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Why Maritime Logistics Pacts are Vital for Asia’s Strategic Balance

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Asia Defense

Why Maritime Logistics Pacts are Vital for Asia’s Strategic Balance

Countries are turning from permanent military bases overseas to flexible logistics pacts, like the recent US-India deal.

Why Maritime Logistics Pacts are Vital for Asia’s Strategic Balance

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter walks with Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar as they tour the Indian aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya at Indian Naval Station Karwar (April 11, 2016).

Credit: DoD Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

Ever since it was signed late last month, India’s logistics agreement with the United States has been a contested issue in India’s strategic circles. The pact has attracted some criticism from a section of India’s political and strategic elite who feel it restricts India’s freedom of military action. The critics appear convinced the pact does not benefit India strategically in the same way as it advantages the U.S. military. As a leading Indian defense analyst put it, “the government seems to have been guided more by the fear of being accused of succumbing to pressure from Washington and less by an evaluation of whether this might benefit India’s military.” As a result, Indian defense ministry officials find themselves under pressure to explain why they believe an agreement with the United States on military logistics is in India’s best interests.

Meanwhile, supporters of the pact claim that it only codifies existing arrangements for defense logistics and must not be seen as a military agreement at all. India-U.S. defense arrangements, they rightly point out, have long been characterized by an inherent informality – particularly in their logistics transactions. LEMOA, the proponents aver, is likely to bring a structured efficiency in bilateral defense interactions and exercises. And yet, no amount of logical rationalization has been able to convince the skeptics who see the agreement as a unacceptable breach of India’s established policy of military neutrality, and a clear move toward a de facto “military alliance” with the United States.

Under fire from the naysayers, New Delhi has clarified that the pact is strictly “conditional” – allowing mutual access to supplies and services only when engaged in a specific set of predetermined activities. Manohar Parrikar, India’s defense minister, has sought to dispel fears that it would lead to the setting up of a U.S. military base in Indian soil. “It’s only about logistics support to each other’s fleet,” he explained recently, “like supply of fuel, supply of many other things which are required for joint operations, humanitarian assistance and many other relief operations.”

And yet there is growing agreement among analysts that in a modern day maritime environment, every ‘place’ which provides logistics support essentially performs the role of a peace-time military base, albeit in limited ways. This is so because operational logistics is the life-blood of contemporary maritime missions. Any ocean-going navy that can secure logistical pit-stops along the way can guarantee itself a wider operational footprint in the distant littorals. In fact, leading maritime powers, including the United States, Russia, and China, are reluctant to set up permanent bases in distant lands, because what they aim to achieve in terms of strategic presence is made possible through low-level repair and replenishment ‘places’. To be sure, with over 800 foreign military installations, the United States still has a globe-girdling presence, but few among its existing overseas facilities are permanent military bases.

‘Places’ Not ‘Bases’

In order to better appreciate why foreign military bases do not enjoy the same appeal as earlier, one must study the history of their evolution. The permanent naval base was a product of 19th century politics when Britain, the leading maritime power, set up a network of military bases around the world to sustain its global supremacy. In the latter half of the 20th century, Britain was replaced by another superpower, the United States, which soon came to dominate the world’s economic and strategic landscape. The U.S. system of military bases consisted of several thousand installations located at hundreds of basing sites in over a hundred countries around the world. The logic of military basing system was then intimately related to the dynamics of conflict. A military base was seen as a forward deployment position to enforce a denial regime on the enemy in a region that stood in a state of permanent hostility. It was a useful way of keeping the pressure on adversaries, and it allowed the U.S. military to dominate the international strategic system and prevent the rise of another hegemon.

In the period since, the logic of overseas bases has gradually eroded. The absence of a real war in the intervening years has seen the law of diminishing returns take effect vis-à-vis foreign military bases, with the result that their strategic appeal has dramatically declined. After struggling with rising domestic opposition to US. military presence in Asia, the United States has been looking for more pragmatic options.

Since prolonged military presence on a foreign land isn’t a practical solution to any of its strategic problems, the United States has been prioritizing logistics pacts that involve continuing support of rotational troops but no permanent deployments. These are variants of the “Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreements” (ACSAs) – or logistical arrangements for military support, supplies, and services (food, fuel, transportation, ammunition, and equipment) – that the United States shares with many of its NATO partners. And yet, despite being avowedly in support of peacekeeping operations and regional humanitarian contingencies, these pacts have not changed the public perception that U.S. military presence in foreign locations advance America’s imperialist ambitions.

The U.S.-Philippines Defense Cooperation Agreement

A case in point is Washington’s recent Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Manila, which has provided the U.S. military access to eight military bases in Philippines. It is notable that even though the agreement was signed way back in 2014, strong domestic opposition within the Philippines from civil rights groups resulted in a legal stalemate at the country’s Supreme Court. Many feared the pact authorized a return to U.S. bases, the lease for which was canceled by the Philippine Senate in 1992. In January this year, when the court finally ruled in the pact’s favor, its decision seemed motivated mainly by the China factor – the increased threat posed by China in the Philippines’ near-seas.

Interestingly, the United States hadn’t been keen to re-establish permanent bases in the Philippines at all. Washington continually stressed its need for a pact that would enable U.S. troops to rotate through the Philippines to maintain a persistent but intermittent presence, and also to assist Manila in dealing with humanitarian crises and capacity building. The arrangement seemed eminently in the Philippines’ interests, and yet it took more than two years to come through.

This does not mean America’s new military facilities in Philippines are any less potent than its erstwhile permanent bases in the country. The American navy today can carry out roughly the same kinds of peace time missions in the South China Sea littorals as it could earlier with its permanent bases, including training and capacity building, area patrols, aerial surveys, and fleet exercises. But its new agreements also empower its partners in ways that weren’t possible earlier – in particular the flexibility to call upon the United States to provide critical military assistance in the event of a crisis. In effect, it enables the achievement of a set of strategic objectives for Washington and its Asian partners.

China’s ‘Dual Use’ Places

The United States, however, is not the only country to depend on military logistics pacts to achieve its broader strategic objectives. Increasingly, China is resorting to the same means. The PLA’s logistical base at Djibouti doesn’t just provide support for China’s anti-piracy missions, but also enables a year-round naval presence in the Indian Ocean. What is more, China’s recent commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean Region seem more in the nature of dual-use bases, which can quickly be upgraded to medium-grade military facilities in the event of a regional crisis.

New Delhi must come to terms with the fact that LEMOA’s utility lies in facilitating greater U.S.-India operational coordination in Asia. Notwithstanding Parrikar’s assurances, closer maritime interaction between India and the United States will increasingly involve operational access to each other’s bases for strategic purposes. This does not mean LEMOA promotes American geopolitical interests at India’s expense. If anything, the pact empowers the Indian Navy to expand its own presence operations in the Indo-Pacific region. It is an aspiration that the navy professed to recently when it released a map for public viewing that showed Indian naval deployments over the past 12 months, spread wide across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific region.

For the Indian navy, which has been looking to burnish its credentials as an Indo-Pacific entity, and a pan-regional security provider, this is an opportunity to establish a sustained Pacific presence. By working in close coordination with the United States and other Pacific powers, India could play a key role in establishing a fair, open and balanced maritime security architecture.

Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation where he heads the Maritime Security Initiative.