After years of rejecting to be part of the US camp, India appears to be more than willing to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). All these years even after signing the civilian nuclear deal, India was wary of the idea of a logistical support agreement. For the US, getting India this close to signing is a coup as the latter is not only the most populous democracy in the world, but also one of the most aggressive military arms buyers. But this agreement doesn't give India access to some exclusive club as the US has many more such relationships globally.
Strengthening the partnership
The in-principle agreement over LEMOA between India's defence minister Manohar Parrikar and US secretary of defense Ashton Carter has been showcased as the next logical step in a strategic partnership. However, the concerns that LEMOA might end up jeopardizing the independence of India's defence establishment and drag the country into US wars cannot be wished away right now. Many of these apprehensions might be addressed once the wording of the agreement is made public.
The contours of LEMOA are shaped by immediate and long-term goals. There has been a tectonic shift in geopolitics since the Cold War days and India's responses to global events as well as her strategic and commercial partnerships have evolved accordingly. Jawaharlal Nehru's Non Aligned Movement is now a vague memory. Though Russia continues to be a trusted ally, the bonhomie of the earlier days has been tempered with pragmatism.
The arguments supporting LEMOA have been framed keeping India's geographical location in mind. She has to contend with two hostile neighbours — Pakistan and China — who have gravitated towards each other in the last few years. Pakistan also has the additional backing of the United States. With China, India's relationship is more layered compared to New Delhi's dynamics with Islamabad. India's trade and commercial interests with Beijing have deepened despite the border disputes and the latter's proximity with Islamabad.
But India has grown increasingly suspicious of China warming up to Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The US has long felt the need for a tie-up with India to stymie Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea (a strategic waterway dotted with tiny islands). China is virtually ruling these waters and this has unnerved the relatively smaller countries like Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. In the complex and dynamic world of geopolitics, relationships are forged on the basis of political, military and commercial imperatives. India, lacking in maritime strength, alone cannot handle China in these waters. Hence, the need for a warm handshake with the US.
Carter's brief is to firm up the recent signposts in US-India strategic cooperation — the Joint Strategic Vision Statement released by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi last January, and the 2015 Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship, which Parrikar and Carter inked in New Delhi last year. The recent push for Make-in-India initiative in the defence sector aside, India is a lucrative client for the US when it comes to defence purchases. It was the second biggest buyer of US arms, next only to Saudi Arabia, in 2015, and is willing to shell out a whopping US$120 billion in the coming years.
However, the critics of LEMOA feel that NDA has thrown caution to the wind by dispensing with the earlier reservation of the UPA government regarding a similar logistic exchange initiative proposed in 2003. LEMOA would now open the doors of India's military bases to American aircraft and warships for logistical purposes, including refuelling and repair. India too will enjoy similar access to US bases.
The US, with over 686 international base sites and a strong military presence covering almost 60% of the globe, sure knows how to manage its strategic assets and military secrets. The US Department of Defense manages a worldwide real property portfolio that spans all 50 states, seven US territories with outlying areas, and 42 foreign countries. The majority of the foreign sites are located in Germany (181 sites), Japan (122 sites), and South Korea (83 sites). Other important bases have been set up in Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Peru, Portugal, Singapore and Romania (Source: Department of Defense: Base Structure Report --- Fiscal Year 2015 Baseline).
India is a greenhorn in this regard, which means that it can be taken for a ride. For all its joint military exercises with the US, it is still farthest from calling the shots in this partnership of unequals. It is one thing to engage on social, economic, technological and cultural fronts, and quite another to enter into a deep strategic and military partnership. Lest we forget, India's civil nuclear deal was vehemently opposed by the same BJP that is now quite keen on a serious affair with the US. But all this could be mere paranoia, originating from India's long-standing distrust of the US, an emotional baggage from the Cold War era.
The bottom line is India must protect its interests when it comes to LEMOA and the other two foundational agreements --- Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The Pentagon might downplay these agreements as routine affairs, but India must exercise caution at every step. It may also be part of the strategy for India to make the US address its key grievance over American military funding and defence transfers to Pakistan.
One reassuring bit in this entire affair is Parrikar's refusal to take part in joint patrol of the seas with the US. That would have amounted to throwing down the gauntlet to China. In view of recent events, tension is mounting in South China Sea. The US has carried out joint patrols with the Philippines in the disputed territory. It will also send troops and combat aircraft to the Philippines to boost American military presence in the region. This is a deliberate act of defiance on the part of the US, which will most certainly provoke China to up the ante in the high stakes game of brinkmanship. Beijing will not relinquish its claims over the islands it has built in the South China Sea; neither will it cower before American military strength and desist from setting up a strategic base at Scarborough Shoal, which is pretty close to the Philippines.
Time to strategise
The next few weeks will give India time to reflect upon its actions as it closely monitors the developments in South China Sea. But for now this in-principle agreement is going to give sleepless nights to many international strategists who had written off the possibility of the signing of the logistics-exchange agreement between India and the US.