India and US become logistical allies

M.K. Bhadrakumar August 29, 2016 6:20 AM (UTC+8)
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This week marks a historic milestone in independent India’s diplomatic history. The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was signed in Washington on August 29.

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The LEMOA provides for the armed forces of the two countries to use the other globally for supplies, spare parts, services and refueling. Effectively, the US armed forces could operate out of Indian bases on a simple basis.

India has never allowed foreign powers to operate out of its military bases. It rejected ‘bloc’ mentality and treasured ‘strategic autonomy’.

Notionally, LEMOA allows India also to operate out of American bases ‘globally’, but in reality, though, projection of power in such proportions lies in the womb of time, if at all, for the Indian Navy, which can barely cope with the country’s 7,500-kilometer coastline.

It is useful for US to gain access to the tremendous Indian bases without having to build facilities virtually up from the ground. The ‘pivot’ to Asia and the plans to deploy 60% of its surface ships in the Asia-Pacific, arguably, makes LEMOA a useful platform.

However, US may not really need to operate out of Indian bases. For projection of power into Pakistan, Central Asia, Xinjiang or Iran, American bases in Afghanistan serve the purpose. Besides, US military bases are littered all over Persian Gulf, which are home, collectively, to hundreds of fighter and other aircraft, dozens of naval ships, including aircraft carriers, and tens of thousands of military personnel.

The US keeps a base in Djibouti, too. Then, there is the secretive base at Diego Garcia, which enables the US to keep a close watch on the major trade and energy SLOCs from and to China, and is used to keep watch over South Asia. In the Asia-Pacific also, there are dozens of US military bases – Singapore, Philippines, Australia, South Korea and Japan.

So, what is the raison d’etre of LEMOA? Why is it that Washington pulled all stops to get the Narendra Modi government India to the signing ceremony? First and foremost, LEMOA is a ‘foundational agreement’.

It means US is putting one toe inside the Indian tent. Once inside the tent, life can always be made more comfortable. This is one thing.

Second, LEMOA is a key way-station on agreements still to come – Communications and Information Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence (BECA).

Simply put, US and India are navigating their journey through the LEMOA to the ultimate destination – CISMOA and BECA.

Once they reach the destination, India can either buy or use cutting-edge American military technology for its air force and navy – and the US can sell such technology to India.

Indeed, India is one of the world’s biggest buyers of advanced weaponry – perhaps, the biggest – and the US is the world’s number one vendor of weapons. It is a match made in heavens.

There are several other deals and policies backing up the LEMOA – US legislating on India being a Major Defense Partner, US helping India to get on board the Missile Technology Control Regime, etc. – all of which ultimately facilitates the trade in top US military technology.

India gets top-of-the-line military technology, while US contractors get a much better launching pad to secure highly lucrative multi-billion dollar contracts in India.Lockheed Martin Corp.’s offer to shift all of its F-16 manufacturing to India is a case in point.

Lockheed will be killing three birds with a single shot. One, its offer of co-production becomes a key selling point in the company’s current lobbying to win an India order that may exceed 100 fighter jets; two, it suits Lockheed to vacate F-16 production (with the advent of stealth F-35 warplane); and, three, co-production is a game changer for US-India defense ties.

However, the bottom line concerns the geopolitics of LEMOA. This needs some explaining. Ever since the Bill Clinton Administration shed in the mid-nineties the Cold-War era prejudices vis-à-vis India, Washington has been nudging New Delhi to jettison its non-aligned policies and harmonize with US’ global strategies.

Through the past quarter century, the US assembled a local Indian brigade of foot soldiers to incessantly keep fighting to create an opinion favoring the US-India strategic alliance. India’s so-called think tankers and media persons who take American tutelage played a big part.

On the other hand, the Left has greatly shrunk as a political force in India and more recently, the systematic vilification campaign has been let loose on former Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and everything he stood for in India’s foreign policy – especially, his doctrine of non-alignment.

The stunning paradox is that even influential voices within the Hindu nationalist camp, who domestically espouse the ideology of Akhant Bharat (‘Fortress India’), appear to have succumbed to the charms of the lone superpower.

Suffice it to say, Narendra Modi government is all set to take the leap of faith. Despite the backdrop of New Cold War, India is shifting away from Russia, its Cold War ally, toward the new alliance with the US.

Unsurprisingly, the US is being pragmatic, pandering to the vanities and phobias of the present-day ruling elites – ‘catching-up’ with India as a military power, undoing the Partition of 1947 leading to the creation of Pakistan, etc.

To be sure, Uncle Sam is fixated on promoting highly lucrative arms exports to the Indian bazaar, which is reportedly worth $150 billion in a near term alone. But then, US cannot be unaware that India is also a bundle of contradictions: at one end, Modi government is eager to inherit the Lockheed’s phased-out production line for F-16, while at the other end, India can qualify as a failing state.

The ‘catching-up’ with China will in all probability turn out to be a pipe-dream. But the damage will be done during the reign of the starry-eyes Hindu nationalists. The specter of a US-Indian alliance is goading China and Pakistan to transform their ‘all-weather friendship’ into a regional alliance.

Clearly, if the new US-Indian proximity in the mid-nineties was principally about the economic transformation of India with American help, the locus has dramatically shifted.

The US is unable to help India with its development agenda. Anywhere around 600-700 million Indians live without a hope on earth. New Delhi is left with no alternative today but to try to undermine China’s $46 billion investment projects in Pakistan as the only way to prevent that country galloping away, shaming India’s economy.

The Modi government is determined to ‘normalize’ with China and/or Pakistan only from a position of strength. It estimates that the LEMOA opens the door to India’s emergence as a military superpower, riding on the wings of advanced American technology. But this delusionary thinking may only fuel regional tensions.

If there is anything Turkey epitomises today, it is the dangerous game US played by encouraging the ascendancy of political Islam in that country in the post-cold war era with a view to subsume the secular nationalism that ‘Kemalism’ represented. Once the genie of religious nationalism gets out of the bottle – Islamist or Hindu alike – all the Joe Bidens of the world still cannot get control of it again.

Ironically, Turkey not only has a 20-year old production plant near Ankara for F-16 jets, but it also set up two years ago an engine factory in Izmir to produce engine parts for US fighter jet F-35, the world’s most advanced aircraft.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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