US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will visit India in April this year to negotiate key strategic bilateral agreements with India, during which he is expected to push for the signing of three “foundational agreements”. The foundational agreements are Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial intelligence. The United States has signed these agreements with most of its strategic partners.
The two countries have already signed one foundational agreement, General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), apart from the three on the agenda. The Pentagon terms the outstanding agreements as routine instruments which are used by the US to encourage military cooperation with partner countries.
“He (Manohar Parrikar) is not as difficult to deal with as the previous Defence Minister, A.K. Antony (who is an avid reader of the works of Lenin and Marx). During Parrikar’s recent visit to the US, we apprised him of the nuances of the agreements and highlighted benefits that both the US and India can avail. He has shown willingness, to some degree, toward the LSA. We hope that the outstanding agreements are also signed during Carter’s visit to India this year,” a high placed source in the Pentagon said.
The US government says that CISMOA and BECA will enable smooth transfer of technology and seamless communication between the militaries of the two countries. The LSA will strengthen the capabilities of the armed forces to better tackle security threats and challenges of the 21st century by correcting deficiencies relating to logistics. “The agreements put emphasis on creating an atmosphere of trust and achieving interoperability along with building a capacity of the emerging partners with the use of joint military exercises, training, and sale of defence equipment,” the source said.
The rapid global power shift from the West to Asia that occurred in the last two decades, accompanied by the meteoric rise of an assertive China and its inter-territorial forays and claims, and newly emerging non-traditional security challenges have created a situation of a geopolitical and geostrategic flux in Asia. “The US believes that signing of these foundational agreements will assist in the creation of a strong defence and strategic partnership with India. This partnership may also help India build its defence capabilities to play a major role in the region,” the source said.
Explaining that the agreements will enhance bilateral cooperation between the two countries, the source said that “the agreements do not pose any risk to India’s strategic or security situation. However, they are not mandatory by any measure for bilateral defence cooperation with the US. We are not leaning on to the Indian government in order to get the deals signed. But the benefits for both sides out of this cooperation are significant.”
“If the agreements would have been in place, a US military aircraft could refuel in India while flying for any operation in South Asia. Indian naval vessels could refuel from American fuel tankers in the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean, and other areas. These are just a few of the gains from these agreements,” he said. He added that “there is a misplaced notion that signing these deals will allow American soldiers unrestricted access to Indian military installations, or that they would render American personnel immune from Indian legal jurisdiction, or that they give the US access and visibility into India’s intelligence infrastructure.” Arms lobbyists working for countries afraid of competition from US suppliers have been active in preventing the signing of these agreements during the UPA’s tenure in office.
Concerted efforts are on from those in favour of enhanced defence cooperation between India and the US to ensure that these agreements get signed during Carter’s April visit. Sources in the US embassy in New Delhi told this newspaper: “We have been coordinating with the Defence Ministry of India constantly. We believe both the countries are on the same page and developing this partnership is vital to both the countries. We are working tirelessly with the DOD and Pentagon to see this pact through.”
Highlighting the fact that former Defence Minister A.K. Antony was of the opinion that these agreements would allow the US military to have unencumbered access to Indian military installations and could potentially compromise sensitive data and put the country’s security at risk, a defence source said, “These agreements do not, in any way, risk India’s security. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and his leader Prime Minister Narendra Modi have shown great pragmatism to revamp India’s defence policies and making them more open. The US has signed such agreements with most of its strategic partners. These pacts will be a focus of Ashton Carter’s visit.”
Some sections of the political and strategic fraternity in India have opposed signing the pact. Worrying that signing the pacts will trap India in a permanent clinch with the US, Lt Gen (Retd) V.K. Jetley of the Indian Army told this newspaper, “During the UPA rule, the US had expressed its resentment over the unwillingness of the Indian government to sign these agreements. India had not given the US any clear reasons for objecting to the pacts at the time. These agreements could lead to a formal India-US military alliance in due time. This might also not go down well with India’s other important defence partners like Russia.”
In contrast, another defence source claimed that “India-US defence and strategic relationship has improved by miles since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took charge. The two sides agreed in principle to transform from just buyer-seller to those involved in joint-research, co-development and manufacturing of high-end defence equipment. They even signed the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in January 2015.”
Pointing out that the Modi government’s “Act East” policy is converging with the Barack Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia strategy, a US official said that “both the countries are also proactively engaging the countries in the Indo-Pacific belt. The Indian Navy couldn’t cooperate fully with the US vessels in the recent international naval joint exercise in the Indian Ocean since there were no proper international pacts signed to allow such cooperation.”
Parrikar had said during his visit to Washington in December 2015 that India was “in principle” agreeable to the three pacts, but there was more clarity required on the same from the side of the US. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, a known Indophile, will visit India just weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit on 31 March to 1 April this year where he will attend the nuclear security summit.
The recent North Korean nuclear tests have prompted allies of the US like South Korea and Japan to ask for higher US presence in the region. The Obama administration had reiterated multiple times in recent weeks that it would not hesitate if its intervention is required to ensure the security of its Asian partners. China had recently accused the US of militarising the region.
The US has not made it clear what it expects from India in East Asia, said Richard M. Rossow, Wadhwani Chair in US India Policy Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He added that the recent rumours of a joint patrol in the volatile South China Sea region have raised interest among the strategic community, although because of Delhi’s anxiety over Beijing’s reaction, it seems unlikely to materialise in the near future.
Defence experts are of the view that Manohar Parrikar still hasn’t pulled his weight behind the pact. “He has not pushed for it as such. He has merely deflected the issue, for the time being, to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). For most part, when the strategic community tries to take any constructive step, he deflects it to the MEA. He needs to take concrete steps if he is serious about this, which we feel that he is,” the Pentagon source said. Initial signs are encouraging for the chances of the agreements to be signed. “While Parrikar will be judged primarily on substantive achievements of the India-US partnership, the symbolism around his visit to the US was also very big. For the first time since 2008, an Indian Defence Minister visited Washington. Notably, he was also hosted aboard an American aircraft carrier. Parrikar’s American counterparts have made the journey to India six times during that period,” Jetley said.
Officials in the US embassy said that there is still space for negotiations and the countries are diligently working to make the agreements acceptable to both the parties.
“Signing these pacts will yield larger and wider benefits for both the US and India. Both the countries need to make constructive efforts to bring all stakeholders together, work to build consensus and arrive at an acceptable version of the pacts that are consistent with both the national and international interests and policies of the two countries,” a US embassy official said.