Manish Tewari | Talk ties mindfully, do not squander options

With the People’s Liberation Army of China menacing India’s northern borders it is quite natural for India to look for military allies.

On October 27, the foreign and defence ministers of India will sit down with their US counterparts for what is called a 2+2 dialogue. The dialogue would take place exactly one week before the US Presidential elections scheduled for 3rd of November 2020. Former Vice-President Joe Biden has a 10-point lead over the incumbent President Donald Trump in the national polls. However, given the manner in which the US electoral college system is structured, it does not guarantee a victory on election night. Hilary Clinton and much of the world’s liberals realised it much to their peril despite Mrs Clinton leading in the polls by a wide margin in 2016.

The 2+2 dialogue is taking place when the Sino-Indian border situation remains tense and peace is at best fragile. On the agenda is the signing of the last of the foundational agreements — BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement). It will enable the sharing of advanced geo-spatial intelligence between the US and India and enable better targeting of armed drones and missiles.

Earlier in August 2016, The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) was signed between the two nations that gave basing facilities to each other’s militaries, especially both the navies. Later in September of 2018 India and the US signed The Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that allows for encrypted communications between the defence establishments of the two nations — a la dedicated WhatsApp or Telegram.

This troika of foundational agreements marks the conclusion of a process that commenced three decades back when the Agreed Minute on Defence Relationship was signed in 1995. It was followed by extended continent hopping dialogue between Late Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot post the nuclear tests of 1998. That conversation set the tone for the reset of the Indo-US relationship. It was followed by the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) in 2003, New Framework for the Indo-US Defence Relationship in 2005 and the Indo-US civil nuclear deal in 2008, Defence Technology and Trade Initative (DTTI) in 2012, the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in 2015 and the US-India Knowledge Partnership in Defense Studies to flag but a few key milestones of this momentous journey.

Out of all these agreements, the 2005 New Framework for Defence Cooperation was seminal. Signed on the 28th of June 2005 between the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Indian defence minister Late Pranab Mukherjee it crossed the rubicon of distrust and ushered in a new era in defence cooperation. Its objectives were as follows — maintaining security and stability; defeating terrorism and violent religious extremism; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and associated materials, data, and technologies; and protecting the free flow of commerce via land, air and sea lanes. The agreement envisaged that the Defense Policy Group shall continue to serve as the primary mechanism to guide the US-India strategic defence relationship.

The reason why this agreement is important — it surmounted a trust deficit that had bedeviled the Indo-US strategic paradigm despite the US helping India in the Sino-India border war of 1962. At that critical point in time India reached out to the US when the erstwhile Soviet Union winked, nudged, looked the other way and essentially greenlighted the Chinese aggression in 1962 so that the Chinese would not break ranks with the broader Communist bloc over the Cuban missile crisis.

However the roots of the Indo-US mistrust pre-date this brief period of cooperation if not bonhomie in 1962. It had everything to do with Pakistan. There was a sizeable body of opinion in India that believed that the creation of Pakistan had less to do with the Chowdhary Rehmat Ali, Iqbal and Jinnah combine and more to do with the Anglo-American alliance looking for a reliable buffer in West and Central Asia against Soviet expansionism post World War-2. This theory gained credence when Pakistan in the May of 1954 signed the Mutual Defence Assistance Agreement with the United States. Later in that year it became a member of the South-East Asian Treaty organisation SEATO along with United States, Britain, France, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand.

On 24th February 1955, it joined the Baghdad Pact-Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), another mutual defence organisation along with Britain, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The United States was the linchpin of this arrangement. Early in 1959, Pakistan signed (as did Turkey and Iran) a bilateral Agreement of Cooperation with the United States, which was designed further reinforce CENTO. In December 1971 at the height of the war to liberate Bangladesh the US attempted to intervene in Pakistan’s favor when the US Navy’s Task Force-74 of the Seventh Fleet steamed into the Bay of Bengal in conjunction with a British naval group led by the aircraft carrier, HMS Eagle with commando carrier HMS Albion, several destroyers that headed into India's territorial waters from west.

India requested Moscow for help under the August 1971 treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. Responding to India’s request with alacrity Moscow on December 13, 1971, dispatched a nuclear-armed flotilla, the 10th Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet) from Vladivostok, under the Command of Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov. Russia deployed two task groups; in total two cruisers, two destroyers, six submarines, and support vessels. A group of Il-38 Anti Submarine Warfare aircraft from Aden air base in Yemen provided support. India’s relationship with two super powers had traversed the whole nine yards in the nine years between 1962 and 1971.

With the People’s Liberation Army of China menacing India’s northern borders it is quite natural for India to look for military allies. The US by far remains the most powerful outside power balancer even today in every part of the world. The quad is also anchored by the US for all intents and purposes. However, defence relationships define a country’s foreign and strategic policies in the global arena. It would have implications qua Russia and even the other mid-sized powers around the world. Moreover, if Joe Biden were to become the US President, the US may look for a reset of its relationship qua China. The Democrats have a far different worldview from the current incumbent of the White House. India should evaluate its options with open eyes and not without a full debate in Parliament. For the only logical step after this would be to become a non-Nato ally of the US, just as Pakistan and 16 other countries are. Incidentally, despite leading the US up the garden path post 9/11, the Pentagon and the Pakistani deep state remain very close.

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