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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 42 New Delhi October 6, 2018

COMCASA and the Historic Fight for Peace

Sunday 7 October 2018

by Archishman Raju and Meghna Chandra

The External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently concluded two-plus-two talks with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis resulting in the signing of the COMCASA (Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement). This agreement will allow the two countries to share intelligence in real-time. This is one of the three “foundational agreements” that the US signs with other countries to establish a close military alliance. India has now signed two of the three foundational agreements, with only the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) left to be signed.

The UPA Government had refused to sign these agreements during its tenure on the ground that they would compromise India’s “strategic autonomy”. However, its refusal had to do with the details rather than the substance of this agreement. The signing of COMCASA is only a continuation of a trajectory that the earlier BJP Government and the UPA had laid the foundation for: compromise and accommo-dation with US imperialism. The UPA Govern-ment had signed the 10-year defence framework agreement and subsequently the controversial nuclear deal. Nevertheless, these agreements taken together constitute “an unprecedented geopolitical alignment with the US”, in the words of Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

The US is quite open about its rationale and ambitions for the region. The Washington Examiner reported that “India offers the best possible partner towards consolidating the US-led international order...an order that faces a profound challenge from China and, to a lesser degree, from Russia.” Indeed, before the signing of the agreement, the US granted the Strategic Trade Authorisation status to India in July, solidifying India’s status as a major defence partner (which Washington had declared India to be in 2016 under the Obama Administration). Most of the countries with this status are either part of NATO or an important ally of the US. This authorisation will allow the import of high-technology defence equipment from the US into India, similar to the access countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea have. Some have referred to this agreement as constituting an emerging ‘Asian NATO’ to serve as a counterpoint to China in the region.

There are several strategic concerns with this agreement. One concern is that Indian military channels will be compromised by American access to secret communications and intelligence networks. The Indian Government has said that it is convinced by the assurances of the US that there will be no compromise on India’s autonomy and security. Since the text of the agreement is not publicly available, it is not known what these assurances are. Moreover, the United States has given no guarantee that it will waive its sanctions on countries that do business with Moscow, and this could affect India, which is finalising the purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia. Meanwhile, as D. Raghunandan notes, Russian equipment is not compatible with American communication systems.

COMCASA will also facilitate the transfer of unmanned combat aerial vehicles or drones. There has been almost no public debate on why and whether or not India needs these drones or other high technology defence equipment from the US.

However, the significance of COMCASA goes beyond purely strategic considerations—signing COMCASA is a betrayal of India’s foundational principles of anti-imperialism, self-determination, peace, and social progress. The imperialism India fought against to win its independence has not abated. It has continued today, led by the United States through its ceaseless wars in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America for the purpose of exploitation and plunder. After independence, as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, India was a prominent moral voice against colonialism and imperialist domination. It supported the struggles in Vietnam, Palestine, Bangladesh, South Africa, Cuba, and Afro-America and pursued a path of social justice and equitable development. Many commentators today decry this history as an example of India being misled by “ideology”, and ask that we move forward in the new world order created by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the very opposite is true.

The Western countries that Right-wing forces hold up as a model of “progress” are currently in the throes of a crisis. The signs of the crisis of imperialism are everywhere, whether in the renewed discussion in the American media on the “fall of the American empire”, or the so-called “Right-wing” anti-globalisation move-ments in the advanced capitalist countries, which signal working class disenchantment with the forces of war and empire. The decline of Western hegemony is a positive development for progressive forces because it allows for more space for the forces of peace and unity, as seen in the reunification of North and South Korea. However, an empire in decay is a dangerous one because forces of financial oligarchy will do anything they can to avoid losing their grasp on power, including projecting their internal problems onto an external enemy by sounding the war drums. This can be seen in the push to war with Russia for its alleged “hacking” of the American election by the American liberal media. In this unstable and dangerous period, it is most important to revive India’s historical role as a nation that stands for peace, South-South solidarity and opposition to imperialism.

The Indian Ocean Region is a crucial zone to pay attention to for those concerned about the militarist implications of COMCASA. This region has a strong US naval presence and is extremely rich in natural resources with three-quarters of the world’s oil reserves in it. The foundational agreements with the US, it is said, will not only offer us a better picture of this region which is seeing “increasing Chinese movements”, but will also allow Indian ships and air forces access to the US military base in Diego Garcia.

Current developments fly in the face of India’s historic role as a defender of peace in the region. As part of the Non-Aligned Movement, India worked to declare the Indian Ocean Region as a Zone of Peace in the UN in 1971.

The World Peace Council and Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation among others organised the International Conference on the Indian Ocean against Foreign Military Bases and for a Zone of Peace in November, 1974 at New Delhi. This Conference, a landmark in the history of the peace movement, received huge support in India with 200 Members of Parliament and representatives of leading parties and mass organisations. The resolutions of the Conference condemned foreign military bases, particularly the one at Diego Garcia, which was built by the United Kingdom and United States by forcibly removing the indigenous population. The Conference also resolved against imperialist designs to divide countries of the regions and called for “Asian collective security” as opposed to the “national security” that would have left individual countries vulnerable to imperialist aggression. Finally, the Conference emphasised that a peace zone must protect national sovereignty which includes the right to economic independence and economic cooperation. This is significant in today’s times when India has been forced to cut its imports of oil purchases from Iran purely because of US sanctions, a clear violation of India’s right to economic independence.

A period of imperial crisis raises both great dangers and possibilities. It is clear that India’s role should be not to try and stabilise imperialism, but to force it to retreat further. This, by itself, is not enough. India must also reject the model of development that the West has created, one whose very foundation is in war and economic oppression. We must instead fight for peace, and a system where the production and distribution of goods is guided by human need.

For this, it is important to revive the concept of peace in a new way. We must understand that this new alliance of India with the United States could lead to a dangerous new era—one in which India becomes an ally and subsidiary of the United States comparable to NATO countries, and an instrument in the continuous wars that the US wages against the Third World. All progressive and peace-loving forces must fight this agreement and against any further attempts to turn India into a weapon of the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world”—the United States of America. They must also remember their history as the leaders of the peace movement that stood courageously for a world without war and needless human suffering.

Archishman Raju is a Research Fellow in Physics and Biology at Rockefeller University. Meghna Chandra is a Ph.D Student in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania. They are both members of the DUA Collective in Philadelphia.

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