Five-Nation Naval Drill Presages ‘Asian NATO’?

NEW DELHI – India’s hosting of large-scale military exercises involving four countries led by the United States has triggered spirited protests by left-wing parties that prop up the country’s ruling coalition.

The naval exercises, underway since Tuesday, are the largest and the most complex that India has ever participated in and feature as many as 25 ships from India, United States, Australia, Japan and Singapore.

The war games involve three aircraft carriers, two of them American and one Indian, and a nuclear-powered submarine, besides a host of destroyers and frigates. Warplanes, based on the carriers and on land, will also play a major role in the exercises, which include "close air combat.”

Code-named "Malabar 07-2", the exercises are the seventh in a recent series of naval drills jointly held by the US and India. Most such exercises were held off peninsular India’s west coast. But the present drill is being held in the Bay of Bengal off the port city of Visakhapatnam, where the Indian navy’s eastern command is headquartered.

Leaders of India’s communist parties have taken out two protest marches from Kolkata and Chennai, which will converge at Visakhapatnam on Sep. 8 after addressing a series of meetings and rallies en route.

The communists object to the exercises on the ground that they will draw India into the strategic orbit of the US and integrate India closely with Washington’s global agendas, which it opposes on security and political grounds.

The stated purpose of the exercises is to improve mutual cooperation between the different navies, share data and communication linkages, and conduct maneuvers which track ships, test air defenses, hit onshore and sea-based targets, and hold cross-deck helicopter landings.

‘The navies’ basic aim is to learn from each other and move towards inter-operability of each other’s armed services and practices," says Qamar Agha, a security expert based at the Jamia Millia Islamia university here. "This will facilitate joint operations of the kind that close military allies undertake."

"Interoperability" between Indian and US armed forces means that military personnel of both sides can use each other’s equipment and better conduct joint operations. Spares can also be shared.

But Agha adds that the purpose of the drill is “as much political as military; it is to send a strong signal that India is willing to move strategically closer to the US than ever before.”

That message has certainly got across to China, which sees India’s military collaboration with staunchly pro-US states like Australia and Japan and Singapore, and above all, with the US itself, as an attempt to set up what it calls "an Asian NATO", and eventually, to encircle it.

The Indian government has tried to publicly assure Beijing that it is not the focus of the war games, and that India does not intend to set up a new security alliance. But Beijing is not convinced.

Last May, China protested against a meeting of a new "quadrilateral" initiative held in Manila between the US, Japan, India and Australia. More generally, Beijing is suspicious of the growing strategic proximity between Washington and New Delhi, one reflection of which is the US-India nuclear cooperation deal, now at an advanced stage of negotiation and approval.

Privately, Indian officials say they are pleased that China is getting "the message", and hope that the India-US strategic partnership will impel Beijing to take New Delhi more seriously.

"This is a recipe for greater instability in the Asia-Pacific region," says Agha. "It may even mark the beginning of a new Cold War in the region. India’s military collaboration with a hegemonic superpower militates against the spirit of the Nehruvian policy of nonalignment and is entirely unprecedented. Even when India signed a treaty of peace and friendship with the former Soviet Union in 1971, it did not conduct large-scale military exercises with it."

Military exercises are only one part of the growing India-US strategic relationship. This includes other forms of military collaboration too, such as arms purchases, extensive contacts between and visits by military officials, and intelligence sharing. In June 2005, just three weeks before the nuclear deal was inked, the two governments signed the "New Framework for the India-US Defense Relationship" in Washington, thus extending the "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership" signed in 2001 by the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government.

This agreement states: the "US-India defense relationship derives from a common belief in freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and seeks to advance shared security interests.”

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government is currently negotiating with the US a Logistics and Services Agreement. Widely known as the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, Washington has signed such an arrangement with several countries, mostly NATO members. This allows refueling and complete access to all US ships and aircraft.

The US is set to emerge as a large exporter of armaments to India which is in the market for about 30 billion US dollars worth of military equipment during 2007-2012 – making it the developing world’s largest arms purchaser. Since the 1960s, and until recently, the Indian market was closed to US defense contractors, because of Washington’s antagonism to India’s friendly ties with the Soviet Union.

The first major sale of US military hardware was the refurbished amphibian warship, the USS Trenton, renamed INS Jalashwa. This is India’s second largest naval combat vessel and is participating in the current military exercise.

Another large transaction was the acquisition of six Hercules C-130J military transport aircraft worth one billion dollars. This is India’s largest arms purchase deal with the US, so far. The aircraft are fitted with advanced avionics and electronic countermeasures and can be used to airlift special forces, as the US does in its offensive operations.

Discussions are also in progress between India and the US manufacturer Lockheed Martin to buy eight P3-C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft at a cost of 650 million dollars, coupled with 16 multi-mission MH-60R Sikorsky helicopters costing about 400 million dollars. Raytheon is negotiating the sale of its Patriot PAC-3 antimissile systems too.

Last week, India floated its biggest-ever military tender, for the purchase of 126 multi-role combat aircraft worth 10 billion dollars . Lockheed Martin and Boeing are lobbying hard to sell their F-16 and F/A-18 fighter planes to India.

India has also been approaching the US armaments industry through Israel, since many Israeli systems have either been jointly developed with US companies or depend on US components and technologies.

Over the past decade, Israel has emerged as India’s second largest arms supplier. India is now Israel’s biggest arms export market, and purchased 1.5 billion dollars worth of military hardware from it during 2002-06 out of worldwide Israeli arms sales of 2.76 billion dollars.

"India’s military ties with the US are part of a larger strategic and political relationship, which is asymmetrical and one-sided," says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics at Delhi University. "The US is the dominant partner, and India the subordinate one. Rather than balance the US, India is bandwagoning it."

Adds Vanaik: "This has major implications not just for India’s strategic orientation, but for its foreign policy too. It is inevitable under this relationship that India’s traditionally broad-horizon, independent and complex foreign policy agenda will shrink and its autonomy in making major decisions will erode."

India recently voted twice against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency under US "coercion" (a term used by former senior state department official Stephen Rademaker). This pattern is likely to recur as the India-US strategic relationship grows.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.