New orientation

Antony’s three nations visit and its significance

At a time when the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hegel was elaborating the Pivot to Asia policy renamed as Rebalancing Asia, during the Shangri- la dialogue in Singapore in the first week of June, the Indian defence minister A K Antony was visiting those countries prominently included by the US in its rebalancing Asia strategy.

The visit to Singapore, Australia and Thailand by the Indian defence minister drew the attention of strategic observers in China and other parts of the world which was indicative of the strategic direction India might take in the coming years.

Coming immediately after the game changing visit to Tokyo by the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in late May, Antony’s visit to the three countries reconfirmed India’s new strategic orientation.

Though India would never commit to become a US Pivot to Asia but the way India has moved with the three US partner countries of the Rebalancing Asia policy, India seems to have tilted the balance in the US favor.

Since India would not like to irritate or antagonize China it cannot apparently seem to be tilting the US balance in the Asia Pacific region but the joint statements issued after the interactions with the defence ministers of Australia, Singapore and Thailand was testimony to the fact that India would like to partner with the three countries to safeguard its maritime interests.

With Singapore and Thailand, Indian defence forces were already interacting at various levels, but the addition of Australia in India’s strategic ambit was significant.

Forging partnership

Amid China’s flexing of muscles in South China Sea and East China Sea, Antony’s visit to the three nations was an indication of India’s interest in forging a wider web of security partnerships which will help India deter the adversaries in the region.

During the meeting of the Indian and Australian defence Ministers in Perth, they acknowledged deepening strategic and defence cooperation between Australia and India and they agreed to continue to contribute to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and to promote cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.

India and Australia have already signed a MoU on Defence cooperation in 2006 and a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was issued during the visit of the Australian Prime Minister to New Delhi in 2009 and the Joint Statement issued during the Australian Prime Minister Ms Julia Gillard’s visit to India in 2012 also reiterated this.

So the foundation for deeper strategic cooperation was already laid by the two countries and it was significant to see Mr Antony visiting Australia for the first time and deciding on steps to be executed at the ground level to get the strategic partnership moving fast.

In a significant joint statement, the contents of which are anathema to the Chinese, who are embroiled in running disputes with Japan, Vietnam and Philippines over territorial control of not only some of the islands but also the South China Sea, Antony and Smith emphasized on the significance of the freedom of navigation in accordance with the principles of international law and said that this was critical for the growth and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.

Since the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions are becoming the hotbeds for economic and strategic competition it was also significant to see the two defence ministers agreeing to continue consultations and cooperation on issues concerning the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions both bilaterally and multilaterally, through the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).

India and Australia have already stepped up cooperation under the IONS, which Australia will chair next year and will also host the IONS Conclave of Chiefs in Perth next year in March.

The Australians have also deepened their involvement in the IOR-ARC of which India is current. Thus one of the major pillars of US Rebalancing Asia policy Australia will be interacting with India on bilateral and multilateral platforms. These forums will help the two countries play a significant role together in averting any strategic showdown in both the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.

At the bilateral level the two countries will have regular Defence Minister’s Meetings, and will promote exchanges between the defence establishments and the armed forces of both sides. They will also engage bilaterally through regular Defence Policy Dialogue, Armed Forces Staff Talks and professional military exchanges and will also hold bilateral naval exchanges to build confidence and familiarity between the two navies and work towards a bilateral maritime exercise in 2015.

Closer cooperation

With Singapore India has the closest of defence relationship in the Asia Pacific region. Antony’s visit further reinvigorated the partnership as the two countries extended the agreement for five more years for use of training and exercise facilities in India by the Singapore Army.

A bilateral agreement for utilization of facilities in India by the Singapore Air Force and Army is already in operation since October 2007 and August 2008 respectively. The agreement for training and exercises of Singapore Air Force in India was extended up to October 2017 during the visit of Singapore’s Permanent Secretary of Defence to India in July last year. According to the Spokesman of the Indian MoD Mr Sitanshu Kar, Singapore is the only country to which India is offering such facilities.

In Bangkok, Mr Antony used more assertive tone as he covered a wide range of issues including regional security concerns with the Thai defence minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat.

Antony said both countries have large stakes in the maintenance of peace and stability in the immediate neighborhood and in the wider Asia Pacific region. He said our trade is dependent on the sea lanes. Hence, security of the sea lanes and freedom of navigation is critical to our economic and overall security.

India supports the freedom of navigation in accordance with the principles of international law. In the backdrop of recent incidents of China using its naval ships and aircraft to intimidate neighboring countries including Japan and last year warning to India to desist from investing in oil gas exploration facilities in the South China Sea near the Vietnamese waters, Antony’s comments assumes importance.

To the chagrin of the Chinese the Indian defence minister repeated India’s stance that “peace and stability is in the interest of all countries in the region. We support the resolution of differences and disputes through the process of dialogue and consensus between the parties to such disputes. All countries must exercise restraint and resolve issues diplomatically, according to the principles of international law”.

On disputes relating to various islands and territorial claims over the South China Sea, Antony significantly sided with the ASEAN by describing it as central to any security architecture in the region. Thus Antony’s visit to the three countries has sent a clear message to the various players in Asia Pacific region that India has deep stakes in the area.

Since India has to protect its maritime trade interests, it must work with the littoral states of the Asia Pacific region to safeguard its economic and maritime rights, as India correctly asserted the right of freedom of navigation in the international waters of South China Sea.

The manner in which China is adding fuel to the fire over the troubled waters of South China Sea, India and international community is deeply worried; hence India’s eagerness to work with other regional powers was obvious during Antony’s three nation visit.