What they don’t tell you about Lemoa


Is it good for the country? Or bad? Here’s all you need to know about it

For years, India didn’t want to be seen as an ally of the US military. This, despite closer cooperation between the countries on issues ranging from trade to nuclear diplomacy. New Delhi even resisted pressure from Washington to send troops to Iraq and refused to toe the American line in Middle East conflicts. But the Lemoa agreement changes all that.

The logistics agreement the NDA government recently signed with the US had been in discussion for 14 years. The last two Prime Ministers delayed a decision on the pact — which lets India and the US access each other’s air and naval facilities — given the sensitivity of closer military cooperation with the US. But Prime Minister Modi has set aside the cautious pessimism his predecessors had observed. He has decided to go ahead with the pact, triggering a controversy.

The government explains that the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (Lemoa) doesn’t impact India’s strategic autonomy. It reasons that Lemoa is not a “basing” agreement, nor is it obligatory on either of the parties. It’s a deal between two equal sovereign countries that will benefit both. And therefore, there’s no structural change in India’s foreign policy, it claims.

To be fair, there’s some amount of truth in the government’s defence, though its argument still appears to be problematic. Lemoa is not a basing agreement. The US is not going to set up military bases in India—at least for now. And, technically speaking, the government is right on the obligation part as well. Though the governments are yet to release the full text of the Lemoa (which is dubious), both sides have clearly stated that decisions on sharing facilities will be taken case by case. For example, if US ships in the Indian Ocean or American war planes engaged in an operation in Asia want to refuel, repair or replenish in ports and bases, it should ask the Indian government for permission. What the Lemoa is doing is laying down the framework for such as possible cooperation.

Still, one has to look beyond the technical explanations to understand the long-term strategic consequences of defence partnership agreements. To begin with, this is not an agreement between two equal partners. The US is the world’s largest economy and most powerful military power, while India is a regional power in South Asia. Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force hardly stretch their reach beyond the Indian Ocean region. India is also not an expansive, bellicose power, from the historical point of view. All the wars India fought were in its immediate neighbourhood. So it’s hard to imagine an Indian combat ship or bomber jet using American bases and ports for repair and replenishment. On the other side, the US military is historically an imperial force. Frequently it launches wars on weaker countries. At present, the US is actively involved in combat operations in three Asian countries—Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. So naturally it’s the US which stands to gain from Lemoa, not India.

Secondly, even though the agreement is not obligatory, the question is whether India would be able to exercise its strategic autonomy once it’s drawn into the American bear hug. The recent history of India-US ties shows that India often compromises its traditional positions in its extended neighbourhood for American interests. Take the case of the nuclear deal. It’s during the negotiations for the nuclear deal, India appeared to be clearly tilting towards Washington. New Delhi voted against Iran, a traditional friend and trade partner, at the International Atomic Energy Agency over the country’s nuclear programme because the Americans wanted India to do so. It also cut down purchase of oil from Iran, pulled out of a tri-party gas pipeline agreement and delayed decision on developing a port on Iran’s Chabahar that would give India alternative route to Central Asia bypassing Pakistan. Narendra Modi cleared the Chabahar project only after Iran and Western powers had reached an agreement on the country’s nuclear programme, and by that time China had made strong inroads into Iran. This shows there’s a pattern of eroding strategic autonomy in New Delhi when it comes to its ties with the US. In that case, the Lemoa would only accelerate this erosion.

Thirdly, the Lemoa would embolden the perception in India’s neighbourhood that New Delhi is keen to play second fiddle to the Americans. They would argue that there’s a slow but clear pattern in the development of US-India relations—it’s moving from a trade partner to a military ally. If Indian bases are opened for American air planes now, the next obvious step would be letting the US set up its own bases in India. New Delhi’s greatest capital in today’s Asian great game between China and the US is its “swing state” status. Any moves to jeopardise this status would draw us into this great game, which is not in the long term interests of the country. It doesn’t mean that India should move away from the US. It doesn’t mean that India should ignore the Chinese threat perception. New Delhi should continue to build capacities and deepen ties with great powers. But there has to be a fine line of difference. It should stay away from military alliances and be wary of getting stuck into great geopolitical conflicts. The fundamental problem with Lemoa is that it’s endangering India’s swing state status.

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