India’s transactional relationship with US arms vendors serves its purpose

India’s non-aligned policies are facing a crucial test during the visit by the US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter to New Delhi next week.

Washington is pulling all stops to get New Delhi to agree to the three pending “foundational agreements” during Ahton Carter's India visit

US is pulling all stops to get India agree to the three pending “foundational agreements” during Ahton Carter’s New Delhi visit next week

Carter said in Washington earlier this week, “What we are looking for is a closer relationship and a stronger relationship… because it is geo-politically grounded… One is we have the rebalance so to speak, westward from the United States. They have Act East, which is their strategic approach eastward.”

“Second, our defense technology and trade initiative, which is an effort to work with India. They want to be a co-developer and co-producer … And so, we are very much aligned in terms of what the government there is trying to do strategically and economically and what we want to do with them defense-wise. When I go over there (India), we got a whole bunch of things that we will be announcing at that time. And I want to announce beforehand, but better, new milestones in this relationship.”

Washington is pulling all stops to get New Delhi to agree to the three pending “foundational agreements” that would align India as the US’ key non-NATO ally, alongside Japan and Australia, in the Asia-Pacific.

The “foundational agreements” in question are three: Logistic Supply Agreement (LSA), Communication and Information Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). The US lobbyists blithely project them as a “modest” endeavor that is “largely technical and operational in nature” and would facilitate “information sharing and the provision of supplies” between the two militaries.

Under the LSA, the two sides can access supplies, spare parts and services from each other’s land facilities, air bases, and ports. The CISMOA would allow the US to provide India with its encrypted communications equipment and systems so that Indian and US higher commanders, aircraft and ships communicate with each other through America’s “secure networks”. The BECA would provide India with topographical and aeronautical data and products which could aid navigation and targeting.

However, the tenacity with which Washington pushed the envelope through a decade of Indian resistance to signing the “foundational agreements” gives the story away. The point is, the agreements are prima facie reciprocal, but one must be a nitwit or completely lacking in intellectual honesty to fail to comprehend that while the US as a global power stands to gain substantially out of signing these agreements, India’s need for them is dubious.

From the US perspective, the rebalance strategy in Asia may get a boost if India bandwagons. However, for India, it means jettisoning its “strategic autonomy” and the traditional aversion to military alliances.

India is barely coping with its own defense needs and it is far from being a provider of security for the region (or for other regions). Nor is India interested in undertaking ‘out-of-area’ operations, which are simply beyond Indian capabilities or needs.

The US is hustling India to undertake ‘joint patrol’ with it in the South China Sea and the US lobbyists keep taunting India that it should not be lacking in “self-confidence” to align with the US to contain China.

India’s defense needs have no hidden agenda. While India strives to create a defense industry, as China or Pakistan would be doing, it needs to source sophisticated weaponry from abroad to meet its defense preparedness.

However, there is no conceivable reason to transform these transactional relationships as military alliances or to give them ideological underpinning. India has been remarkably successful in tapping diverse sources – Russia, France, Britain, Israel and the US. Globalization and India’s “strategic autonomy” provide it with the requisite space to cherry pick.

Of course, India prefers partners who are willing to settle for co-production and joint designing and development of weapons under the rubric “Make in India”. But that is another story.

The big question is, whether the current pattern of transactional relationships jeopardize India’s defense preparedness. The short answer is ‘No’. Access to cutting-edge technology – be it Russia’s S-400 missile defense system or nuclear submarines or stealth fighter or Israel’s drones and missiles – is no problem for India.

Arguably, India is an attractive customer in the arms bazaar because it is a serious buyer and there is no conflict of interests. So, where is the problem? Put differently, what is it that the US hopes to achieve by overcoming India’s resistance to becoming its military ally, which is what Carter’s suggestion about dovetailing the US’ rebalance in Asia with India’s so-called “Act East” policy is all about?

The ready answer is that the US hopes to incrementally place itself as the sole or at least the pre-eminent supplier of weapons to the Indian armed forces. This is the pattern of the US’ relationships in the NATO system – making the weapon systems “interoperable” so that the allies are bound tight militarily and politically to Washington’s global strategies.

An added US objective would be to roll back Russia’s lead role as India’s arms supplier. Arms exports are a major source of income for Russia and an innovative Russian arms industry flushed with funds for R&D is already threatening the US’ superiority in conventional weapons and impacting the global strategic balance.

But India is not a stakeholder in the US’ new Cold war with Russia. A quasi-alliance with the US may damage India’s time-tested relationship with Russia. Again, while China can live with a robust India-US relationship, it is a different ball game if Indian policies shift in favour of forming a military alliance with the US or if New Delhi identifies with the US’ rebalance in Asia.

From the Indian perspective, it is inconceivable that the US will ever get involved in the event of a war between India its regional adversaries. The US’ stance on the India-China border dispute or the Kashmir problem has remained ambivalent, and Washington prioritizes stable and predictable relationships with both China and Pakistan.

India has no reason to provoke China and force it into an adversarial mindset when Beijing is not looking for such a relationship. India’s interest lies not in confronting China, but in negotiating a new type of relationship based on equality and mutual interests that allows the two big Asian powers to peacefully co-exist and focus on development.

Equally, India prefers to address its “Pakistan problem” on its own terms. In fact, a reset in the India-Iran relationship, which is imminent, will only isolate Pakistan further in the region and put pressure on it to rethink its sponsorship of cross-border terrorism.

Simply put, Washington would have the ingenuity to figure out how to sell weapons to India even without a quasi-alliance. India was the second biggest buyer of US weapons behind Saudi Arabia in 2015. According to SIPRI, India was the world’s biggest arms buyer through the past 5-year period. India is expected to spend $120 billion in the coming decade to buy weapons.

Make no mistake, US arms vendors will not want to disembark from the gravy train all because New Delhi refuses to sign up as quasi-ally. The bottom line is that the market prevails: Indians pay well if the product is interesting, and they never default. This may be a transactional relationship, but a highly lucrative one for the American vendors, nonetheless.

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.

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