The US wants India in its Rebalancing Asia policy
The US Secretary of State John Kerry brought with him a very high powered delegation for strategic talks with India held on 24th June, 2013, which included the US Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel J Locklear who stayed back in New Delhi to discuss the future game plan for the Asia Pacific with the Indian tri-service Chief of Staff, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne.
The political direction given by Kerry during his visit was intensely discussed with the Indian Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Committee for its execution at the ground level.
The meeting was held in the background of strident posture adopted by China in the South China Sea and its possible fallout on the region’s economic and security architecture. Hence it was significant to note that the official brief issued by the Indian Ministry of Defence mentioned that among the issues discussed was the South China Sea.
Since the Chinese aggressive behavior in South and East China Sea has become a common topic of discussion among the strategic observers all over the world, the American Admiral’s discussion with top Indian military officials must have been watched by the Chinese observers with deep interest.
With US expressing its intent to project India as a key player in its Rebalancing Asia policy, which is viewed by the Chinese as the ganging up of nations against China, the meeting of the US and Indian military officials was very timely.
Since the Chinese game plan in Asia Pacific is causing concern all over the world as this will affect the trade and economic exchanges among all the major trading nations, the US design of bringing likeminded nations on a common policy framework to resist the Chinese aggression in the high seas is also a subject of debate.
What transpired during the Browne-Locklear meeting is not known in detail, but recent statements of the American Admiral gives an insight into the Browne-Locklear meeting.
At the 27th Asia Pacific round table Locklear had said, “The rebalancing of our military (towards Asia Pacific) is to reflect what the US people view as their most important national interest around the globe and that has been articulated as the priority here in Asia Pacific.”
Hence the US side is making all efforts to lure various countries in its fold including India, which is considered as the key participant, to push its Rebalancing Asia strategy.
During his June, 2012 visit to New Delhi the then US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta had declared India as a lynchpin in new US strategy focused on Asia. He had said that a new US strategy is sought to “expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia”. Panetta emphasized joint efforts to safeguard the crossroads of global economy spanning the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific.
And the US Secretary of State during his June 2013 visit to New Delhi for the Strategic Dialogue quoted President Obama and Defence Secretary Hagel, “India is a key part of the US rebalance in Asia. And we are committed to that rebalance. I want to emphasize this point. Our security interests with India converge on a wide range of maritime and broader regional issues, and we value India’s role in our mutual efforts to ensure a stable and prosperous Asia.”
Immediately before Kerry visit the US Asst Secretary of State Robert Blake had revealed, “Secretary’s going to reaffirm the important goal of India in the American rebalance in Asia.” Blake also explained, “we have many common interests in terms of maritime security, encouraging a rules-based system in areas like the South China Sea, and perhaps a little bit further along, how do we work together in the Indian Ocean region where again I think we all have a lot of common interests in freedom of navigation, protecting the sea lanes, counter-piracy, and so forth. So I think that also would be an area where I think we will probably be doing more over the next several years.”
For this to achieve the US believes that Indian armed forces must be strong enough to tackle any military challenge, hence the US administration is encouraging its arms industry to engage with Indian arms industry to help achieve India self sufficiency in defence.
In order to give a new push to the rebalancing policy, for India, the US administration has also waived off its universal mandatory requirement for all countries to sign various defence pacts in order to acquire US defence systems.
These included the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and agreement for geo-spatial cooperation. These were earlier described by Washington as foundation agreements to enter into defence cooperation with US.
India had been vigorously opposing these pacts as India described them as intrusive. Since US wanted India to access the US advanced defence systems and platforms so that India strengthens its defence capabilities which in turn will supposedly strengthen the US alliance in the region, the US administration waived these agreements for India.
These were the bone of contention between the two countries. But now the US has for the first time provided such platforms and systems which were not used by any other armed forces outside US. Though India has a word of caution for the US administration that Washington should move at a pace comfortable to all in the region and multilateral security architecture in the Asia Pacific should be strengthened.
Admiral Locklear has been travelling to countries in the Asia Pacific region including the countries with which China had entered into bilateral disputes like Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.
To India also, China had threatened last year to desist from investing in the South China Sea, since that area is claimed by China and under dispute with the littoral states of the maritime area. The continued lack of trust on the 4000 kms long LAC between India and China is also a source of tension between the two countries.
Secretary Kerry made a significant statement, which has a very deeper meaning. He said ”security interests with India converge on a wide range of maritime and broader regional issues, and we value India’s role in our mutual efforts to ensure a stable and prosperous Asia.” He then also talked of creating an economic corridor, “we are cooperating to realize the potential of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, which can spur development and investment as well as trade and transit between the dynamic economies of South and Southeast Asia.”
This proposed economic corridor if brought into strategic focus is in fact a ploy to challenge the Chinese claim over the major portion of the South China Sea. Since more than half of India’s import-export is conducted via the South China Sea, it will be in India’s national interest to work on the execution of this new idea.
The declared economic corridor will give respectability to the South China Sea as international sea routes of communications. The US also has a major interest in projecting the maritime area as international waters. Hence the security interests of the two countries clearly converge in the South China Sea.
India cannot avoid becoming one of the managers of this economic corridor, if it has to protect its economic interests. India has always been stating that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea must be ensured since the region falls in international waters.
India has a vibrant ‘Look East’ policy to strengthen its economic and security relationships with the ASEAN members and also with East Asian powers like Japan and South Korea. The US finds India’s Look East policy concomitant to its Rebalance Asia policy hence the US looks towards India as lynchpin to its pivot to Asia policy.