By Bharat Karnad
As anticipated some weeks back (“India in America’s coils”), the Modi government seems bent on having the three foundational agreements — logistics support agreement (LSA), Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) in some form for signing when US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is here. We are told that MEA and MOD negotiators have been hard at work with their American counterparts to obtain draft accords tailored to specific Indian needs that also serve US purposes. There are fundamental problems even with the India-specific content of these agreements.
Consider LSA: For many years now, Indian and the US warships at sea have had a “barter” arrangement in place whereby an Indian ship with fuel excess to its mission needs transfers a fuel quantum to a US warship on the basis that a passing American warship can be tapped mid-ocean by an Indian ship at low tank for the exact quantum of fuel. So there’s some kind of a running account between the two navies. There is no exchange of monies — because the different accounting systems make for a mess, making reimbursement in value, rather than in kind, difficult. This was an expedient stop-gap arrangement arrived at by the two navies over the course of the Malabar and other naval exercises, joint piracy patrols, etc. This working scheme is operational. Other consumables — food items, potable water, servicing tools, naval maintenance kits, etc. can likewise be accommodated by simply enlarging the barter arrangement that has so far worked well.
Why does India need a formal LSA for these things, especially on a “reimbursable” basis? If this lasts, whether any one in the Indian govt concedes it or not, it will result in two things: (1) Place India in a position similar to Pakistan vis a vis US ISAF presence and military operations in Afghanistan, and (2) make reimbursements for materials off taken by US forces in the region from Indian military stores subject to financial subventions from Washington. This will bring India under Congressional scrutiny which, in turn, will create its own difficulties. New Delhi, in effect, will have to account for the quality of every item or service rendered, and be compelled to respond on pain of non-payment. This is the punishing procedure all US’ formal allies undergo. Does it help the country’s cause even a little for India to be thus ensnared by the United States? And if high-technology is the big deciding issue: Is the US willing to TOT the EMALS (electromagnetic aircraft launch system) for the two Indian-built carriers, following Vikrant? Of course, not. But the Americans will happily part with technologies considered advanced in the 1970s — F-18 Super Hornet! Boy, are we dumb. Even Pakistan has not proved itself so naïve and gullible and is keeping its arms supply lines to China open.
Why is the Modi govt so enamoured of US-sourced military technology when Russian top end hardware available to the Indian armed forces is tech-wise, generationally superior?
In a discussion on this topic, a former naval chief had no answer to the kind of objections I have raised above, or why the Navy in particular would rather rely on US warships or the base at Diego Garcia for mid-oceanic resupply and replenishment than speedily invest in and build-up the naval and air bases on North and South Agalega Islands offered by Mauritius, or on shore in a base in northern Mozambique offered by that country.
CISMOA: news reports portray Indian negotiators being satisfied with something called the “pre-bid guarantee” in case India chooses to manufacture an US armament system here — a combat aircraft, for instance. This “pre-bid guarantee: is supposed to require the US govt to guarantee the full transfer of technology. One can foresee how this will pan out. Such a guarantee is given but the supplier companies keep to the old way of doing things with India, namely, merely exporting first SKD kits, followed years later, by CKD kits while claiming there is full TOT. If questioned, they’ll point out that it is not their responsibility to ensure Indian firms, DPSUs, ingest and innovate the technologies passed on to them — which will be an irrefutable case. And hand over the full tranche of contracted funds, please! This guarantee, in the Indian context, is worth nothing.
The more significant issue is why the Modi PMO is going down this route. And shouldn’t it have been advised better, asked to temper their enthusiasm, not go full out, without being aware of booby traps down the supposed primrose path? The trouble is those in MEA advising the PM have long since jumped on to the American bandwagon. Foreign Secretary S, Jaishankar — his father K Subrahmanyam’s son alright — is in the van on these accords. Recall it was Subrahmanyam during the previous BJP govt’s tenure who persistently advocated buying peace with the US — sign the CTBT he said in 1996 along with his acolytes, such as Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, and for making the sorts of concessions his son first negotiated (as Joint Secretary, Americas) in the 2008 nuclear deal with the Congress party apparatchik Manmohan Singh as PM, and now as head of the foreign service, is configuring these foundational ags for an ideologically different, supposedly “nationalist”, BJP regime.
If China is the major worry and military cooperation with the US is deemed necessary, India can maximize collaborative activity and have similar outcomes by other solutions than committing to agreements that only bona-fide allies of the US have so far accepted. Close embrace with any big power is always to the lesser state’s detriment.
For India that sees itself as a great power in the process of being, it is all the more necessary to keep its distance but work with all powers, especially Russia and the regional states, such as Japan, and on the extended Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian littoral to more effectively stymie Beijing.
But this is obviously not the sort of counsel Modi hears, indicating the lack of professionalism in MEA and at the centre of foreign policymaking in New Delhi. Neither Modi — a politician, nor NSA, Ajit Doval, an ex-policeman, can be expected to know the complexities of friendship with the US formalized in treaty-like agreements. But MEA staffers are expected to do so. That they are failing in their duty to warn the PMO of pitfalls ahead, is what’s worrisome. By the time India begins to pay the full price of such accords pushed on the run, the present dramatis personae will have vacated the scene, and no one will be held accountable for the loss of India’s freedom of policy maneuver, its basic autonomy, and worse.
All we will be left with is the chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ and most recently, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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