The concept of swing power mandates that India move closer to the US by signing agreements that signal closer defence and trade cooperation
By Guru Aiyar (@guruaiyar)
There have been media reports recently about India on the verge of signing agreements with the US that will move it closer to almost to a status of alliance. There are basically three agreements—Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) which give the US forces access to Indian bases and vice-versa, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation. The focus of bilateral cooperation will be on these agreements during the visit to India in April of Ashton Carter, the US defence secretary. Closely aligned is the Defence Trade & Technology Initiative (DTTI). There is opposition in some quarters in the Indian military and the government regarding some serious concerns on these agreements.
The concerns stem from the fact that “what do we do in case of war?” Alliance politics, balancing by world powers, miscalculation, miscommunication—all could lead to a major war according to John Mearsheimer, a renowned US professor on International Relations. He explains it succinctly in his book, the Tragedy of Great Power Politics where he concludes that the world powers blundered into the First World War. India is justified in asking the question of “what to do in case of war?” as its bilateral relations, especially with countries in the Persian Gulf and Southeast/East Asia are markedly different than that of the US with them. In this debate, it is essential to clearly understand the concept of swing power.
According to Project for New American Security (PNAS), a US based think tank global swing states are nations that possess large and growing economies, occupy central positions in a region or stand at the hinge of multiple regions, and embrace democratic government at home. Increasingly active at the regional and global level, they desire changes to the existing international order but do not seek to scrap the interlocking web of global institutions, rules, and relationships that has fostered peace, prosperity and freedom for the past six decades. Taking this argument further, K. Subrahmanyam, one of India’s foremost strategic thinkers had advocated India’s role in the international order as a swing power.
If the US is at the top of the hierarchy, China second, then it makes sense for India to be a swing power. The basis of being a swing power is this: India should have better bilateral relations with US & China than they have with each other. Rather than viewing it as containing China, being a swing power must be seen as defending Indian values of liberal, secular and pluralistic democracy. The defence ministry is having some apprehensions about signing these agreements with service chiefs of the view that there is little to be gained from such agreements.
It is important to gather what these apprehensions are? Is it, hypothetically, if US were to go to war with Iran in the future, what would be India’s stand? The answer to this conundrum can be simplified to walk away from the agreement if it does not suit our national interests. For example, Sri Lanka has signed these agreements but still goes to China for strategic partnership for Hambantota port. Let’s face it. India is not a banana republic whose foreign policy or strategic autonomy can be held to ransom. There is no need to shy away from signing these agreements.
Guru Aiyar is a Research Scholar at Takshashila Institution and tweets @guruaiyar