Last week, the Congress party suffered one of its periodic bouts of calculated amnesia. It indignantly declared that the government had, in signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US in August, abandoned India’s “strategic military neutrality”. Simply put, LEMOA is a bilateral agreement that makes it easier for one side to offer logistical support—such as fuel for a ship—to the other, and for the recipient to pay in cash or kind. It is undoubtedly a big step forward in the US-India defence relationship, but hardly a transformative rupture for Indian grand strategy.
No fewer than three Congress prime ministers, from 1964-67, permitted the US’ Central Intelligence Agency spy planes to operate from Indian bases. It was a Congress prime minister who signed a 20-year treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971, promising “appropriate effective measures” in the event of war. In 1991, a Congress-backed prime minister agreed to let arms-bearing American transport planes refuel in Mumbai, Chennai, and Agra twice a day during the first Gulf War and supplied intelligence on Iraq’s Soviet aircraft. And it was a Congress prime minister—the fourth in this story, if you’ve lost count—who signed a 10-year defence “framework” with the US in 2005. So, the notion that India observed seven decades of neutrality, right up until a modest logistical agreement was signed in the summer of 2016, is nonsensical. It is an argument unworthy of a party that had the foresight and political courage to take similar steps that expanded India’s diplomatic room for manoeuvre.
But these shots are fired from the right as well as the left. Bharat Karnad, who describes himself as India’s “foremost conservative strategist”, warned that LEMOA would make India a “client state” whose territory would inevitably be used for a war against Iran. It would also, he threatened—or perhaps promised?—bring “booze, drugs, and women” to India’s virginal shores. One wonders how the motherland’s fragile morals will survive this onslaught of oversexed soldiers. Clearly, opposition to LEMOA channels deeply held strains of nationalism, anti-Americanism, and independent-mindedness that span India’s political spectrum, and which have arisen again and again over the past decade in debates over nuclear cooperation, defence trade and diplomacy.
The text of the US-India LEMOA is not yet public, so we cannot say precisely just how modest it is. But we do have some evidence to go on. The ministry of defence has said, unequivocally, that the “agreement does not create any obligation on either party to carry out any joint activity” and “does not provide for the establishment of any bases or basing arrangements”. There is every reason to believe this. LEMOA is a variant of the “Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements” that began life in the 1970s, when troop reductions in Europe forced the US into greater logistical dependence on allies. In 1986, the agreements were opened up beyond the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Over 100 now exist—including dozens with non-allies such as Serbia, Sri Lanka and South Africa, and some even with countries quite clearly in another great power’s orbit, such as Tajikistan.
Take one as an example: the LEMOA-like, rolling five-year “Mutual Logistics Support Agreement” that the US signed with the Philippines back in 2002. It specifies unequivocally that “no United States military base, facility, or permanent structure shall be constructed, established, or allowed under this Agreement”. It is highly likely that India demanded and received much the same clause.
Critics will retort that the real problem is American access to Indian bases. But history doesn’t bear this out. In 1973, a neutral Britain cut off access to American spy planes during the Yom Kippur War. In 1986, France, Spain and Italy denied their airbases or airspace to American warplanes conducting a retaliatory attack on Libya. And in 2003, Turkey refused access to its soil during the Iraq War. If these states, all NATO allies with far more extensive and intrusive basing arrangements than anything the US and India will have in the coming years, could tightly control their entanglements with Washington, it beggars belief that New Delhi could be bundled into a scrap with Iran against its will.
Look, again, at the US-Philippines deal, which promises that “each party shall exert its best efforts, consistent with national priorities, to satisfy requests under this agreement”. This is the very widest of loopholes, for national priorities can mean anything and everything.
All this said, LEMOA is not without consequences. It is a powerful signal of US-India alignment, coming on top of a period of Indian diplomatic hyperactivity on the South China Sea dispute. It will be viewed with suspicion by China and Russia, both of whom have been moving closer to one another and to Pakistan. More broadly, the relentless emphasis on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), search-and-rescue, and joint exercises is misleading. These are India’s innocuous first steps in the development and use of a region-wide power projection capability, involving air, sea and amphibious military forces.
P. Chidambaram’s assessment, last week, that “Indian defence forces are not likely to be deployed in any theatre, even in peacetime, beyond our borders” is unpersuasive. The increasingly large footprint of the Indian Navy—including port calls to every regional power within the past year—is the most visible sign of these ambitions.
It isn’t clear yet how LEMOA might affect India’s interaction with the sprawling network of US bases and ports in third countries, which have their own complex arrangements, but it may become one of the many lubricants to this long-term process of Indian expansion.
Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
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