For decades, India resisted the temptation and various enticements to enter into any kind of defense or military agreement with another country that could end up embroiling it in someone else's war. This strategic impartiality may be over after the signing of an agreement with the United States to share land, air and naval bases.
Whatever gloss the two sides put up to divert criticism and speculation, it is clear that, primarily, this is not intended for peacetime activities. Countries may offer urgent refueling and maintenance services to others during peace, even in the absence of any formal agreement.
However, deals made after much covert and overt discussion to share defense facilities usually aim to seek security in future crisis situations, including wars.
There is a simple principle of armed conflict that provision of services to military vessels during wartime show on which side of the divide a country stands. To say the least, the logistic support agreement between the United States and India is a military deal with definite objectives for both peace and war.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter was categorical in declaring after signing the agreement that it would make the "logistics of joint operations" far easier for the two countries.
One may ask, therefore: joint operations against whom? Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar supported Carter's assertion by saying the agreement would facilitate not only joint operations, but also help in conducting "joint exercises" and "humanitarian" missions.
The terminology used may certainly disturb some of India's neighbors. Though, China is not specifically mentioned in the agreement, it is clear it could play an important role in case of any confrontation between India or the United States and China.
For example, Parrikar talked about the issue of freedom of navigation when he said during the joint press briefing with Carter that "India and the United States have a shared interest in freedom of navigation and over-flight and unimpeded commerce as part of rule-based order in the Indo-Pacific region."
In this, he was parroting the U.S. policy guideline that the South China Sea should be open for unhindered navigation and international communication.
The Pentagon has been in search of dependable allies to checkmate China in this particular region as part of American "pivot" and "rebalancing" policies. Despite all its efforts, it has not so far been able to forge a powerful alliance like NATO, which was conceived and developed to counter a threat from the former Soviet Union.
Hence, America might have been forced to change the policy of reliance on big military alliances that can be difficult to control. It is comparatively easier to manage an individual country through a separate agreement to provide services like refueling, repair or outright military support in case of conflict.
The agreement with India fills a gap in American posturing in the Pacific. It seems that Washington was able to convince India that the two countries face a common threat, namely China, which is a strong economic and military power and already has some unresolved issues with Japan and South Korea, both of which have longstanding defense agreements with the United States, at a time when the issue of South China Sea and the friction between China and countries like the Philippines have assumed immense strategic important.
According to some experts, India is joining the American-sponsored agreement with an eye to obtaining the latest defense equipment and technology from its new ally, while the United States has a bigger game-plan to implement its strategic policy in the region.
However, although the agreement is silent about China, the absence of any escape clause specifically stating the agreed refueling and repair services would not be used in any conflict with China could mean India being drawn into any such military action.
The point is how far India might go to fulfill its real and imaginary defense needs, while hurting its ties with its neighbors. Is it just the beginning of a long term defense relationship?
The next step could be hosting of each other's troops and possibly a joint defense actions in case of a war. According to reports, the two sides are already negotiating at least two more agreements regarding communications and data sharing.
Sajjad Malik is a columnist with China.org.cn.
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