Modi’s balance of power test

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Pravin Sawhney
The signing of a military pact with the US is only the latest in a series of steps that India is taking to emerge as the major security provider in the Indo-Pacific. While this is an admirable goal, New Delhi must take care to build a win-win matrix that includes Russia and China
The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) recently signed between India and the United States has been downplayed by Delhi and Washington, DC. China, through its mouth piece Global Times newspaper has expressed concerns on the bilateral agreement, while Pakistan has said it would affect strategic stability in South Asia.
Though seemingly innocuous, LEMOA is serious business for what it portends in terms of strategic ties between India and the US and the geopolitics of Asia. By definition, LEMOA is about India and the US allowing military logistics permission on a case-by-case basis to each other to facilitate joint exercises, humanitarian assistance and many other relief operations.
While basing rights or US warships anchored on Indian Naval bases or US combat aircraft parked at Indian air force stations is not allowed under LEMOA, it is a definitive step towards interoperability or the ability of the two militaries (especially navies and air forces) to conduct joint patrolling at sea and joint air combat training. Interoperability requires the two militaries to understand each other’s war doctrines, operational intricacies through (preferably) common equipment and combat training. In other words, without being a US ally or a NATO member, India and the US militaries would have ability to fight together, when required.
How soon India and the US would be able to start joint patrols would depend on how soon India is willing to sign the two remaining US foundation agreement: Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA). With these agreements, the decks would be cleared for the two militaries to share classified communications necessary for joint operations with one another. Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar has said that the signing of the two hold-out agreements by India would happen after a public debate, whatever that means.
To recall, US Pacific commander, Admiral Harry Harris, who is responsible for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region and hence is the key player responsible for the US military pivot to Asia (against China), had in March 2016 while addressing the Raisina Dialogue (supported by the Ministry of External Affairs) in New Delhi said that he looked forward to joint patrols by the US and Indian Navies. In a one-on-one conversation two years earlier, the Admiral had told me that he considered India ‘as the pivot in the Indian Ocean region’.
What would be the purpose of joint patrols? This was spelt out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the US Congress in June. “A strong India-US partnership can anchor peace, prosperity and stability from Asia to Africa and from Indian Ocean to the Pacific.” Since the only country with the capability, capacity and will to challenge the existing security architecture in Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region is China, it is Beijing and its close ally, Pakistan which would be affected by these developments.
Thus, in the foreseeable future, depending on the next US President and the Modi Government securing a second term in office, India would become the main security provider (with fulsome US political and military support) in the Indian Ocean region to uphold the existing security architecture. This would be at odds with China’s ambitious Maritime Silk Road (where Pakistan is the closest ally) which follows the same path as the existing sea lanes of communications in the Indian Ocean that India hopes to guard. In other words, a direct clash between China’s One Belt and One Road project for global dominance with India’s Act East and Think West policy.
India has also committed to a political and military role in the western Pacific (impinging on China’s major concern in the South China Sea). This is evident from Modi’s recent Vietnam visit on his way to attend the G20 summit in China. India has given $500 million defense credit line to Vietnam and elevated the bilateral relationship to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with emphasis on defense ties. Thus, Modi’s India has challenged China in its own backyard.
This is not all. The US has conferred a new title of ‘major defense partner’ on India in June. What this means is that simultaneously as India signs the remaining foundation agreements and the two militaries move towards interoperability through joint patrols, Washington will share its sensitive technologies with enhanced defense sales to India to achieve commonalty of equipment for interoperability.
Given the two unprecedented advantages of acquiring US high-end technologies and US military support for the strategic role, India will finally realise what the US had promised. In March 2005, on her first visit to India as the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice had, to India’s utter disbelief, declared that the US would help India become a major power.
There are, however, three problems in the Modi Government’s strategic matrix to become a major power. One, India began its quest for high-end technology from the US in 1985. Three decades later, it has gained little and perhaps lost a lot. While the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (another India-specific agreement), started in January 2004 between India and the US, showed some promise for India, its follow-on, the July 2005 India-US framework agreement did not help India much. Focused on non-proliferation, the latter between July 2005 and the signing of the October 2008 civil nuclear deal helped the US strategic goal of keeping India’s nuclear arsenal in check. The promised high-end technology did not come to India because truth be told, the US would not share its knowhow even with its closest allies.
By placing renewed hope in the 2012 Defense Technology and Trade Initiative which has culminated in the major defense partner title, India will lose more than meets the eye today. Russia, India’s traditional strategic partner and perhaps the sole nation willing to share its technologies will reassess its relations with Delhi.
Two, India does not have the military capability and capacity to defend its disputed northern borders with China and Pakistan. This is evident from Pakistan’s unending proxy war and China’s regular border transgressions. Indian assumption that its close ties with the US puts pressure on China to adopt conciliatory posture towards India is no longer valid. In 2005, when India signed the framework agreement with the US, China had agreed to ‘political parameters and guiding principles’ for border resolution framework with India. Today, an assertive China determined to replace the US as the foremost power in Asia will do just the opposite. It will increase military pressure through Pakistan on the disputed borders where India would have to fend for itself.
And three, the US will never mar its relations with Pakistan. Today, ironically the US needs Pakistan much more than the other way round. Washington is petrified by Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling in the hands ofjihadis or it trading them clandestinely to raise funds. Moreover, Pakistan has emerged as a major geopolitical pivot being wooed by three major powers -the US, China and Russia – for stability in the Muslim world (including Afghanistan and the Middle East). Given this, the Modi Government should consider having advisors who can suggest a win-win matrix with Russia, China and the US.

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