By: John Elliott

New Delhi doesn’t really trust Washington and many US policy experts regard India as a tiresome non-performer, but both countries need each other because of China’s increasing adventurism and aggression, and this is leading to a flurry of activity before President Obama’s time in office finishes at the end of this year.

A historic defense deal called LEMOA, or Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement to give it its full name, was signed in Washington on Aug. 29 between the two countries’ defense ministers, Ashton Carter and Manohar Parrikar. After tortuous negotiations lasting some 14 years, it provides for both countries making their naval, air force and army bases available to each other for servicing and repairs on a case by case basis.

At the same time, America’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, was arriving in Delhi for the second India-US strategic and commercial dialogue that includes India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, and both countries’ commerce ministers. Their agenda has ranged from climate change and clean energy to cyber co-operation and arbitration arrangements.

Obama, who has a built a constructive relationship with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, may be in the closing months of his presidency, but there is a continuing momentum in the country’s overall strategic links. These began in 2004, though India is intensely wary, and both sides have let progress slip at various times.

The US sees India primarily as a buffer against China and would like to build a closer relationship as allies, but India is prepared to go no further than being a partner on various fronts while pursuing its own independent interests. In the past that has included refusing to join US-led boycotts of Iran and Myanmar.

The US has emerged as a major supplier of defense equipment with orders totaling some US$4.4 billion in just the past three years, and has taken part in several joint military exercises. Russia however remains India’s most consistent defense supplier and partner and, significantly, the US failed to make the short-list on a key multi-billion dollar jet fighter deal that it coveted.

The defense logistics agreement is historic because it shows what can eventually be achieved, while also illustrating India’s concerns. The signing owes much to the sensitivity and persistence of Ashton Carter, America’s secretary for defense and India’s most prominent supporter in the Obama administration. He said after the signing that he had spent more time with Parrikar since taking on his job than with any other defense minister anywhere in the world.

“Over the last two years, Carter and Parrikar have built up an unlikely rapport – the former a defense and security technocrat and academic; the latter a street-savvy politician, albeit with an Indian Institute of Technology degree,”says Ajai Shukla, an Indian defense journalist and analyst.

“Foundational pacts”

When the discussions on the logistics deal began in 2002, it was one of the four “foundational pacts” that the US had expected to push India into agreeing quite quickly, but Washington’s  defense officials seriously under-estimated the time it would take to achieve just two of them.

An End User Verification Agreement, which was signed in 2009, paved the way for the US to become a major defense supplier by laying down restrictions on India passing technology on to other countries. But a Communications Interoperability & Security Memorandum of Agreement and a Basic Exchange & Cooperation Agreement on Geo-spatial Services have not been agreed and seem unlikely to make much progress in the near future.

This is because of concern both in India’s defense establishment and among opposition political parties that India is gradually moving into what could become a formal military alliance that would drag it into America’s international action in places such as Iran and Syria.

“We resisted this agreement for long because we didn’t want to give the perception that we are ganging up with Americans against somebody else, in particular China,” says Pallam Raju, a  defense minister of state in the previous Congress-led government.

India’s defense ministry has tried to answer that point by stressing that the agreement neither created “any obligations” on either India or the US “to carry out any joint activity,” nor provided “for the establishment of any bases or basing arrangements.” It would be used “exclusively during authorized port visits, joint exercises, joint training, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.”

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India’s powerful neighbor China is of course far from happy, as one of its official mouthpieces has made clear (reported above on Indian TV news). After praising India’s traditional international independence, the Global Times warned: “If India hastily joins the US alliance system, it may irritate China, Pakistan or even Russia. It may not make India feel safer, but will bring strategic troubles to itself and make itself a center of geopolitical rivalries in Asia.”

China is getting into the habit of warning other countries about what or what not to do as it becomes more aggressive internationally, though there is of course nothing new in it coercing others to follow its line. Some 25 years ago, when I was reporting for the Financial Times from Hong Kong, it was providing economic aid for small countries to persuade them not to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country,

Now the stakes are far higher, as the Chinese ambassadors in both London and Delhi have shown in recent weeks with dire warnings to their host countries about failing to fall in with Beijing’s wishes. One was over a China-backed nuclear power station project at Hinkley Point in Britain that the UK government is reconsidering.

The other was about India’s concern over China’s recent belligerent adventurism in the South China Sea, where the new agreement could become significant if India allows US ships patrolling in those waters to use its naval bases.

Perhaps India would have been less willing to sign up with the US if China had responded constructively to friendly moves initiated by Modi. Instead, it has blocked India’s entry into an international nuclear supplies body, has strengthened its ties with Pakistan, and has failed to make progress resolving differences on its disputed Himalayan border.

With Modi’s friendly overtures leading to that sort of negative response from Beijing, India seems to have had little to lose by doing the logistics deal while Obama and his friendly defense secretary are still in office.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding The Elephant can be found at the right side of Asia Sentinel’s homepage.