NEW DELHI/WASHINGTON — After nearly a decade of painstaking discussions, India and the United States signed a landmark defense agreement that will increase military cooperation between two of the world's largest democracies.
The agreement was finalized during an ongoing visit by Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar to Washington, D.C., and was touted as an indication of deeper defense ties between the two nations.
In a joint statement, Parrikar and the U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said discussions ranged from "increased strategic and regional cooperation, to deepened military-to-military exchanges, to expanded collaboration on defense technology and innovation."
In spite of the growing strategic proximity between the two nations, New Delhi has had deep reservations about this agreement for nearly a decade.
Many security officers and politicians in the previous government in India had warned that it could lock India into a formal and irreversible military alliance and push New Delhi into supporting American conflicts, a move that may upset countries like Russia, China and friendly nations in the Middle East.
"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," said Pallam Raju, former junior minister for defense in the previous government.
After several decades of Cold War era suspicion and chill, relations between India and the United States have transformed in the past decade with deepening commercial and strategic partnership after they signed the landmark civilian nuclear cooperation deal in 2008.
The process has speeded up under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, which over the past two years has strived to transform the ties between India and the United States from just a buyer-seller defense relationship into a deeper strategic alliance in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.
New Delhi has stressed the need for joint research and joint production of defense equipment.
The United States is the second largest defense equipment supplier to India with around $4.4 billion worth deals in the past three years. It is also India's most common partner in military exercises. Six years ago, President Barack Obama called the ties with India "the defining partnership for America in the 21st century."
The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement allows for reciprocal exchange of logistic support, supplies, and services between the two armed forces. This includes food, water, fuel, spare parts, repair, transportation, communication and medical services.
Washington, which has signed more than 100 such agreements with partner nations, promoted the deal as a way of building interoperability between the two militaries.
It has been a bumpy road to greater military cooperation. Every time the United States reached out for a deeper strategic embrace, New Delhi would take an awkward step back.
Earlier this year, senior military officer Adm. Harry Harris said at an event in New Delhi that soon the naval vessels of the two nations steaming together "will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Asia-Pacific waters." The statement was aimed at countering Beijing's expanding military footprint in the region and echoes Washington's expectation that India plays the potential of net security provider in Asia.
Parrikar immediately ruled out any plans for joint patrols by the two navies.
During the negotiations, the United States sought to address Indian concerns about being drawn into U.S. conflicts and tweaked the agreement accordingly.
The agreement, reached Aug. 30, "does not create any obligations on either party to carry out any joint activity. It does not provide for the establishment of any bases or basing arrangements," said the Indian government statement.
The agreement applies exclusively to authorized port visits, joint exercises, joint training, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.
The agreement streamlines relations between the two militaries, for instance, allowing refueling without having to come up with a new agreement each time, said analysts.
"It's like having a tab at the local bar. It is an easier way of doing things. It will facilitate cooperation in high seas," said Ben Schwartz, the director for defense and aerospace, at the U.S.-India Business Council.
IANS adds: The agreement, viewed as part of the Obama administration's Pivot to Asia strategy, was criticized by a leading Chinese state-run daily, which warned that New Delhi may irritate Beijing if it "joins the U.S. alliance system.”
"If India hastily joins the U.S. alliance system, it may irritate China, Pakistan or even Russia," the Global Times said in an editorial.
Concerns over the agreement have been voiced by political parties in India who say it will lead to the country being seen as a military ally of the U.S. However, some experts have welcomed the 'long delayed' agreement that has been in discussions since 2004.
While the Left parties criticized the move, saying it makes India formally an ally of the U.S., Congress appeared more cautious with former Defense Minister A.K. Antony saying he would not comment before reading the agreement.
The LEMOA was "in principal" agreed to during Carter's visit to India in April.
A joint statement issued after the meeting of Parrikar and Carter said the LEMOA will facilitate additional opportunities for practical engagement and exchange.
Carter, in his remarks, drew a comparison between the U.S.' Pivot to Asia and India's Act East Policy. "The United States is reaching west in President Obama's rebalance, India is reaching east in Prime Minister Modi's Act East policy, which will extend India's reach further into the broader Indo-Asia-Pacific region," he said.
Carter said the agreement will be a "very substantial enabler" for the two countries to work together.
Parrikar also clarified that the agreement will not involve setting up bases.
The Indian Defense Ministry also took to Twitter to dispel fears regarding the agreement.
"LEMOA is a facilitating agreement that establishes terms, conditions, procedures for reciprocal provision of logistic support, supplies, service. Reciprocal logistic support would be used exclusively in port visits, joint exercises, joint training, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," the Defense Ministry tweeted from its official account.
It added that LEMOA does not create any obligations on either party to carry out any joint activity, does not provide for the establishment of any bases or basing arrangements, and significantly enhances operational capacity of our armed forces, including in response to humanitarian crises or disaster relief.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist said the agreement has given India the "formal status of a military ally of the U.S.”
Some strategic experts dispelled the fear that the agreement will make India a U.S. ally.
"This does not imply we become a U.S. military ally. We are not obliged to provide support to any and every U.S. military operation in the region," said strategic expert and Director of Society for Policy Studies C. Uday Bhaskar.