When Indian navy ships are sailing the high seas they often drop by the bases of their US counterpart for fuel and supplies. Each time they do so, they have to ask for New Delhi for permission and work out a payment system. This is a cumbersome process that would have weighed heavily on the Indian Navy’s ability to play a wider role not merely in other oceans, but even in the Indian Ocean. The decision to negotiate a logistics and supply agreement with the US will institutionalise this process and make it easier for the Indian Navy to use the US base system for its own operations. While the same is true for US ships, it should be obvious who benefits more. The US’ naval infrastructure spans the world while India’s is limited to its own coast and a few Indian Ocean islands.
The question arises as to why signing this mundane and useful agreement has taken over a decade of back and forth. The answer lies in the larger debate as to how close India can afford to be in terms of defence and security ties with the US. The logistics agreement, along with two other more complex foundational agreements that India and the US have been negotiating, became a metaphor for this relationship. Those who opposed the agreement rarely had sound technical arguments against it other than to say it was a slippery slope towards some presumed subordination of New Delhi’s armed services to those of Washington. The bottom line is that India will achieve self-sufficiency in defence only in the far future, if ever. Which is why most middle-rank powers use their relationships with other countries in both the military and diplomatic spheres to preserve interests that would otherwise be impossible to defend.
The US has always been the most difficult of countries to work with. As a superpower it has interests that both converge and diverge from those of India. And its resources are so considerable that many Indian strategists fear that any bilateral embrace would inevitably become unilateral dominance. The two sides continue to have their differences — they are on different sides in Afghanistan, for example. But it is evident that the worldviews of India and the US now overlap to a great extent. India is now large enough in every sense of the word to not worry too much about being pushed around by anyone. New Delhi can ignore fears of dependency and concentrate on cooperation with the US and others to further its own interests. The logistics agreement is a perfect example of something that extends India’s abilities and places no constraints on its actions.