Modi’s US policy: Embracing Washington comes at a price

  • Bharat Karnad
  • Updated: Jun 15, 2016 21:31 IST
From left: Chinese President Xi Jinping; US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi attend a working dinner in the East Room of the White House March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC (AFP)

In the address to the United States Congress on June 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the evolving global situation as a “war of multiple transitions and economic opportunities, growing uncertainties and political complexities, existing threats and new challenges” which, contrary to his advocacy of closer relations with the US, make it imperative India retains its “strategic autonomy”, policy options, and the freedom of manoeuvre.

India and the US do share “interests and concerns” and China is the main worry. Except the US is distanced from China by the Pacific Ocean and inclined, therefore, to accommodate Beijing, while for India it is an immediate and potent threat best kept in check by India joining in a coalition of rimland states — Asean, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, with the US featured as a extra-territorial balancer. Regarding terrorism, the US will pressure Pakistan only about suppressing the Haqqani Taliban active in Afghanistan.

Read | India-US ties: A new symphony in play

In technology cooperation the reality is starker. In a decade of high-flying rhetoric, not a single R&D project has materialised. But expensive technology extraneous to India’s naval needs — the electro-magnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) for aircraft carriers is offered in the hope its sale will help amortise US investment in it. But India’s priority — American assistance in designing and developing a combat aircraft jet engine, is made contingent on India first buying 90 1970s-era F-16s/F-18s off the shelf, and producing another 200 aircraft under licence. This is called ‘Open Sesame’ for high-technology trade in the future.

Given the thrust of the US technology cooperation, it is imprudent to even contemplate imperilling ties with Russia, and doing without the leased Akula-II nuclear-powered attack submarine and Russian involvement in strategically sensitive programmes, such as the Arihant SSBN. Besides, given that the bulk of the conventional armaments with the Indian armed forces are of Russian origin, an aggravated Kremlin could shut down Indian capabilities if it chose to. Indeed, Moscow has already given notice it will rethink its role in sensitive Indian defence projects and about leasing a second Akula if New Delhi signs the “foundational” accords formalising a security relationship with Washington.

Read | Pakistan concerned over growing India-US ties, says Sartaj Aziz

But India has pressed ahead and finalised the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). It seems to be only a differently worded version of the standard Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement detailed in the US Defense Department’s Directive 2010.9 of April 28, 2003. The reimbursement of costs will require Indian base commanders, as has happened in Pakistan that has a logistics support agreement with the US, periodically to justify to US authorities the quality and costs of the support and services provided. In Enclosure 2 of this directive, Section E2.1.10 spells out the “Logistics Support, Supplies, and Services”, inclusive of “base operations support (and construction incident to base operations support), [and] storage services”. This refers to the pre-positioning of stores and supplies and constitutes a basing provision. Implicit is the fact of the US providing security for its assets and personnel, necessitating parts of Indian military bases coming under US control and violating Indian sovereignty. Should India assume the responsibility for protecting such US military presence in India, the Indian intelligence agencies, armed forces, central and state police, and the paramilitaries will face an internal security nightmare to pre-empt and prevent attacks by domestic and international Islamic terrorist outfits on US personnel. The situation could get politically fraught very fast.

The explanation that the Indian military will be able to access far-flung US bases begs several questions: Whether the Indian military mounts many out-of-area operations and, if they mean to, wouldn’t a more cost-effective long-term solution be Indian bases in the Agalega Islands of Mauritius and on the northern Mozambiqan coast, an agreement with Sultan Qaboos to stage out of Oman, and independently to use Nha Trang in Vietnam, and Subic Bay and Clark air base in the Philippines — all options available to India?

Read | US can’t live without you, Prasad tells India’s IT companies

Americans anticipate that with LEMOA in the bag, the other two “foundational” accords — Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) — will follow. Indian officials claim CISMOA’s usefulness in counter-terrorism activity. But it is something Russia is wary of, as it will allow the US to plug into the communications system linking Indian aircraft to submarines, enabling remote spoofing of the communications hardware in the Akula SSNs. This is too risky for Moscow not to consider a pull out, which move could end in firming up a formidable Russia-China-Pakistan triad. With India and US getting together, China will be more determined to deny India entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, leave alone as permanent member into the UN Security Council.

The prime minister’s appeal for US investment in India’s manufacturing sector too may not work out to our advantage just yet. He seems unaware that the Obama administration initiated the “in-sourcing” policy using coercive tax measures to compel American companies to bring back capital invested abroad and to create jobs in the US. So, how did India get the impression that Obama means to benefit India? Sure, the US would happily continue importing Indian talent, nurtured at the Indian taxpayer’s expense, to do technology work.

Read | Defence manufacturing could be India’s biggest job spinner: Modi to WSJ

The problem is with Modi’s personalised diplomacy wedded to his vision for the country as a subsidiary power. He further believes that India should make friends and that friends mean well. Except, Western leaders will be friendly, but ultimately pocket contracts worth tens of billions of dollars (for six nuclear reactors, in Obama’s case), and otherwise advance their national interests, leaving India to wax eloquent about shared democratic values.

Bharat Karnad is professor, Centre for Policy Research

The views expressed are personal

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