Wikileaks and the India-US Defense Agreement

Original source: People's Democracy

The article published in The Hindu ( March 28, 2011) on the Wikileaks cables focusing on the landmark Indo-US Agreement of June 2005 on a ‘New Framework for US-India Defense Relationship’ as part of a wider strategic engagement between India and the US has received less attention than it deserves. (The writer must himself take some blame for not writing this piece earlier!) It covers a very significant period of modern India in which the UPA government took the country decisively into the US strategic orbit, and which witnessed a still unfolding process that included three watershed agreements between India and the US. The other two accords, both intimately connected to this one, were the India-US joint statement of July 2005 issued after the summit in the US between the then president George W Bush and prime minister Manmohan Singh, which took the next steps in strategic partnership entered into with the US by the earlier NDA government to a new level, and of course the 123 civil nuclear cooperation agreement which cemented the new strategic alliance.

Hopefully we are going to be treated to further Wikileaks installments dealing with these other agreements too, and their inter-connectedness. Till then we must content ourselves with this glimpse and infer from it what we can about the broader strategic engagement. Yet even this brief look provides some fascinating insights into how this engagement was viewed by both sides.

Left was correct

The first thing that strikes one is that, looking at the bigger picture, there are no startling new revelations, and very few surprises. Most of what we can read from the Wikileaks cables was already known, and had been brought out especially by the Left and by many other strategic commentators during that time. Yet to see it all come together in one place, brought out by official US documented exchanges, is important enough. And fresh light is also thrown on some key aspects, even if not in the referenced The Hindu article itself, if one connects the dots and reads between the lines.

Apart from anything else, the cables should convince the average reader that the Left in particular was not spinning out some paranoid conspiracy theory about US intentions and its orchestration of events, including micro-manipulations of government officials and elected representatives both high and low, towards the outcomes it desired. Indeed, several cables show it was the vigorous Left opposition to the deepening India-US strategic engagement, and the impact this critique was having in the wider polity and public opinion, which pulled the reins at least somewhat and kept the US horses from bolting with the Indian carriage. The US Embassy in Delhi for instance notes its frustration that the Indian leadership, though willing, was holding back because of its anxiety about the political campaign that “India is sub-serving its foreign policy to that of the US.”

This unfavorable environment engendered by the predominantly though not solely Left critique, with the Embassy analysis often pointing figures at the Nehruvian perspectives among sections of the foreign policy establishment also, seems to have  the major reason for the UPA government going backing off from, or going slow on, several foundational bilateral agreements that the US was pushing. As a result India did not sign, and indeed has yet to sign, the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (re-named Logistics Support Agreement to appear more innocuous) that provides for use of each other’s facilities and obtain refueling and other services on credit during operations, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement or CISMOA whereby air, sea and land assets of both sides can communicate with each other through common hardware and encryption software as forces of US allies do during NATO operations, the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation or BECA.

The US always claims that all these agreements will help the sale and transfer of advanced technologies to India and the latter two are indeed essential for sales of advanced and sensitive equipment. The cables show that in reality the US intention was to bind India into a web of military relationships both for their immediate strategic dividends for the US Pacific Command embracing East and South East Asia, and, as the cables show, as a part of the larger US strategy “to move the India-US mil-to-mil relationship closer.”

One new bit of information in the cables is that the US wanted to go even one step further and get India to agree to “Cooperative Security Locations” or CSLs, which are fully equipped military facilities in a dormant base that can be activated for operational use at short notice. This seemed too much even for pro-US sections of the Indian leadership!

Not that they have been converted! In fact, the UPA political leadership is slowly but surely finding backdoor means to achieve closer military ties. In some cases such as with the End-Use Agreements which the US normally insists on for government-to-government sales, and which gives the US rights to inspect military equipment sold to other countries on site and determine how they are used, India has not formally signed them but in 2009 agreed to language in annexures to sales contracts that are tantamount to the same. Similarly, India has gone along with the idea of interdiction on the high seas without actually signing the USA’s Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

Strategy, not just sales   

Much has been made in strategic and defense circles of the commercial angle to the India-US defense relationship. Articles constantly refer to the opening up of the Indian defense market to US suppliers and the potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that could be garnered for US companies through such sales. The cables too have reference to $14 billion annual purchases by India and $27 million acquisitions market just in the near term. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the cable extracts contained in The Hindu article is that, whereas this commercial aspect is undoubtedly important to the US, military sales to India are essentially seen not as ends in themselves but as part of a larger goal of drawing India into the US geo-strategic orbit.

Of course, cables originating from the US Embassy in India placed strong emphasis on the commercial side of military equipment sales for after all promoting commercial interests are important part of any Embassy’s mandate. However, US foreign policy is not limited to commerce, nor is it run from Roosevelt House, New Delhi but rather from Foggy Bottom and the White House. Thus, after the then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s announcement during her visit to Delhi that the US desire to assist India to become a world power, the US ambassador to India David Mulford conveyed to the Indian leadership that “energy, military cooperation, space and defense sales were the key areas” through which the US would do this. In the run-up to the signing of the defense agreement, the cables show much discussion on military sales to India, the need to take on board the persistent Indian demand for technology transfer if this window of commercial and strategic opportunity is to open up for the US, and the positive US response to such sales, drawing the conclusion that “military ties have developed into one of the most important and robust aspects of the… dramatic improvements in relations” between the US and India.

The cables reveal clearly that US strategic and foreign policy objectives vis-à-vis India, rather than commercial gains howsoever important, were the main drivers behind the burgeoning defense relationship. Sales of military equipment are seen as a key route to forging stronger military-to-military relationships which themselves are viewed as a crucial but not the sole component of a broader geo-strategic alliance.

Indeed, despite several large orders from India for military equipment, this is why the cables show, the impatience and frustration of the US at the lack of forward movement or slow pace of enlarging he scope of the defense pact through the foundational agreements or other substantive and formal actions demonstrating geo-strategic convergence between India and the US.

Since then, India has acquired US military hardware worth a whopping $10 billion. Equipment bought from the US include the USS Trenton (now INS Jalashwa) troop carrier ship, P8I maritime reconnaissance aircraft, Hercules C130J heavy lift transporter aircraft and other items. Despite the total volume of these transactions, the cables show that the US still longs for that “breakthrough sale,” especially the mega-order of 126 multi-role combat aircraft, now made possible by the End-Use Agreement and the agreement on licensed manufacture in India. The significance of such a sale for the US would be not just its commercial value but its importance for “deepening our mil-mil relationship and developing the military interoperability that will help our strategic partnership realize its potential”. It is argued by US diplomats that such sales with make a “sustained relationship far more robust than exercises and exchanges. If we can continue our trend of major military sales, we will cement a relationship for the next several decades with the most stable country in South Asia.”

Turning skepticism into opportunity      

The cables also throw light on some interesting and hitherto unexplored dimension to Indian military acquisitions, especially from the US.

For one, the cables record considerable resistance in India, notably from the military leadership but also from a broader constituency of sections of the defense production sector, the strategic and foreign policy community, and journalists including defense correspondents, to strategic military acquisitions from the US. The Indian military brass appears to show deep-seated suspicions about US reliability as a supplier especially in time of conflict when, it fears, the US may impose sanctions or otherwise block supplies. The cables note the obvious reluctance of military leaders regarding acquisitions and deployment in theaters potentially involving Pakistan.

The above mentioned acquisitions are interesting in this light. They are mostly stand-alone acquisitions for longer-range or indirect roles, whereas the fighter aircraft would be frontline combat aircraft likely to find use in the neighborhood. The cables’ repeated reference to support from the military especially the navy for expanded military relations with the US should also perhaps be seen in this light. The navy not surprisingly finds considerable value in the experience gained from joint exercises using modern networking systems, and also looks positively at the prospect of strengthening its deep-water capabilities through such collaborations. None of these involve major hardware acquisitions that may be hampered in times of conflict. The air force chief has gone on record as saying CISMOA would not affect his service’s operational preparedness. The point is, weapon systems are a military’s bread and butter. And no military worth its salt would compromise its ability to be self-reliant within the nation especially in time of conflict when such equipment would actually be put to the use for which it was intended.

This is obviously linked to India’s defense industry capabilities to produce and maintain the major military hardware the armed services require. The on-going effort in India to address the well-known deficiencies of the Indian defense production sector is an unfolding story and cannot be addressed in this article. But we may briefly note that the Wikileaks cables throw a hitherto little noticed and interesting, new light on this aspect too.

The cables show US officials both in the US and especially in the Embassy in New Delhi repeatedly noting the strong Indian requirement for technology transfer to accompany any military sales. The cables reveal the US establishment, not being accustomed to such arrangements, gradually coming around to the idea in the interest of promoting the strategic partnership it wants “at a time when the goal of establishing a key strategic relationship... with one of Asia's rising giants... is becoming reality.” The cables show a US decision to project itself as a “reliable strategic partner for defense co-production, technology sharing, and joint research [while] using military sales as the platform for cooperation [to] catalyze development of India's defense sector [and] spin off new industries.” With typical American push, US officials suggest that the defense production and procurement group set up under the defense agreement could then “lay the foundation for direct interaction among Indian and U S business leaders aimed at creating corporate structures as the basis for defense cooperation, beginning with a few discreet projects.”

We are today witnessing an unfolding of this US stratagem. The UPA government has not only liberalized the offsets regime by various means including opening up civilian sector offsets which would benefit companies such as Boeing but has also decisively opened up the defense sector to the private sector including with foreign collaboration and portfolio investment.  So not only will US interests be promoted in terms of military sales by agreeing to licensed manufacture or other offsets or collaboration as India wanted, this could be further advanced by tweaking these collaboration arrangements such that US defense manufacturers gain a foothold in the Indian defense manufacturing sector! But that’s the subject of another article!

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