x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A US-Indian military deal hinges on an equal partnership

Just as Asia has changed with geopolitics, it is time for the US to abandon the Second World War-era Atlanticist thinking that has underpinned its strategy since the 1940s.

In 1941, when the British Empire was on the ropes following the German takeover of France, US President Franklin Roosevelt ignored isolationists within his country to launch the Lend-Lease programme. In present-day terms, Roosevelt delivered $720 billion (Dh2.6 billion) worth of military equipment, mostly to Britain. The naval vessels that were handed over enabled Britain to hold off German U-boat "wolf packs" and continue to receive essential supplies.

Apart from the British, both China and the USSR received combat supplies from the United States, the so-called "arsenal of democracy", despite the niggling detail that neither was conspicuously democratic.

There are parallels to today, although things have certainly changed since the 1940s. Economic power is moving from west to east, while China has thus far wisely avoided a military conflict with any of its neighbours since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam. However, it is a reality that decades of robust economic growth have given Beijing a heft that has begun to alarm other countries.

Of its neighbours, only Japan, Vietnam and India have significant military capabilities. The Australian military is hobbled by its small population and massive coastline, while South Korea needs to concentrate on its northern border rather than participate in a broader theatre.

Given its huge potential and population, the most significant player - apart from China - within the region is India. However, when compared to its neighbour to the northeast, India's economy and domestic technological skills are primitive. The country has squandered decades in setting up a high-tech base that, except in a few areas, has been a failure. More than 80 per cent of core defence equipment still needs to be imported. As for the Indian economy, it is less than a third of the size of China's (which had half the GDP of India in 1949).

What India has in plenty is trained manpower, as well as a military that has been continuously primed for combat since its inception. In contrast, China's People's Liberation Army forces have rarely seen a weapon fired in anger; those who have participated in combat operations in the past have almost all left the military.

But the fact remains. Although India's ruling Congress Party has spent an average of $9 billion (Dh33 billion per year) on purchasing defence equipment, mainly from France, Russia, Israel and the US, the reality is that India's economy cannot support the navy and the air force it would need to face a challenge in Asia.

There is only one way forward, which would be for the United States to once again begin a Lend-Lease programme of sorts, handing surplus military stock to India and, on a smaller scale, Vietnam. Surplus stock might include naval vessels, aircraft and ammunition - this is the only practical way by which the Indian and Vietnamese militaries could reach the needed level of combat capability.

Such a mobilisation would not be directed against China, in view of that country's avoidance of combat for the past 33 years. The enhanced capability would be a guarantee against any country or other player that used force to interfere with the freedom of the seas and skies vital to modern commerce. While the 1940s Lend-Lease was focused on war, a new programme would be geared towards preventing a conflict by creating a deterrent force on continental Asia.

The equipment and the technology would probably be less up to date, although it would have to be of sufficient quality to deal with regional threats, including non-state threats such as piracy.

For close to a decade, negotiations between the US and India on Logistics Supply Agreement have foundered on Washington's insistence that it be given a unilateral right to enter sensitive Indian military facilities at will to inspect the equipment that it had supplied. Both that supply agreement and the proposed Communications Interoperability and Security Agreement have conditions attached that dilute India's sovereignty.

Given India's unhappy history with western colonialism, even a western-friendly government in New Delhi has been unable to sign either agreement. In the 1940s, the relationship between the US and the UK was one of equals, whatever the difference in their financial capabilities. Unless a similar, Rooseveltian approach is taken by the Obama administration, all of its talk of a "pivot to Asia" will remain a television sound bite or a talking point at international conferences, rather than be expressed in reality.

Just as Asia has changed with geopolitics, it is time for the US to abandon the Second World War-era Atlanticist thinking that has underpinned its strategy since the 1940s. If Asia is to achieve a genuine military balance, credible enough to prevent the adventurous from resorting to conflict, the US will need to implement a 21st century version of Lend-Lease with India and Vietnam as the principal beneficiaries.

In tandem, India and Vietnam's militaries would be a counterbalance in Asia against any force that attempted to establish a hegemonic force, such as those that once forced Europe to war.

 

MD Nalapat holds the Unesco peace chair at Manipal University and is a former editor of The Times of India