What is BRICS member India really up to?

Pepe Escobar
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia Times Online. Born in Brazil, he's been a foreign correspondent since 1985, and has lived in London, Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, Washington, Bangkok and Hong Kong. Even before 9/11 he specialized in covering the arc from the Middle East to Central and East Asia, with an emphasis on Big Power geopolitics and energy wars. He is the author of "Globalistan" (2007), "Red Zone Blues" (2007), "Obama does Globalistan" (2009) and "Empire of Chaos" (2014), all published by Nimble Books. His latest book is "2030", also by Nimble Books, out in December 2015.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi © Ivan Sekretarev
You may have never heard of LEMOA. In Global South terms, LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum Agreement) is quite a big thing, signed in late August by Indian Defense Minister Mohan Parrikar and Pentagon supremo Ash Carter.

As Carter spun it four months before the signing, LEMOA rules that US forces “may” be deployed to India under special circumstances. Essentially, Delhi will allow Washington to refuel and keep contingents and equipment in Indian bases – but only in case of war.

In theory, India is not offering the US any permanent military base. Yet considering the Pentagon’s track record that may of course change in a flash.

No wonder Indian nationalists were outraged – insisting there is no strategic gain out of this gambit, especially for a nation that is very proud of being one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

The cozying up to the Pentagon happens just a few months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi – who had been denied a US visa for nearly a decade – addressed a joint meeting of Congress in a blaze of glory, declaring that India and the US are
natural allies” and calling for a closer partnership.

Modi went no holds barred, even referring to Gandhi’s influence on Rev. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil disobedience strategy – something that could not but earn him a standing ovation in Capitol Hill.

The “closer” partnership does involve military and nuclear issues. As Modi reminded Congress – which needed no reminding – the industrial-military complex sold weapons to India “from almost zero to $10 billion in less than a decade.”

Then there’s the US-India nuclear cooperation deal, which opens a window for US corporations to build and supply Indian nuclear power reactors. And eventually Washington is bent to share “some” – and the operative concept is “some” – military technology with Delhi.

Geopolitically, this all boils down to what happened recently in the Philippine Sea, as the US, Japan and India practiced anti-submarine warfare and air defense maneuvers; practical evidence of the “pivot to Asia”, as in re-tweaking Asia’s naval-security “order” to counteract – who else – China.

Modi performs geopolitical yoga

Yet things are not as black and white – from the Indian point of view. It’s no secret that key sectors of the Indian diaspora in the US are quite integrated with the Washington consensus and usual suspect hegemony mechanisms such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Rand Corporation. But Modi’s game is way more sophisticated.

Modi’s priority is to solidify India as the top South Asian power. So he cannot afford to antagonize Washington. On the contrary; he’s getting the US on board his vastly ambitious Make in India strategy (“a major national initiative designed to facilitate investment; foster innovation; enhance skill development; protect intellectual property; and build best-in-class manufacturing infrastructure.”)

Naturally, US corporations – heavy supporters of TPP – are salivating at the lucrative prospects. The drive is similar to what China did decades ago, but now with emphasis on “protection of intellectual property” to attract the TPP-obsessed crowd.

Another geopolitical Modi goal is to forcefully present India - not Pakistan - to Washington as the ideal reliable/rational partner in South Asia. That’s dicey, because for the Pentagon the multiple declinations of the war on terra in AfPak are de facto being configured as something like Operation Enduring Freedom Forever.

And then there’s once again the military angle: India diversifying its weapons suppliers – mostly it buys from Russia – towards the US, but not that much, establishing a careful balance.

This is a balance between the US and BRICS, in itself is the hardest nut to crack. As Beijing admits in no uncertain terms, “BRICS faces the risk of retrogressive, rather than progressive, cooperation because of new, intricate circumstances.”

Talk about a diplomatic euphemism for the ages. And this as Washington will go no holds barred to
contain China behind the First Island Chain in the South China Sea while there’s not much Delhi can do to contain Myanmar providing Beijing with total access to the Indian Ocean via Pipelineistan, ports and high-speed rail.

Meet INSTC

At the next BRICS summit in Goa next month, some of these geopolitical intricacies will be quietly discussed behind closed doors. BRICS may be in disarray, with Brazil under regime change, Russia under sanctions and India flirting with the US. But BRICS remains committed to serious institutional moves, such as the New Development Bank (NDB), the push towards trading in their own currencies and a multi-pronged politico/economic drive towards a multipolar world.

This drive is graphically in effect when we examine one of the key – unreported - Eurasian integration stories; the symbiosis between India and Iran. Delhi counts on Tehran to up its game as an economy propelled by natural gas as well as profiting in the long run from the perfect – Persian - gateway to Central Asian markets.

The key hub of course is the port of Chabahan. The highlight of a Modi visit to Tehran four months ago was a Chabahar contract between India Ports Global Private Limited and Arya Banader of Iran. That’s about “development and operation for 10 years of two terminals and 5 berths with cargo handling”.

There’s way more; development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and essential road/rail links from Iran to Afghanistan and further into Central Asia. India will then have direct access to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. It does not hurt that Delhi and Kabul are already strategic partners.

Chabahar is only 500 km east of the ultra-strategic Strait of Hormuz.

In the near future, we might as well see a configuration where the Indian Navy has the right to use Chabahar while the Chinese Navy has the right to use Gwadar, in Pakistan, only 150 km by sea east of Chabahar. Nothing that BRICS dialogue – or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – could not keep on smooth sailing mode.

For Iran, this is a certified “win-win” game. Iran not only will be connected to the Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR); but it will also solidify yet another trade/transportation corridor in Eurasia; the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) between the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. Key INSTC members happen to be Iran, India and… Russia. Talk about, once again, the interpenetration of BRICS and the SCO.

The Big Picture ahead under Modi’s long term planning does not look like Delhi subjected to the role of flagrant vassal of Washington. India needs certified stability with all key players – from the US to China, considering the master plan is to lift 1.3 billion Indians close to the living standards of middle-class Chinese.

China had a head start. India may take up to 2050 to do it. Meanwhile, it’s not to India’s interests to actively join any US policy of China containment or encirclement, be it “pivot” or “rebalance”. It’s more like India, in a Gandhian way, will be practicing the fine art of nonviolent, forceful neutrality.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.