Chinese commentators, punch drunk on being the world’s second largest economy, promptly reacted negatively to India’s signing of the LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) with the US.
This agreement allows mutual access to military facilities for refuelling—flashback: remember Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar’s secretive one-off okay to refuelling US planes during the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? LEMOA also allows for provisioning and replenishment of supplies, a kind of stevedoring exercise, all on a reimbursable basis. LEMOA does not automatically allow for military bases to be set up, and/or the stationing of troops, but these too can be authorised on a case-to-case basis within the framework of this momentous agreement. So it looks innocuous, but is not. China is right on its significance.
The other two “foundational” agreements out of four, typically signed between America and its defence partners, are now under discussion. They are the CISMOA (Communications Interoperability & Security Memorandum of Agreement), and the BECA (Basic Exchange & Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation). No timelines for their signing, however, have been posted as yet.
However, not only did the Pentagon reiterate its support for India’s entry into the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers’ Group), after the recent Chinese block, it mentioned India’s recent inclusion in the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime), which does not count China as a member so far, as well.
That LEMOA coincided with the visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to New Delhi, even as Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar is in Washington interacting with US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. It comes after India was designated as a “Major Defence Partner” during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US in June 2016. And all of 12 years after the first in the series of four enabling agreements, the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) was signed by the Vajpayee/Dubya Bush governments in 2002.
The UPA did not move forward at all on this strategic embrace during its decade in power. This is probably because it was caught up in the web of its own policy history on Nehruvian non-alignment, Indira Gandhi’s time as a satellite of the USSR, and pathological fear of Chinese umbrage carried over into the Manmohan Singh regime.
For, India, LEMOA, its own $150 billion defence shopping list inclusive of Make in India over the next decade and its Modi doctrine of “enlightened self-interest” puts it in a unique position. It’s the biggest defence purchase wish-list in the world.
Meanwhile, at this juncture of geo-political imperatives, a military alliance with the US acts as a great equaliser vis-a-vis China and gives India time to build up its independent military readiness. Besides, America is not willing, anymore than its NATO or ANZAC allies, plus the emerging realignments in South/South East Asia, to give China any kind of walkover in the world dominance stakes.
Instead, China will have to eat a little crow and re-evaluate its own options. It must realise that it is deeply isolated, with only a couple of unstable rogue states in the form of Pakistan and North Korea for company. China’s old “string of pearls” strategy of encirclement of India via inducements to Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, the Maldives, Bhutan etc., now lies in tatters. And Xi Jinping’s grandiose “belt and road” initiative, figuratively taking off from the Old Silk Route is viewed with suspicion in every part of its immediate neighbourhood.
As for India’s tried and tested ties with Russia, there will be no let up, and many military initiatives in parallel are indeed on the anvil. But yes, an edge of competition has already crept in and should work altogether in India’s favour. This has already been borne out in the nuclear power context, not only with Russia but also with France and the US—all supplying reactors and know-how.
We will, it is clear, cooperate with every other major military power such as Britain and France on a bilateral basis, too; and this includes Israel, Sweden, Italy; and press on with economic cooperation with many in the G-20 and BRICS and other formations like ASEAN/APEC, including China.
China too is keen to advance economic cooperation with India in manufacturing, infrastructure—particularly in Indian Railways—and trade. It is for it to resolve its aggressive tendencies, however, because India is no longer willing to be intimidated and has a number of other options.
For the moment, in keeping with its customary hubris, China said the signing of LEMOA meant “troubles”. This implies, despite the enigmatic-speak, not so much grief for itself because it is loath to admit that its posturing has been challenged. No, it is troubles for India that is being threatened. India is militarily ill-equipped and much poorer, it is true. But, unlike 1962, it is inconveniently nuclear weaponised. The threat of late, therefore, is of a multi-front conventional war, with Pakistan and China attacking in tandem. India does not have the wherewithal to fight this to win on its own currently, but with a little help from the US, it can and will.
Besides, this “troubles” remark came after the Chinese smirk on blocking our NSG bid. Just as other Chinese commentators in a security establishment think-tank growled, when India positioned its supersonic Brahmos missiles, on its north-eastern border areas. Some also grumbled when India positioned over 100 tanks in Ladakh not so long ago. And again when India raised the occupation/genocide/oppression by the Pakistani state in POK/Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan.
There goes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing must be thinking, already being criticised by the jailed Baba Jan’s followers in Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK; and all those tonnes of precious minerals. And so, China allowed that it might “intervene” in Balochistan too.
China is most impressed with its own sizeable, largely copied from old US stock, military. It wants the world to fear its conventional and nuclear might. But then, China makes no secret of wanting to control half the world. Never mind what Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, even Hong Kong, Tibet and others in South/South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific think. And never mind what the International Court of Justice at The Hague has to say too. China wants the South China Sea for itself, and does not recognise The Hague ruling against it. It has been bumptiously issuing warnings to all and sundry within and without its range. It wants to dominate the Indian Ocean too and has been patrolling it mightily in recent years.
China’s mandarin notions on diplomacy also embolden it to ignore the wishes of other members of the UNSC, such as Russia, Britain and France, thinking that being factory to 40% of the world’s manufactured goods is enough leverage.
It has been trying, preposterously, from before President Xi Jinping’s time to buy-off the US, purchasing its treasury bonds in trillions, while, sotto voce, threatening monetary destabilisation. It particularly wanted to take advantage of US’ economic troubles post 2008 by upgrading its claims, if not the balance of payments, while attempting to cede a sphere of influence to it. Take the other half of the world, China seemed to say: meaning the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the North Sea etc. That the ancient, but newly prosperous Chinese, do not understand the implications of trying to parley on the basis of riches acquired thanks to the Nixon-Kissinger tilt against the USSR, with the world’s most technologically advanced military power, seems amply clear.
The US, the fact the Chinese try to ignore, is sized at 17 times greater than the next military establishment in line. So, for India, it’s a good eiderdown to get under, while continuing to deal fairly with the rest of the world.