The decision “in principle” by India and the United States to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) during the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to India last month marks a big leap of faith, for India’s foreign policy in particular. Gone are the days when New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins kept Washington D.C. at an arm’s length, believing that India’s interests were best served by being close to countries like Russia and espousing causes like non-alignment and third-world unity.
However, many things changed for India when the Cold War ended and the erstwhile Soviet Union broke up. Since then, Indian foreign policy has undergone a complete makeover. Though India’s nuclear tests of 1998 brought it sharp rebuke from the United States (and many other nations), things started improving after a visit from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000. There has been no looking back ever since.
The U.S.-India civilian nuclear deal of 2008, which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh staked his political future on, further changed things. The United States also helped India get a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), even though India has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
The LEMOA envisages the militaries of the U.S. and India sharing facilities for refueling , spare parts, and supplies. It is noteworthy that by deciding to go for the LEMOA, the Modi government has been able to overcome the resistance to the same agreement during the two terms of the previous UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regime.
So, what has pushed India’s hand to agree to the LEMOA now?
For one, both India and the United States have concerns about Beijing’s growing aggressiveness in the South China Sea and beyond. New Delhi has not been very happy with Beijing of late. China has put a “technical hold” on India’s attempts to designate the Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed’s chief Maulana Masood Azhar as a terrorist at the United Nations. At the same time, China has been going all out to woo countries in India’s neighborhood like Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives. Beijing’s island building activities in the South China Sea and its deployment of missile batteries on Woody Island in the South China Sea have set it on a collision course with the United States and its allies in the region, like Japan and the Philippines.
Second, relations between India and the United States have dramatically improved since the end of the Cold War. In 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit India twice during his presidency when he was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations on January 26. During his visit, the two sides released a joint statement where they affirmed “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” This in itself is very significant since New Delhi had studiously avoided getting entangled in the South China Sea imbroglio. In the recent years, India has become one of the biggest purchasers of U.S. military hardware, a sea change from the times when the country used to source the majority of its defense needs from Russia.
Third, maritime collaboration between India and the United States has been increasing. The commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry B Harris, went on record to say that that Beijing was building “a great wall of sand” in the South China Sea. At the Raisina Dialogue in India in March this year, Harris floated the idea of cooperation between India, Japan, Australia, and Japan in the maritime realm. This could be a throwback to the times when these four countries had come together to form what was dubbed the “Quadrilateral Initiative,” thought the project was rolled back in the light of protests from Beijing, in a classic case of the baby being thrown out along with the bath water. Besides, India’s ties with U.S. allies in the region, like Japan and Australia, have also improved by leaps and bounds since then.
Fourth, India now aspires to play a greater role in international affairs. New Delhi is angling to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In addition, India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has rapidly moved away from its traditional stance of non-alignment to one of multi-alignment. By signing the logistics support agreement, New Delhi also stands to gain by gaining access to U.S. military facilities.
Modi is scheduled to visit the United States later this year for a state visit and many more significant announcements could be in the works. Obama will be leaving office early next year and there are increasing concerns in New Delhi that should a Republican administration take office in Washington D.C., Indo-U.S. bilateral ties could be hit, especially as the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has made his opposition to foreign entanglements and even outsourcing quite clear. A Trump win may hit other aspects of the bilateral as well. Given these trends, it makes perfect sense for New Delhi to make hay while the sun shines. When all is said and done, while it would be incorrect to dub India as a U.S. ally now, it seems that there is a sufficient groundswell of public opinion and political capital in the country to favor a revamp of its ties with the world’s sole superpower.
Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah is currently a Research Fellow with the Tokyo-based Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He specializes on India’s strategic ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region and its maritime interests. The views expressed are personal. [email protected]