Has India Put Its Sovereignty at Stake by Signing LEMOA With US?

India’s foreign policy is headed for trouble by signing LEMOA & giving access to our bases, says Bharat Karnad.

4 min read
Has India Put Its Sovereignty at Stake by Signing LEMOA With US?

Nothing defines a treaty ally or a client state of the United States better than the “foundational” accords now on the anvil, the first of which – the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – was signed in Washington by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and defence secretary Ashton Carter on 29 August. The other agreements are CISMOA (Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement) and BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement relating to geospatial information). A secondary but still important document – the End User Verification Agreement – relating to US-sourced systems was formalised some years ago.

A statement was issued by the Ministry of Defence (MOD). It stated that:

The agreement 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.
Statement by the Ministry of Defence (MoD)

It is supposed to be reassuring, but pending the release of the actual text of the LEMOA, it only raises troubling questions.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) listens to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, 23 May 2016. (Photo: AP)

Indian Military Will Hardly Access US Bases

Sure, as per this accord, India and the US will have reciprocal access to each others’ bases and military facilities. The trouble is the Indian military will hardly ever use US bases because their operational attention is limited to territorial defence, which does not require staging out of distant bases.

On the other hand, the US has some 900 bases in 130 countries to service the worldwide deployment of American air, naval and land forces. In the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and in the Gulf, the US is massively ensconced in Diego Garcia, and has its Fifth Fleet stationed in Bahrain, with the Duqm port on the Omani coast being developed as a massive all-services military complex that could, in a few years, emerge as the main US military hub in the extended area.


Dangerous Fallout

Even with these facilities, the US has felt a great need to have India on its side, enabling its military units to embark from peninsular Indian ports and air bases in order to cover any trouble spot in the IOR and landward Asia with relative ease. And this could pose a serious problem for India in terms of which country gets into Washington’s cross hairs. The number one US adversary today is Iran, which happens to be a close and intimate strategic partner of India.

India and Iran have just signed an agreement for investment of Indian monies to develop the Chabahar port on the North Arabian Sea, strategically located just 70 miles west of the Gwadar port that China hopes to work up as a home base for its Indian Ocean flotilla of warships. Chabahar provides the land route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, with a western branch joining up with Russia’s Northern Distribution Network connecting India with Europe through the Baltic ports or St Petersburg and cutting cost and transit time for Europe-bound Indian trade (that otherwise takes the longer, more expensive, sea route).

India simply cannot afford to allow US military operations against Iran to be sourced out of Indian ports and air bases. But once in, which Indian government will have the mettle to stand up to the US?

Loss of Strategic Autonomy?

  • One of the criticisms is that the Indian military will hardly access US bases as India’s focus is limited to territorial defence.
  • On the other hand, US accessing Indian bases can wreak havoc on the foreign policy front.
  • If US decides to target Iran, it would pose a dilemma for India which is counting Tehran as a strategic ally in developing the Chabahar port.
  • It would be a grave attack on India’s sovereignty if US military operations are carried out from Indian ports and air bases.
  • India’s foreign and military policy will be guided by the Pentagon and Delhi, which may not be necessarily in our interests in the long-run.

Loss of Sovereign Control

LEMOA is, after all, a variant of the standard Logistics Support Agreement (LSA). It may not permit “permanent [military use] structures” to be constructed by the US in India, but will allow “temporary structures” for the duration of the jointly approved operations. This triggers concerns about the loss of sovereign control of territory because these will be fully under US military control, to which Indians may even be denied entry. In any case, control of any part of Indian territory by a foreign power raises troubling issues of loss of Indian sovereignty and will be unacceptable to the Indian people.

LEMOA is also a foreign policy boondoggle because it upends India’s policy of “strategic autonomy”. With the US military establishing a presence, New Delhi’s freedom of action to determine its friends and foes, and choose its foreign and military policies, will be circumscribed. Perceived as a virtual client state of America, India will lose its status and prestige as an independent player in the world. Worse, the diplomatic heft it wielded as a power distanced from all major powers and hence courted by all, will be lost as well.

With this in mind, the question surfaces: Is LEMOA worth the high cost it will exact from India?

(The writer is Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and author of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet’). He can be reached at @BharatKarnad)

Also Read:
India-US Logistics Pact: Moving Beyond Tactical Dissonance

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