The following article originally appeared in The Wire on April 6, 2016.
Next week’s visit by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to India has raised the prospect of deeper security cooperation between the two countries. Rumours about impending defence sales may be unfounded, as might the expectation that several bilateral defence agreements – long under negotiation – will be concluded. The agreements in question include the Logistics Supply Agreement (LSA), the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA). These are modest, and largely operational and technical agreements that would facilitate information sharing and the provision of supplies between the Indian and US armed forces. Being reciprocal, both militaries could potentially benefit from these agreements. The US has also expressed a willingness to tailor them to Indian circumstances and address certain Indian concerns. As with all important international agreements, the devils are in the details, and an argument can be made that some of the agreements (e.g. LSA and BECA) provide India with greater benefits and have fewer latent risks than others (e.g. CISMOA).
The probability of these agreements being concluded during Carter’s visit is low. However, regardless of the merits of these specific agreements, they have become a proxy for a renewed discussion on whether and to what extent a defence partnership between India and the US is desirable. The Modi government has indicated the outlines of strategic cooperation with the US in the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, agreed in January 2015. But there are reports of opposition to the foundational agreements from within the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Analyst Bharat Karnad, similarly opposed in principle to closer cooperation with the US, has called the signing of these agreements “disastrous”. Meanwhile, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, India’s foremost public intellectual, has also questioned the wisdom of moving forward with these agreements without further debate. While the arguments being made by the MoD and Karnad appear to be circular – that closer partnership with the US is fundamentally undesirable, and thus arguments must be found to oppose the agreements – Mehta’s concerns are worth addressing. Indeed, they must be addressed because his arguments, and how they are framed, implicitly imperil a healthy debate on India’s national security interests.
A first criticism is that the Indo-US defence partnership is progressing without a sufficient debate on its merits. This overlooks the fact that a robust debate has taken place on this very issue in India for years – in fact decades. (Indeed, Mehta has even contributed to it.) Beyond ties with Pakistan, relations with the US are among the most frequently discussed issues concerning India’s external relations in parliament. Newspaper op-ed pages reflect a wide-ranging debate on the nature and extent of Indian security cooperation with the US. And, as the MoD opposition suggests, there are healthy internal differences within the Indian government as well. It is all very well to call for more debate; nobody has ever prevented one from taking place.
A second line of criticism is that India is deepening cooperation with the US – and against China – at Washington’s behest and not in accordance with Indian interests. “The US is making no secret of the fact that it wants to position India in its plans for China,” Mehta writes. “But it is not in India’s interests to become a frontline state in that emerging faultline.”
There are several problems with this line of reasoning. One is that a privileged relationship with Washington in no way thwarts cooperation with Beijing. In fact, over the past twenty years, as Indo-US defence relations have strengthened, India has also deepened military contacts with China, as part of important confidence building measures. More recently, India has also joined a number of Chinese-led multilateral initiatives, from the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Additionally, the Indian government has increasingly sought investment from China, widening the bilateral economic relationship. There is no reason to believe that the foundational agreements with the US, which even the likes of Singapore and Sri Lanka have signed, narrow India’s options with China. Quite the opposite.
Besides, India may not want to be a “frontline state” against China, but it already is one, not because of Washington’s exhortations, but because of Beijing’s intentions and actions. These include China’s building up of defence infrastructure on its border with India, its occasional attempts at altering the territorial status quo, its military support – including its history of providing nuclear and missile technology – to Pakistan and its growing military reach in India’s neighbourhood. In fact, the situation is rather reminiscent of India’s position in the evolving international system of the late 1960s and early 1970s. At the time, it was not India’s desire to create a rift with Washington, but the US’ instrumental relationships with Pakistan and China that necessitated the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation. Today, China’s opacity, military modernisation and strategic intent mean that India must reconsider its security posture rather than persevere with much-vaunted but illusory notions of great power neutrality.
Third, preserving neutrality or equidistance between the US and China will in no way contribute to Indian security. One need only look at the recent experience of Indonesia, perhaps the only large country more wedded to antiquated notions of Cold War-era non-alignment than India. Despite remaining steadfastly neutral and currying favour with Beijing by awarding it high-value infrastructure contracts, Indonesia has seen growing tensions with China over the presence of fishing and coast guard vessels around its Natuna Islands. Neutrality, it turns out, is a false comfort blanket.
Finally, the notion that a closer Indian defence relationship with the US is a mark of “defeatism” is particularly confounding. That very fear of weakness or defeatism prevented India from seizing opportunities for cooperation with not just the US, but many of its allies, such as Japan, opportunities it is now seizing squarely, with barely a squeak from Beijing. The argument about defeatism also underestimates India’s own agency and its ability to make decisions based on its own interests. The progress in India’s relations with the US has never been motivated by naïve sentimentalism. The idea that these agreements are some sort of “parting gift” to US President Barack Obama is ludicrous. In the past few years, India has responded severely to the treatment of an Indian diplomat by US authorities, condemned the administration’s support for the Pakistani military, and criticised the US’ public calls for joint military patrols. India has also locked horns with the US recently over its solar program and US immigration policies. Any number of American officials would attest to the fact that South Block can hold its own in any negotiation with Foggy Bottom. Far from defeatism, India’s ability to shake hands with Washington is a sign of growing confidence in its own abilities.
There is a dangerous subtext in much of this criticism. Those implying that deeper defence cooperation with the US, by its very nature, cannot be in Indian interests and is a product of American pressure, are narrowing the space for any rational arguments in its favour. This is a slippery slope. Mehta, of all people, should appreciate its possible implications.
By all means, elevated defence ties with the US – and the specific foundation agreements under question – must be considered very carefully, even if they are unlikely to be concluded in the near future. But a security partnership with the US should also be discussed and debated on its merits rather than on sentimentalism, whether in favour of the US or based on nostalgia for a principle that was unceremoniously discarded 45 years ago. It is worth keeping in mind that a healthy debate on defence ties with the US has taken place for a long time in India, and continues; that such cooperation in no way makes India a frontline state against China at Washington’s behest; and that defence agreements with the US are neither a sign of weakness nor of defeatism, but are instead reflective of India’s growing confidence in its own capabilities.