“What makes strategic sense may flout political reality”

James Holmes writes about US-Indian naval relations with China as the obvious mutual threat, “Negotiations on sharing logistics and military bases in the Pacific Ocean have exposed the sturm und drang plaguing recent U.S.-India relations. In mid-April, during U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s trip to South Asia, he and Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikarannounced that the two countries had plans to sign an agreement known as a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) “within weeks.” Though details on the agreement remain scant, Carter declared that the Indian and U.S. armed services are now “operating together by air, land, and sea, collaborating on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and maritime security.” And by agreeing “in principle to share and exchange logistics,” the two countries would have the capacity to “do even more” in such missions. This agreement would, presumably, grant each country’s navy access to the other’s naval bases and allow for expedited refueling and reprovisioning. But more than a few weeks have now elapsed since Carter’s trip — and there have been few signs of movement toward consummating a deal between the two administrations. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has come under fire from political opponents who object to any pact that might grant U.S. forces access to Indian soil. And thus it appears that New Delhi may have backpedaled on LEMOA in an effort to placate them”. 

Holmes goes on to write “From a practical standpoint, the deal makes good sense for both the United States and India. Both have interests spanning maritime Asia. Both find it sensible to work together to contend with an increasingly brawny and bellicose China. And over the past few years, the United States and India have been collaborating on aircraft-carrier design, debating manufacturing fighter aircraft on the subcontinent, and generally expanding the scope of their high-seas cooperation. Pooling logistical support — thus extending both armed forces’ reach and staying power in distant seas — is part of that new spirit of partnership. Good things are happening. Why not then sign LEMOA? But what makes strategic sense may flout political reality. Each action to tighten diplomatic or military ties between India and the United States summons an equal and opposite pushback from the Indian body politic”.

He asks the question why is naval logistics seen as so important, “Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have wanted to conclude a logistics pact with New Delhi. Such an agreement would represent an important token of closer partnership between the world’s two largest democracies and a platform for bigger undertakings to come. For the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, known collectively as the sea services, the case for pooling logistics is self-evident. Warships need fuel and stores every few days to remain at sea. Yet the U.S. fleet of combat logistics ships — oilers, ammunition ships, cargo ships of all varieties — is woefully small: Just 30 of these workhorse vessels support U.S. naval operations throughout the seven seas. And even that figure exaggerates. Factor in the rhythm of training, routine upkeep, and major overhauls, and U.S. Navy task forces can count on, at most, about 17 logistics ships”.

He later makes the point that “Without permanent bases, naval forces can improvise, however. During World War II, for example, the U.S. Navy built a massive fleet of logistics vessels, including not just replenishment ships, but also destroyer and submarine tenders: floating repair shops capable of conducting all but the farthest-reaching repairs to damaged hulls. Thus equipped, the Navy could create mobile fleet anchorages such as Ulithi, an atoll along U.S. naval forces’ route to the Philippines and the southern Japanese island of Okinawa. Planting new logistics hubs along the U.S. lines of advance helped the U.S. military surge across the Pacific Ocean toward the Japanese mainland. This approach is viable during total war. In peacetime, however, naval forces cannot simply seize territory and convert them to refueling bases. Washington must court friendly host nations — like India — to gain access. The Indian Navy likewise needs access to shore installations to voyage beyond the subcontinent’s immediate environs. Look at a map of Eurasia. The U.S. sea services operate mainly from logistics hubs such as Yokosuka and Sasebo in Japan and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. In other words, they’re positioned at the extreme east and west of the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean theater. India is a peninsula of colossal proportions jutting into the Indian Ocean, occupying a central position along the sea lanes connecting Japan with the Persian Gulf”.

Pointedly he notes “While China’s naval buildup garners most of the headlines, the Indian Navyis a force on the move as well (albeit trailing its Chinese counterpart in numbers and quality of ships, aircraft, and armaments). Indian Navy spokesmen have projected a fleet of 200 vessels by 2027, compared to the 137 they have as of mid-2015. That fleet will include aircraft carriers (ships the Indian Navy has operated for decades); nuclear-powered attack and ballistic-missile submarines; and a growing contingent of high-tech surface combat ships to defend carriers from aerial, missile, and undersea attacks. Yet the infrastructure to support naval operations far from Indian coasts remains minimal. If India wants to operate at the eastern or western reaches of maritime Eurasia, it needs logistical support. If the United States wants to operate between those extremes, its sea services can benefit immensely from port access in that South Asian midsection. Reciprocal benefits beckon”.

He goes on to argue that India is relucant to sign the agreement because “Indians remain palpably skittish about the accord. The document has been in the works for more than a decade, yet New Delhi can’t quite bring itself to close the deal. Indeed, during Carter’s mid-April trip, his Indian counterpart, Parrikar, announced only that “Secretary Carter and I agreed in principle to conclude a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement in the coming months.” “In principle” is diplomatic shorthand for: This ain’t a done deal yet. Indian defence officials, furthermore, were quick to add that the covenant, if signed, would not grant automatic U.S. access to Indian bases. Still less does LEMOA amount to a military alliance. New Delhi telegraphed that it would not sign away its freedom to say no to U.S.-led military enterprises that could ensnare India in regional conflict. And why would it? No one likes to issue blank checks, even to friends or allies. Political blowback follows failure as surely as night follows day: see War, Iraq, 2003. India would not be spared the blowback from a similar U.S.-led debacle”.

He adds that “Indian leaders, in short, fear they could implicate their nation by joining the fray in any capacity. And Indian leaders also probably fret about pressure from China — which would never let them forget it if some operation went awry, hurting Chinese interests in South Asia. An errant venture could hurt New Delhi’s good name, damaging its standing with fellow Indian Ocean states. Worse, it might even embroil India in conflict with its neighbours. That’s why even the appearance of abridging India’s nonaligned posture makes officialdom queasy”.

He concludes “India, moreover, is mindful of its stature as the Indian Ocean’s natural hegemon. The United States may be a friendly, English-speaking, democratic seafaring state. It’s also a non-Asian great power whose navy dominates India’s backyard. That rankles, even as New Delhi welcomes its help in policing regional waters and fending off the rival great power that is China. Neither the partners’ common English language, nor common heritage as scions of the British Empire, nor common form of government, nor common purpose of keeping order at sea will beget a formal alliance soon — if ever”.

He ends “Only a truly overbearing China might overcome this rocky past. Indian leaders have voiced misgivings, for instance, about the presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, a presence that is becoming more and more routine. They also worry that Beijing will transform its limited presence at places like Gwadar and Djibouti into a full-blown network of naval facilities — a precursor to a standing naval presence that encircles the subcontinent from the sea. Until China’s ambitions come into sharper focus, however, the push-and-pull dynamic between Washington and New Delhi will portend fitful progress and an uncertain outcome. This U.S. administration and the next must keep working toward an entente — but it must work at India’s pace, framing the rationale for naval cooperation in terms of India’s interests as India construes them. There’s no substitute for patient diplomacy toward this reluctant friend”.


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