Commentary / World

Indian-U.S. defense ties grow with eye on China

by Harsh V. Pant

Finally, after years of dilly-dallying, India and the United States have managed to sign the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which will facilitate the provision of logistical support, supplies and services between the U.S. and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis, and provides a framework to govern them.

The two countries agreed “in principle” on such an agreement during U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s visit to Delhi last April, while Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to the U.S. last week has resulted in the final pact. It is expected to help the two militaries coordinate better, including in exercises, and also allow the U.S. to more easily sell fuel or provide spare parts to the Indians.

The pact will emphasize strengthening defense ties across many areas, from strategic and regional cooperation and deepened military-to-military exchanges to expanded collaboration on defense technology and innovation. And with this, U.S. India defense ties have taken a major step toward consolidation.

These are good times for U.S.-India defense ties. Carter himself has had a long-standing interest in India and in strengthening closer Indo-U.S. ties. He was a strong supporter of the U.S.-India nuclear deal and as deputy secretary of defense in 2011 he was the principal architect of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) to help the flow of advanced American technology to India, a key Indian priority strongly resisted by Washington’s defense bureaucracy.

He has taken this forward with the setting up of the India Rapid Reaction Cell (IRRC), the only country-specific cell in the U.S. Department of Defense, as part of the DTII to fast-track India-related acquisition issues.

Carter has emphasized the Pentagon’s “decision to change its mindset regarding technology transfer to India from a culture of ‘presumptive no’ to one of ‘presumptive yes’ ” in the context of America’s changing strategic priorities in the Indo-Pacific region. And as he has suggested, he has spent more time with Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar in little over a year than any of his other foreign counterparts, a relationship he attributed to “the new bonhomie” in India-U.S. ties.

Many in India worry that the U.S. wants to make India a junior partner in its regional alliance network, though Washington has been categorical that the logistics agreement does not allow for the basing of U.S. troops in India. Rather, it covers logistic and humanitarian assistance for each other that is required for joint operation.

Carter himself has been explicit that India is not likely to be an exclusive partner of the U.S., as he suggested that “Indians are, like many others, also proud. So they want to do things independently, and they want to do things their own way. They don’t want to do things just with us. They want to do things with all that’s fine. So we’re not looking for anything exclusive. But we are looking for as close a relationship and a stronger relationship as we can because it’s geopolitically grounded.”

This geopolitical grounding is provided by the rise of China and all that means for Indian strategic interests. China has shown no signs that it is willing to change or even moderate its anti-India posture and has in fact taken an overtly antagonistic posture vis-a-vis India.

To counter the China challenge, the U.S. wants to forge a “network” of countries with “shared values, habits of cooperation, and compatible and complementary capabilities” that will expand the strategic reach of the participating countries, enable them to pool their resources to share the security burden and thereby “help ensure the peace and stability in the region for years to come.”

New Delhi need not become part of this network, but it must articulate the need for a new security architecture in Asia that can successfully take on the challenge posed by a rising and aggressive China.

During Parrikar’s visit to Washington, he and his American counterpart mentioned the importance of the free flow of trade to both countries, underscoring their “shared interest in freedom of navigation and overflight and unimpeded commerce as part of rule-based order in (the) Indo-Pacific” region. Delhi and Washington are now focusing on maritime security, and another round of maritime dialogue has been scheduled to follow the first meeting that was held in May.

India and the U.S. have been striving to conclude a series of “foundational agreements” for years now. Under the United Progressive Alliance, even the least controversial pact, the logistics agreement, could not move forward as then-Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, under the influence of the Left parties, became convinced that America had malignant motives in pushing it through.

Now that the LEOMA has been finalized, the two nations can finally move forward with some confidence about the future of their defense ties. India is in the big leagues today and so should start thinking big. The old third world rhetoric doesn’t do justice to Indian global aspirations.

The defense agreement between the U.S. and India would help both countries in governing the use of each other’s land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply, an important step toward building defense ties as they seek to counter the growing maritime assertiveness of China.

The Modi government is gradually shedding Indian strategic diffidence and has rightly concluded that strong defense ties with the U.S. enhance Indian strategic autonomy rather than constrain it.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London.