During U.S. Defense Secretary Carter’s visit to India between the 10th and 12th of this month, he announced that India and U.S. have agreed in principle to share a military logistics base but the final agreement draft is yet to be discussed. Indian Defense Minister Parriker said that within the coming few months, India and US will sign the “Logistics Safeguard Agreement”. If both the sides finally sign this agreement, then it will mark the beginning of India breaking away from its traditional indistinct and wobbly approach to foreign policy and shift to a pragmatic “Modi-fication” security approach.
This “method change” definitely didn’t happen in a day. As early as 2004, when Indian National Congress led United Progressive alliance (UPA) was in power, the U.S. proposed India sign the “Logistics Safeguard Agreement” one of the three “basic agreements”—the other two agreements being “communication interoperability and security memorandum agreement” and “basic geo-spatial cooperation and communication agreement”. But the Singh government at that time had many doubts about these agreements and they worried that such agreements will cause India to lose “autonomy” in foreign policy and its position of non-alignment. However, both the sides also signed the “India-U.S.New Defense Relationship Framework Agreement” in 2005 (renewed in 2015 for 10 more years). In 2012, the “Defense technology and business initiatives” agreement was also signed. From the time when Modi came to power, his government has carried forward the process started by “UPA” with more enthusiasm and determination. During the Indian Defense Minister Parriker’s U.S. visit, he again hinted that India may reconsider signing the three basic agreements with the U.S. Thus the in principle agreement between India and U.S. for sharing military logistics base should not be viewed as unexpected.
First of all, the gradual and increasingly deepening strategic contact with the U.S.illustrates that India’s move is centered on its interests to enhance the research and development dialogue in its alliance with US, and then later strengthening defense cooperation. A convergence in strategic benefits for India and U.S. might be due to the asymmetric situation in the comprehensive national strength between India and China and also because India and China both have differences in matters on the bilateral, regional as well as international level. The Modi government is aware that due to this asymmetry with China in Comprehensive National Strength, it is difficult to make China yield on the border issue, cross-border terrorism or its presence in the Indian Ocean. Similarly, due to these factors as well as China’s strategic all weather friendship with Pakistan, the Modi government has announced joint statements with Japan, United States and Vietnam on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea in succession. This made China very unhappy, although India has not yet agreed to have “joint patrols” with US in the South China Sea.
Secondly, in the process of deepening the cooperation process, India’s main interest lies in access to advanced new technology as it hopes to get assistance in developing and enhancing native defense production technology, building a solid foundation of national defense industry, reduce the dependence on imported weapon systems and increase defense weapon systems export and so on. For example, both the sides have already started to look at the possibility pf cooperation in the sphere of aircraft design and operation, jet engine technology as well as fighter aircraft. The American side has been insisting that in order to implement this technological cooperation, both the sides must first sign the “basics agreement”. However in this respect, how both the sides will cooperate and how will India implement “Logistics Safeguard Agreement” can only be known when both the sides are involved in an actual conflict. But till this agreement is actually signed, this problem is just a presumption.
Thirdly, while some people in India think that this is a way to break free from its neighbour but at the same time they do not want India to form an alliance with U.S.. Although India clearly understanding that both China’s and its maritime security boundary extends from the Pacific Ocean till the Indian Ocean, even so India is not opposed to cooperation with China on the projects related to the 21st century Maritime Silk Route, just as it does with a few projects in the “Silk Road Economic Belt”. Modi government wants to cooperate with China economically, it even specially invited China to invest in India. In 2016, during the first session of “Indian Ocean summit meeting, Modi released a heavy weight “National Vision Plan” project with the aim of implementing the modernization of ports and transforming them into special economic zones, port smart cities, industrial parks, warehouses, logistics parks as well as to make integrated communication corridors. This author believes that there is a large space for cooperation between India and China in this plan. The Modi government believes that this two pronged strategy of strengthening cooperation with the U.S. and other Asia-Pacific countries on one hand and pushing for economic cooperation with China on the other, will help India in easing its differences with China on the bilateral, regional and global level.
Ultimately, if India wants to look like America’s “vanguard”, then its relationship with China will suffer inevitably. Similarly, if the U.S. thinks that it can use India to weaken China’s presence and geo-political influence regionally and globally, then it is undoubtedly making a big mistake. The author believes that India is too big and cannot play the role of America’s assistant. Presently, India has acquired valuable geo-political space in the Indian and Pacific Ocean and is trying to make use of that. In this context, even if India thinks it can become a “swing state” between the U.S. and China, then this “swing” will need to be need to be restricted to cooperation and healthy competition and not confrontation and conflict because this will not be in India’s interest and also not in China’s and the U.S.’ interests.
(The author is a professor in the Chinese and South Asia research center in Jawaharlal Nehru University in India)