Last week, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter concluded his three-day visit to India and announced that he and his Indian counterpart had agreed in principle that all the issues regarding a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) are resolved and both sides would finalize the text in the coming weeks.
Despite a whole range of strategic issues being covered in the visit, the topic of the logistics agreement itself has triggered speculation among international media that both sides are boarding the same boat to contain China.
In essence, the purpose of an LSA is to share military bases for logistical purposes, including refueling and repair. Therefore it is very much similar in nature with the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA), a traditional agreement the US has with many of its NATO allies.
That’s why it has triggered speculation that both sides are moving toward a military alliance arrangement.
By agreeing “in principle” to sign the LSA, it will not be the first LSA US has with a South Asian country. In 2007, US and Sri Lanka signed ACSA to allow exchange of logistics supplies during peacekeeping missions, humanitarian operations, and joint exercises.
Regarding Indo-US defense cooperation, the package of the logistics agreement, and the other two agreements that would allow secure communications and the exchange of nautical and other data, is no doubt a significant move and would qualitatively transform their relations if signed and duly implemented. But their divergences remain unresolved.
The initiative was first proposed during George W. Bush’s visit to New Delhi in 2006, but the then Indian government led by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was reluctant in its conclusion. Such an attitude is typically reflected in the position held by A.K. Antony, the then Defense Minister of India, who was wary of its intrusive nature and guarded against a possible loss of sovereignty.
Now the postponement of its signing demonstrates that such concerns are at least partly shared by the current Indian government led by the National Democratic Alliance.
Such concerns come from the deficit of strategic trust between India and the US. Regardless of differences in national policies, Indian strategic elites have a constant sense that US is not a trusted partner and this time is no exception.
In the first place, the Indians felt offended by the announcement of an American sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan before Carter’s visit. There is no sign of bilateral talks on the issue yet but such ties with its overarching rival are obviously resented by the Indians.
Noting that the visit fell short on many key issues, the India media has stayed cool about the agreement and Carter’s visit as well. India’s disappointment comes in particular from the fact that the US declined its request on acquiring catapult launch technology, which is critical for India’s indigenous carrier manufacturing, a backbone part of Prime Minister Modi’s plan on modernizing the Indian navy.
In addition to all these obstacles, its implementation is also another issue. With or without the LSA, India will provide logistics assistance to the US on a case-by-case review basis, just like when it allowed American aircraft to use its refueling facilities during the Gulf War in 2001.
Moreover, the Obama administration is going to end soon, and it would be wise to take a pause. New Delhi may take the time to consider the resultant impact on India’s relations with other countries.
Besides their traditional distrust, the speculation heralding a US-India alliance is also an obvious underestimation of India’s ambition for a role of swing-state between superpowers. The basic idea is that India would like to continue to be the most beautiful woman wooed by all men, notably the two strongest in the house, US and China.
This is not an unfamiliar role to India. We can still recall how its diplomatic maneuvering had earned itself a special role between the two competing blocs during the Cold War.
Evidently enough, it needs to feel its way forward and try not to agitate China by crossing the bottom line and consequently it declines to discuss the prospect of joint patrols in the South China Sea, despite the obvious interest and much enthusiasm from its American counterpart.
The author is a PhD candidate at the Department of International Relations, Tsinghua University. firstname.lastname@example.org Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion