Indian diplomacy backed only by “soft power” is facing many challenges with its neighbours — Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and Nepal — increasingly coming under Chinese influence, while Pakistan, which is being courted by Russia and China, seeks to get back into the good books of the United States, whose unpredictable President Donald Trump has to decide if India is a “strategic partner” when he takes a decision on waiving sanctions due to Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) as India imports arms from Russia and oil from Iran. Hopefully, India has a Plan B to cater for a worst-case scenario, despite the recent signing of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (Comcasa) in New Delhi.
What does a nation do when confronted by a rising hegemonic power, China, which is adding two blue-water warships to its Navy every month, after successive Indian governments have degraded its military capability and its scientists cannot make even a decent rifle for its troops, and it faces American sanctions like CAATSA for procuring Russian arms or needs to bring its Iranian energy imports to “zero” by November 4, 2018?
India did what it could do diplomatically: invited the mercurial US President to be the chief guest for the 2019 Republic Day parade (he has not confirmed attendance yet); signed the Helicopter Operations from Ships other Than Aircraft Carriers (HOSTAC); cleared imports of 24 MH-70 multi-role ship-borne helicopters (worth about $2 billion); indicated willingness to import an American “missile shield” for protecting Delhi against a 9/11-type terror attack (worth $1 billion) and on September 6, 2018 signed the Comcasa during the inaugural “2+2” dialogue in New Delhi. It agreed to have a hotline between the Indian foreign and defence ministers and their American counterparts, conduct the first-ever Indo-US tri-service military exercise in 2019 off the Indian east coast, depute an Indian Navy officer to the United States Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), which deals with US Navy operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Americans agreed to push for India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, while both issued a statement against Pakistan-sponsored terror. Also, the US secretary of state has said that “the US understands the Indian need for Russian arms and time needed to unwind from Iranian oil imports” — the ultimate decision of course rests with President Trump.
India has now signed two of the three “foundational agreements” (“Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement” or LEMOA in 2016 and Comcasa in 2018) and is expected to sign Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA) in the future. All these will permit India as a “major defence partner” to import new American technology, receive the latest tactical pictures in real time from American units to American-origin Indian platforms like warships, naval P8I LRMP aircraft, MH-70 ship-borne helicopters, Sea Guardian armed drones, and IAF aircraft like C17, C130, Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, etc. The US is the global leader in satellite reconnaissance, electronic intelligence (ELINT) gathering, maritime domain awareness (MDA), anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and amphibious warfare. Thus, the Indian Navy would be major beneficiary from these real-time intelligence inputs, which would provide information on the location of Chinese warships, submarines in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and rest of Indo-Pacific Region (IPR), and also the daily location of about 70 supertankers which each carry over 100,000 tonnes of crude oil to China from the Middle East via the Sunda and Lombok straits.
Thus, given the accurate real-time inputs, the limited assets of the Indian Navy could be optimally employed to locate and track Chinese warships, subs, merchant ships in the vast IOR. Of course, the Americans would expect reciprocal inputs from the Indian Navy via the new IN-USN communications data links. The important issue for the IN would be to have safe and secure communications-cum-data links with its other non-American origin units, particularly its largely Russian-origin submarine force of conventional and nuclear subs, while having a “data interface” between its own units of American origin and non-American origin units. Another likely sticky point which would need to be resisted in the future maybe proposed American agreement to share details of IN submarine patrol areas in the interest of “underwater space management”, similar to what the Americans have with Japan and the UK, but not France. Further, Russia (which like Japan) also wants a LEMOA agreement with India, may also insist on a Comcasa and BECA-type agreements for strategic reasons, since it supplies 62 per cent of Indian military hardware, and is the only supplier to India of nuclear subs (SSNs), long-range SAMs like SA400, nuclear power plants, oil and gas, and assists in Indian space exploration. Incidentally, India and France also signed a LEMOA-type agreement this year.
The next two months are crucial for India. President Vladimir Putin is expected to arrive in New Delhi in October for a summit meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the two countries are expected to sign a $12 billion deal for S-400, an SSN on lease, four frigates, and light utility Kamov helicopters. The US Senate has authorised President Trump to waive off CAATSA sanctions for India, Indonesia and Vietnam. It’s to be seen if President Trump does authorise this waiver. In any case, India, the US and Russia will need to work out long-term agreements to avoid this Damocles sword of CAATSA. India imports over 23 per cent of its energy needs from Iran and is poised to take over management of strategic Chabahar port shortly to get strategic access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics (CAR). A high-level Iranian team was recently in New Delhi to negotiate modalities to continue trade after the November 4, 2018 deadline (when the US will sanction those trading with Iran).
Their is no doubt that India has bargained hard to protect its national interests: LEMOA covers basically fuel transfers in port or at sea in only four conditions viz port calls, joint exercises, training and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Any other requirements have to be mutually agreed on a “case by case” basis. The planned 2019 first-ever Indo-US tri-service exercise, off the east coast of India, is being done after India did a similar first ever tri-service exercise with Russia in Vladivostok a few months back.
And herein lies the challenge to Indian diplomacy — how to manage strategic relations with long-term partner Russia (which is still not only the largest military supplier to India, but the only supplier of strategic platforms like nuclear subs and does transfer of technology or ToT) while increasing strategic ties with the US (which has sold over $17 billion worth of arms to India in the last decade, but has done no ToT).
India’s problems are further aggravated by its “focus on diplomacy without hard power”. China’s meteoric economic-cum-military rise with border disputes, a bankrupt and unstable nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is being courted by China, Russia and American focus on issues beyond “rising China” (Russia and Iran are seen as American enemies, while they are important to India).
Indeed, the present situation brings to mind the competition between European sea powers (Portuguese, French and British, etc) in the IOR after Vasco da Gama landed in Calicut, India, in 1498, who fought amongst themselves and against the “shortsighted, strategically clueless sea blind” leaders of the subcontinent, and finally colonised this land. History repeats itself is an old saying, and hopefully our leaders recognise the triple threats from terror, China and Pakistan, diplomatically manage strategic ties with the US and Russia while urgently focusing on creating an Indian military-industrial complex, carry out military reforms, review our “no first use” nuclear doctrine and plug the loopholes in our national security apparatus. And yes, have a Plan B, in case President Trump imposes any sanctions on India for its trade with Russia and Iran.