There is good news and bad news from the agreement ‘in principle’ between New Delhi and Washington this week on signing the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), now re-designated as the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA).
The good news is that the Narendra Modi government has the political self-confidence to sign an apparently controversial agreement with the United States. The bad news is that India, as a collective, has taken more than a decade to decide ‘in principle’ on a fairly straightforward agreement with America.
The LSA would help Indian armed forces, especially its navy, to operate far from subcontinental shores at a moment when New Delhi has to secure its widely dispersed interests in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Much like the historic civil nuclear initiative, New Delhi has had a terrible time wrapping it up.
It’s a pity that the Indian political class, the bureaucracy, the strategic community, the commentariat and the media — have turned the debate on the LSA, which is so patently in Indian self interest, into an agonising one about the exalted concepts of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘strategic autonomy’.
India now is the world’s seventh largest economy (nominal terms) and third largest in PPP terms. It is also the sixth largest spender on defence, and owns the third largest armed forces and a small nuclear arsenal. None of this heft seems to reflect in the way India debates its relationship with the United States.
The Indian discourse on the LSA was never about its technical details. Like the historic nuclear deal, it was essentially about the lingering Indian distrust of America. There would be little public interest or private anxiety in New Delhi if it were negotiating similar agreements with, say, Russia, France or Japan.
Although the LSA has drawn very special attention in New Delhi, the United States has scores of these arrangements, known as Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreements (ACSA), with allies, non-allies and international organisations.
A typical ACSA defines the objective as “reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies, and services to the military forces of one Party by the other Party in return for either cash payment or the reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies and services to the military forces of the other Party”.
Many of these agreements explicitly prohibit exchange of weapons and other combat equipment. The agreement enables easy exchange of oil, water, food, billeting arrangements, repair and servicing facilities etc. during joint exercises and other pre-specified contingencies.
Like so many other creative foreign policy initiatives in our time — to reframe the border talks with China, secret negotiations on Kashmir with Pakistan, and the civil nuclear initiative with the US — the decision to expand defence cooperation with America came in the early years of the UPA government (2004-05).
The UPA government failed to pursue any of these initiatives to their logical conclusion. Ideological self-doubt and lack of political leadership saw New Delhi squander extraordinary opportunities that came its way during the time the UPA was in power.
After Pranab Mukherjee vacated the Defence Ministry in favour of A K Antony in 2006, the prospects for expansive defence cooperation with the US identified in the 2005 framework agreement steadily evaporated. If Antony deliberately limited the defence partnership with America, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was unwilling to overrule him.
It was in this extended tenure of Antony in the Defence Ministry (2006-14) that the issues involved with the LSA were allowed to be defined in terms of an “alliance” with America and a “strategic embrace” of the United States.
The proposition that the US wants to “entrap” India into a “military alliance” has always been a fanciful one. For the US, military alliances are serious business. They involve major legal, political, military and financial commitments that the United States has been generally unwilling to make since the height of the Cold war. In fact, the current political mood in the US is about retrenchment, and not making new alliances.
The US is certainly interested in stronger military ties with India. It is up to New Delhi to decide on the extent of convergence with Washington, and the terms under which it would cooperate. No one can compel India into signing agreements that it does not want.
The tragedy, however, was that the UPA government, instead of judging the issues of military cooperation with the US on merits, went into a funk. The defensiveness was reflected in the fact that New Delhi began to reject drafts of LSA that the Defence Ministry itself had proposed. Put simply, the US was indeed open to signing the LSA version drafted by India. But New Delhi, under UPA, would not accept ‘yes’ for an answer from Washington.
Returning to the good news, the NDA government chose to take a fresh look at the broader partnership with the United States. Modi moved decisively to resolve the outstanding issues on the civil nuclear initiative. The NDA government also renewed the 2005 defence framework cooperation for another 10 years. It reopened the negotiations on the LSA, and other so-called foundational agreements. The agreement in principle has come after New Delhi has satisfied itself that all its concerns have been met.
The Modi government has concluded, just like the UPA government in 2005, that security cooperation with the US would be an important part of improving India’s strategic salience in regional and global affairs. But unlike the UPA, the NDA government is less inhibited and more confident that it can deepen defence ties with the US on India’s own terms.
Modi’s most important contribution, however, may lie in turning the UPA government’s approach to major powers on its head. UPA justified its reluctance to deepen defence ties with the US by claiming that China would be upset.
Not moving forward with America during last few years, Modi knows, has not yielded much gains from China on issues of concern to India — whether it is terrorism emanating from Pakistan, or support for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Nor does China defer to New Delhi’s sensitivities and limit its military engagement with Pakistan and other neighbours of India.
Modi recognises that it is best to deal with both America and China on the basis of self interest and by creating leverages. There is no question now of framing New Delhi’s relations with Beijing and Washington either on the basis of neutrality or equidistance. The defining question for New Delhi now is a simple one: “What’s in it for me?” While Modi is asking the right questions, he finds it hard to move New Delhi at a faster pace. That’s probably why we have an agreement ‘in principle’, and not the LSA closure.
Even as it draws close to the US in the defence arena, the NDA government has gone much farther than the UPA in opening up India for Chinese economic investments. No PM before him has battled the system in New Delhi for liberalising the visa regime for the Chinese.
Some purists in New Delhi might not recognise their versions of ‘non-alignment’ in India’s new economic pragmatism and muscular geopolitics. But India’s non-alignment was always like the tabula rasa that could accommodate as diverse initiatives as Nehru’s quest for a military partnership with America after the Chinese attack in 1962, Indira Gandhi’s Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union in 1971 as Nixon and Mao warmed up to each other, and the more recent claims for New Delhi as a ‘net security provider’ in the Indo-Pacific.
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