8 minute readObama offers trade-offs

President Barack Obama has placed the cape of a world power on India and held out the promise of global leadership, complete with matching veto. But after the excited euphoria of television news channels over the US President’s carefully managed actions and typically crafted speeches is strained, and actual deal-brokering measured, India is left with the challenge of crafting compromises to meet this promise.

While the visit saw orders like SpiceJet’s purchase of Boeing 737 aircraft and General Electric Aviation’s F-414 engines to power the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), these were actually decided much before his arrival. And the Indian Air Force (IAF) order for ten strategic lift C-17 aircraft, though understood to be a foregone conclusion, is not quite ready to be placed yet.

Even the removal of Indian defense and space organizations from the US list of entities, subject to Department of Commerce export controls, is as much a business decision that will certainly benefit US companies, as it might be strategic.

It is important to note that President Barack Obama has cut funding to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the space shuttle program will come to an end in February. This will certainly mean job losses in the space program, especially for the dominant contractors to the program, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, who constitute the United Space Alliance. If the US decides to focus only on the goals of space travel beyond existing destinations like the International Space Station, as has been stated by the Obama administration, this will mean not only a loss of jobs, but also a generation of expertise and knowledge in this area, which the US currently leads. To generate revenue for the space program, Boeing, in association with Space Adventures, announced its space tourism program, to take up surplus payload on its planned Crew Space Transportation-100 (CST-100) capsule.

With US space contractors wanting to do business with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), not only to save jobs but also to keep their expertise in circulation and generate revenue, is this then a surprise?

But it is also true that all this is a sign of the growing maturity of the Indo-US relationship, as a subset of which defense cooperation is probably the most successful. Last week, Indian paratroops celebrated Diwali in the snows of Alaska, taking a break from the Indo-US joint military exercise, Yudha Abhyas (War Exercise) 2010.

And even though no military sale was announced this time around, besides a ‘preliminary‘ announcement for the sale of C-17 aircraft, there’s plenty of defense commerce between the two countries, with heavy transport aircraft, maritime aircraft, artillery guns and fighter aircraft being purchased or considered for purchase by India. The ideal to base other aspects of bilateral relations is probably the Indo-US defense relationship, as it chugs along fine, both, in terms of military training and joint exercises, as well as defense commerce.

This is not to say that there aren’t irritants. The agreements proposed by the US to enhance military cooperation by the US such as the Communication and Interoperability Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) bring their own dilemmas. The Indian armed forces are riled up at the US requirement of India to accede to the CISMOA for access to restricted high technology equipment. To eastern eyes, the text and substance of the agreement appear bullying. And while there is no immediate possibility of India acceding to CISMOA, even though your correspondent understands the offered agreement is being edited for tone (if not substance), our armed forces remain unhappy about being denied unconditional access to technology that they consider desirable. This is the first in a line of prospective compromises and trade-offs that India has to scratch its head over.

And while India should try to get the possible bargain, it needs to decide to either make its peace with living without this high technology until it can get it on its own terms, or agree to the considerable compromises in terms of commitments to allow US inspections and interjections, that so many Indians would consider offensively intrusive, and may also have implications on India’s independence to maneuver, diplomatically and militarily.

The Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) might arguably be more to India’s advantage, giving access to US replenishment facilities around the world and attractively utilitarian, keeping in mind the projected expansion of the Indian Navy and its growing footprint. And even though the US, too, would be unlikely to sniff at the opportunity to take advantage of Indian replenishment facilities in an institutionalized manner, it already has a respectable number of options in the region. One of them, Diego Garcia, part of the group of islands known as the Chagos archipelago, south of the Maldives and leased to the US by the United Kingdom, is a prickly issue as India doesn’t quite recognize the legitimacy of the US military base there.

But the prospect of the use of Indian facilities by the US military in the course of operations, of which India were not part and of which it might not approve, would face an element of political opposition in India, even if the armed forces, the Foreign Service and the political leadership acquiesced to the idea.

India has more trade-offs to chew over. President Obama has held out the prospect of global leadership to India, an aspiration to which it feels entitled. In his address to a joint session of Parliament on Monday, while falling short of unequivocal support for a permanent Indian presence on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), he hinted at the possibility, saying the US looked forward to India as permanent member of a reformed UNSC.

India has a strong case for the seat at the high table, having made significant contributions to world security by, not only leading the way in contributing peacekeeping forces, but also with the Indian Navy securing the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) in the pirate-infested waters around the Red Sea as well as the Straits of Malacca, with its formidable escorts having safely seen off over 1200 merchant vessels irrespective of flag, ownership or nationality of crew. In terms of peacekeeping, India has stepped up to provide respected leadership and the highest contribution in terms of the number of troops provided since the inception of the UN, with Indian Blue Helmets spilling blood in pursuit of their commitment. Captain Gurbachan Singh Salaria of the Indian Army’s 1st Gorkha Rifles (Malaun Regiment) won India’s highest award for valor, the Param Vir Chakra, posthumously, after he died combating Katanganese rebels/mercenaries in the Congo in 1961. Indian peacekeepers have suffered 139 fatalities, as of the end of September. This is the highest suffered by any UN-member country, with the last three being hacked to death with machetes in the Congo, in August.

Obama, however, chided India for its traditional reticence in speaking up against regimes of dubious politically morality, which it sees as interference in the internal affairs of other countries. So, not only did he mark in red India’s position on the Iranian nuclear program, even as it has shifted over the past five of years, he also criticized India’s acquiescence with the tyrannies of the ruling military junta in Myanmar. Historically, India has seen this ‘speaking up’ as opening the door to other countries to weigh in on India’s own internal issues, of which Jammu and Kashmir is probably the one about which it’s most sensitive.

This also has to do with a perception that criticism of these countries equates to old-world colonial style finger-wagging. This is not to say that India is happy doing business with the Myanmar regime. High-level Indo-Myanmar meetings are typically under-publicized and photographs of such visits, released by the Indian government, typically portray the demeanor of Indian officials to be devoid of even the plastic pleasantries that are routine at official diplomatic meetings.

And even though India’s feelings might lie on the same side of the line as the US, India has interests in Myanmar that require engagement, notwithstanding the continued incarceration of Daw Aung Sang Syu Kyi. China has been quick to build relations with the Myanmar junta and has established growing commerce with it, having no problems with its totalitarian regime. More of concern to Indian interests in the Bay of Bengal, it has also established bases and military relationships with the Myanmar regime. India also requires the assistance of the Myanmar brasshats, if it is to effectively combat the insurgencies in the north east and to facilitate trade to that area of India through alternate routes.

President Obama is probably freer to criticize the generals of Myanmar and the Indian attitude towards them, because the US doesn’t have as much at stake.

While India’s stated position is against the prospect of another nuclear weapon state in the region, it also opposes new sanctions against Iran, hedging its position to avoid completely breaking with it, keeping in mind India’s limited options for regional relationships with respect to Afghanistan, its vote against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005 and defense cooperation with Israel (including launching an Israeli spy satellite). Indian interests remain quite different from those of the US, subject as they are to the reality of US-Israel relations and the vagaries of the Pakistan Army.

If the Indian vote in 2005 was coerced as part of the quid pro quo for the civilian nuclear deal, would a permanent seat on the UNSC come any easier?

So after exhausting our excitement over the US president’s reference to India on the permanent rolls of the UNSC and his exhortation to global leadership, as with Indo-US defense cooperation, it will be time to take a hard look at the compromises India will have to make to get there. And then start thinking of managing Chinese opposition.

It will also have to start thinking about being seen to be global power. With great power, will come great responsibility.

  2 comments for “8 minute readObama offers trade-offs

  1. November 16, 2010 at 5:03 am

    A lack of recoveries is not necessarily because of lack of effort. A couple of years back, a US Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command team went to Arunachal Pradesh for this purpose. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7471494.stm

    It is true the area remains restricted because of the policy of the government to protect the area from too many outside cultural influences and also because of the area’s proximity to the border with China. Another problem is also the tough, remote terrain and dense jungle.

    This is an issue on which both governments could probably have come to an easy agreement. Perhaps a redoubled initiative by the US government on this might help.

  2. November 16, 2010 at 4:48 am

    One element of US-India defense cooperation not discussed in this article are joint operations to recover the remains of 400 US airmen lost in northeast India during World War II. Since the early 1970s, not a single one of these airmen has been recovered, despite the fact that more more than a dozen crash sites have been discovered by private investigators in that area. The reason is the severe restrictions imposed by the Indian Government on these joint operations, restrictions which have caused indescribable suffering to the families of these airmen.

So what do you think?