India may not admit it but its new deal with the US can change the balance of power in Asia

Time to tango.
Time to tango.
Image: AP/Mark Wilson
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India’s decision to sign a defence logistics agreement with the US has attracted a great deal of commentary in recent days.

Despite appeals by the Indian government to defence analysts and political watchers to not view the Logistics Exchange Memoranda of Agreement (LEMOA) as a “military pact,” the idea of providing the US military with operational access to Indian facilities hasn’t resonated favourably with a section of India’s strategic elite.

The critics appear convinced that the pact does not benefit India in the same way that it advantages the US military. As a leading Indian defence 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, defence ministry officials find themselves under pressure to explain why they believe an agreement with the US on military logistics is in India’s best interests.

New Delhi’s stock response has been that the pact is strictly “conditional,” and allows access to supplies and services to the military forces of both countries only when engaged in a specific set of predetermined activities.

At a press conference in Washington following the signing of the agreement, Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar was at pains to explain that the agreement had nothing to do with the setting up of a military base. “It’s only about logistics support to each other’s fleet,” he averred, “like supply of fuel, supply of many other things which are required for joint operations, humanitarian assistance and many other relief operations.”

Permanent bases are passé

And yet, there is little denying the fact 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 lifeblood 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 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 US still has a globe-girdling presence, but few among its existing overseas facilities are permanent military 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, the US came to dominate the world’s economic and strategic landscape through hundreds of military bases located in countries around the world.

A military base was seen as a forward deployment position to enforce a denial regime on the enemy. It was a useful way of keeping the pressure on adversaries, and it allowed the US 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 kick in vis-à-vis foreign military bases. After struggling with rising domestic opposition to its military presence in Asia, the US has been looking for more pragmatic options.

Smart pacts

Since prolonged military presence on a foreign land isn’t a practical solution to any of its strategic problems, the US 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 US 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 US military presence in foreign locations advance America’s imperialist ambitions.

It is instructive that the US 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. This includes those in the Philippines where America has gained access to four military bases that aren’t any less potent than its erstwhile permanent bases in the country.

Apart from enabling training and capacity building, area-patrols, aerial surveys, and fleet exercises, the logistical agreements empower US partner states to call upon the US Navy to provide critical military assistance during crises. In effect, it enables the achievement of a set of strategic objectives for Washington and its Asian partners.

The US, 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.

China joins the game

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) logistical base at Djibouti doesn’t just provide support for China’s anti-piracy missions, but also enables a round-the-year naval presence in the Indian Ocean. What’s more, China’s recent commercial facilities in the Indian Ocean region seem more in the nature of dual-use bases that 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 US-India operational coordination in Asia. Notwithstanding Parrikar’s assurances to the contrary, closer Indo-US maritime interaction will increasingly involve operational access to each other’s bases for strategic purposes. As a result, the reciprocal logistic support will increasingly be used to achieve a favourable balance-of-power in Asia.

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.

Given the fraught nature of strategic security in the Asian commons, India has been looking for ways to emphasize a rules-based order in the region. In order to consolidate its status as a crucial security provider, the Indian Navy must act in close coordination with the US Navy to ensure a fair, open and balanced regional security architecture.

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