and stage operations out of the other’s military air bases, land facilities, and ports. CISMOA will allow integration of the communications networks and systems enabling the two sides, for example, to mount military actions together, assist unit and higher echelon commanders to converse with each other in peacetime and war, using real time communications links, and to share classified data and information. BECA will, in the main, facilitate the exchange of sensitive information picked up by sensors on satellites and other space-based platforms.

There are some tactical military advantages to accepting some of these accords, such as BECA which will, with digitized maps, cue Indian missiles and combat aircraft to target coordinates. But there are many more negative geopolitical and strategic consequences to becoming America’s military ally in all but name. These aspects have not been publicly discussed and the government is getting a free pass to drastically change India’s geostrategics and foreign policy. But first a bit of recent history to contextualize this development.

In India ideology has always been conflated with foreign policy and suggests that elected governments in New Delhi are motivated only minimally by concerns of national interest. Thus, left-of-centre Congress party governments, besides “socialist” policy nostrums and statist solutions for socio-economic ills of the country, have invariably aligned foreign and defence policies with what used to be the Soviet Bloc and, post-Cold War, owing to inertia in official thinking, with Russia.

Likewise, the ideologically right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party when in power talked individual initiative and free enterprise at home and sported a US (and generally, West)-friendly attitude abroad. Even so, different party and coalition regimes never overstepped the bounds of the “consensus” view of not closing in with any great power. Balance of power has always been preferred in the external realm and, whenever possible, India has also acted as balancer in the global system to maintain equilibrium. It made for an accretion in India’s political, diplomatic, and military leverage and heft, and obtained a stable international “correlation of forces” which, because it was prevented from ever tipping over, did not end permanently favour any particular power and skew the game.

This policy stance and world view began wavering in the last decade. The Congress Party government under Manmohan Singh in 2004-2014, instead of gently steering the policy back to mid-channel, as it were, followed up on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government’s NSSP (Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership) initiative, made quite extraordinary concessions to the United States for the civilian nuclear cooperation deal. This deal predicated on New Delhi’s sticking with the so-called “voluntary moratorium” announced by Vajpayee after the 1998 Shakti series of nuclear tests, a decision made with little forethought even less strategic foresight, hobbled not just India’s thermonuclear weapons capability and the indigenous nuclear industry based on reactors run on natural uranium and the abundant locally available thorium to attain energy independence envisaged by the 1955 three-stage Bhabha Plan, but lofted America into the central position in the country’s geopolitics and foreign policy.

As this analyst had predicted, the disastrous nuclear deal led to growing pressures on the Indian government to mesh Indian policy interests with those of Washington and to ground intimate military cooperation and coordination supposedly to address common threats – China and Islamic terrorism, in the foundational agreements. The Barack Obama Administration also cleverly weaved the issue of India’s access to US high-technology and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ rhetoric into the emerging matrix, saying that without these accords the Indian demand for4 high-technology collaboration wouldn’t materialize.

The trouble is these accords will mainly achieve for the US its grand strategic objective of reducing India, in effect, to a client state, like, well, Pakistan! It is a denouement the country had avoided in the Fifties and Sixties when it survived on US aid largesse and “ship to mouth” American PL 480 grain and, more recently, during the otherwise pliant dispensation of Manmohan Singh owing to the stonewalling by the Leftist defence minister, A.K. Antony.

So, what’s the problem? LSA requires portions of the host country’s air and land bases set aside for use by its military units and of ports where its ships will berth, to be literally taken over by American personnel with responsibility for any and all activity in these delineated zones coming under exclusive US authority. Thus, the US exercises near absolute control of parts of the Pakistan Air Force base at Jacobabad.

This arrangement is meant to ensure security of US military assets and secrecy of missions undertaken by them. In essence, the host country loses sovereign control over portions of its own territory. True, with local sensitivities in mind, the LSA with India may be tweaked for dual or joint control with US activity in these areas possibly coming under some sort of attenuated Indian oversight. But it will not dilute the fact that a foreign power will wield authority in India, which last happened when the British colonials lorded over this country.

What India gets in return – the ability of Indian naval ships and submarines to be resupplied in Diego Garcia, say, and for aircraft to refuel there, will doubtless extend India’s maritime density and presence and air surveillance reach. But the garnering of such facilities begs the larger geostrategic question as to why New Delhi has not established naval and air bases in North and South Agalega Islands the Mauritius government long ago offered India, and on the northern Mozambique coast where Maputo has been urging India to emplace its naval units. The Agalega and Mozambiqan bases would make the Indian military independent of any need for a mid-oceanic resupply option provided by Diego Garcia, courtesy the US.

Why be beholden to a foreign power whose interests do not overlap with India’s, when the country can have distant and separate military presence in Mauritius and the East African littoral? Besides, the Indian military oriented to territorial defence, will nowhere utilize the far flung US bases and military resources as much as the more actively deployed US military units in the Indian Ocean and West Asia will use Indian bases. So, on balance which country’s interests does the LSA actually serve?

CISMOA is extraneous to the need for the simple reason that the lack of a shared communications grid has not stopped interoperability from being realized by jerry-built solutions, which have proved adequate. In the annual Malabar naval exercises, for instance, Indian and US ships communicate through the US-supplied Centrix interface plugged into Indian vessels and manned by American seamen to permit ship-to-ship and command communications.

Moreover, some sections of the Indian armed forces have so far resisted the idea of integrating communications system because of the not unreasonable fear it will permit US “penetration” of the Indian military command, control, and communications net to the highest levels, and the insertion of cyber warfare-capable, remotely activated, “bugs” that can extract, store, and transmit classified information, and sabotage it.

BECA will become redundant oncel the entire Indian constellation of some 13 satellites is up which will happen inside of another five years. With the successful launch of the sixth IRNSS satellite the system is more than half way there, and has sub-metre photo imagery capacity and a footprint covering the entire sea and landmass of Asia relevant to India’s security concerns.

There will, however, be a more telling fallout. A miffed Russia, already apprehensive about India’s increasing military closeness to the US and the West, may decide to shrink technology transfer and assistance programmes in the most sensitive and critical strategic armament areas, such as in developing a powerful highly enriched uranium-fueled nuclear power plant to run the second Kochi-built aircraft carrier, the 65,000 ton-class INS Vishal. Really crucial high value technology help is not, under any circumstances, something Washington will render for love or money. A sufficiently riled Moscow could virtually instantly bring the Indian conventional military, strategic forces, DRDO, and defence industry to its knees (and its senses?) by withdrawing its support and collaborative help.

Then there’s the fact that US military presence on Indian soil will attract the attentions of jihadis and Islamist radicals, ranging from the al-Qaeda and Islamic State, to the garden variety terrorist outfits -- Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, and its ilk, and their local offshoots. Because India will be responsible for the overall security of American military materiel and manpower in India, the central, state and local Indian government, police, and intelligence agencies will have their hands full trying to keep Americans and their property safe. And any shortfalls in security leading to successful terrorist attacks on American personnel and assets will blow up in New Delhi’s face.

It is not certain the Modi government has considered any of the politico-military ramifications of signing the three agreements and their social impact, properly assessed the dire internal security risks of terrorists targeting the American presence, nor pondered the political and diplomatic costs and the debilitating effects of India being perceived in the world as an American appendage rather than as a proud and independent country and emerging great power in Asia to rival China.

(The writer is Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and author, most recently, of Why India is Not a Great of Power (Yet).)