by Bharat Karnad
Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar is set to visit the US on Aug 29-Sept 1. News reports suggest he will travel thither expressly to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), a suitably worded derivative of the standard Logistics Support Agreement the US requires all its Treaty allies to sign. Parrikar was never enthusiastic about these “foundational” accords but is reduced to being the Sancho Panza to Modi’s Don Quixote.
The Americans are seeking enabling provisions in this agreement to specifically permit US naval and air elements to stage out of Indian air and naval bases, to repair and service its fighting assets, and to preposition critical, high-consumption, spares in special depots protected by US military personnel, etc. Such provisions are apparently proving the stumbling blocks.
Washington wants desperately to resolve these issues and is deploying the US Navy Secretary Ray Mobus and the US Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James to New Delhi to iron out these wrinkles so there’s a final document for Parrikar and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to sign end-August. To assist in this process is Ashley Tellis, the only non-head of state foreigner who can have an appointment with Modi whenever Tellis desires it, who is now in Delhi. He is “softening up” MOD officials and preparing the ground for mutually acceptable wording that both parties can live with, and Mobus and James can sign off on. The affable Tellis, the arch fixer, is relied on by the US govt to smoothen things whenever it gets rough in New Delhi. With his deep contacts at the highest levels in PMO and MEA and his reach into the Indian military, he is expected to show the way out. Who is to say he won’t succeed? (Of course. Mobus and James will push the F-16 induction in IAF and production, etc., but these are ultimately sidebars for the media to chew on.)
That the Bharatiya Janata Party regime of Narendra Modi is serious about signing the LEMOA despite its potentially very negative strategic impact, indicates the Indian PM has seemingly gone daft, losing what little strategic sense he may have started out with.
The US Story
But why is the US so eager? As pointed out in earlier posts, Washington thinks accessing Indian bases and military facilities are crucial to the US sustaining its operational military presence in the Indian Ocean region. It will allow US combat aircraft and warships embarking from Indian bases to be switched east to the South China Sea area or to the Gulf region in the west to provide overlapping coverage in conjunction with the US 5th Fleet assets based in Bahrain and the new and extensive facility the US is constructing at Duqm on the Omani coast, on the one side, and on the other side, with the US military forces based in Singapore and Darwin in northern Australia.
So, what’s the problem with LEMOA? As one understands it, there are sticking points in the draft-agreement originally produced by the US Department of Defense for the Indian MOD to work on. These have to do with writing the enabling provisions in the agreement permitting Indian military facilities to be used for repairing and servicing fighting assets, and storing spares in US military protected encampments. A possible compromise, considering the politically sensitive nature of some of the enabling provisions — such as the one regarding US military personnel protecting these military stores depots and, hence, breaching Indian sovereignty, is for the formal LEMOA to be filled with ambiguous language, but for there to be an accompanying secret document/memorandum detailing the specific terms and conditions that will legally sanction the uses of Indian territory and Indian military bases/facilities/installations/military infrastructure in the prescribed manner. But howsoever much the LEMOA circumscribes the US military presence, it will still mark India as a secondary power and American camp follower.
Other sovereignty-related issues may arise out of the stationing of US troops and military personnel on Indian soil. Whether stationed here or on R&R (rest and recreation), US soldiers, sailors, and airmen — a usually rambunctious lot — in Indian cities will create awkward social, and law and order problems. US may insist that any arrested US personnel will be handled under US law, what then? The social turmoil that could erupt can only be imagined if the long record of US troops proving a handful for the local police and sourcing social disturbance in night clubs and eateries, by “dating” Indian women, etc. Consider the social wreckage left behind by the US military wherever they have been based post-1945. How about Okinawa, where notwithstanding the US military’s presence there for nearly 80 years, the Japanese have been protesting the routine excesses of US troops?
There’s however a far more significant and deadly set of military and national security problems the Modi govt has obviously not given thought to. Consider this scenario, because Iran is very much the US radar: US bombers and strike aircraft, say, fly out of Indian bases to strike Iran. That would torpedo Indo-Iranian relations, of course, but also expose the Indian base(s) in particular, and India in general to retaliatory attacks, entirely legal under international law. But let’s make the scenario more plausible by assuming USAF aerial tankers take off from India to refuel US bombers coming out of Bahrain, on sortie to strike Iranian targets. This doesn’t in any way lessen India’s complicity in the US strike, or weaken Iran’s legal basis for counter-striking India and Indian military targets. This is precisely the sort of situations that could be created by signing LEMOA or any other “foundational” agreement with America.
Conceived above is a scenario involving a lesser power, Iran. But what will happen if India is in any way involved in US actions against China or Russia or their proxies in Asia? It will be a disaster.
If the MEA and PMO haven’t conceived of these dire, but very real possibilities, have the Indian armed services too been so seduced by Tellis’ pleasing demeanor and so deterred by Modi’s manifest desire to please Washington that they have sworn off their duty to alert the govt to the dangers of the course it is following? The pity is the political opposition is in complete disarray and cannot adequately play the Cassandra and sound the tocsin.
The fact is the Modi govt cannot have a LEMOA that will not violate Indian sovereignty. Where’s the urgent need for it, in any case, unless India’s security needs are conflated with those of America’s. As it is, there’s an arrangement that’s been followed since PM Chandrashekhar’s days in the early 1990s when US aircraft could refuel, etc here in India, with permission being given on a case-by-case basis. What are the arguments for upending it, unless the goal, by whatever means, is to make India a formal US dependency.
Unfortunately, my warnings post-1998 N-tests of the strategic perils of getting too close to the US, will come true. Whatever Modi may say, however he may justify the LEMOA, India is set to lose its sovereign decisionmaking status and strategic independence. Ironically, this is the doing of Modi, a man I had very early extolled as the singular nationalist hope to make India a great power. But Narendra Modi, alas, is in a long line of Indian rulers who, lacking strategic vision and the will not to subordinate India to any country in any way for any reason, will bring India down.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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