Water Dancing: Part 2, US-India Naval Cooperation in 2016

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter boards the INS Vikramaditya with Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar today off India’s West coast.  photo from prokerala.com

This is Part 2 of a special 3-part series on US-India Naval cooperation being published by usindiamonitor, timed in coordination with US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s critical voyage to India on April 10th, 2016.  Part 1 focused on the background and history.  Part 2 will cover the expected outcomes from Ash Carter’s 3-day trip to India in the context of 2016 current events.  Part 3 will project what the future may hold for the two Navies.

They say that time heals all wounds.  This cannot be more aptly applied than to US diplomatic relationships in Asia.  In the last installment, we discussed how President Nixon sent Task Force 74 to the Bay of Bengal as a menacing warning for India just 45 years ago.  For much of the early 20th century, America was brutally fighting an insurgency in the Philippines, while trying (and failing) to hold on to its overseas colony.  In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s the United States was at all-out war, first in Korea and then in Vietnam, some of the hottest patches of the Cold War resulting in hundreds of thousands of casualties.  Most dramatic of all, in 1945 President Truman ordered the only nuclear bomb attacks in history on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan.

In the 20th century America spent a fair amount of time embattled with Asian countries.  Yet today, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines are American allies.   India and the United States are meanwhile on the path toward developing a closer strategic relationship as well.  We are predicting that US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s 3-day trip to India this week will help smooth that path- which will still be a challenging one.  This makes the trip that much more critical.  On the eve of his second visit to India in less than a year, Carter said of the US-India defense relationship: “Over the course of my years at the Defense Department, I have seen a remarkable convergence of US and Indian interests – what I call a strategic handshake.”  The term strategic handshake has only been used by him in this context.

USS Blue Ridge is docked at Goa today.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jordan KirkJohnson/ RELEASED)

Naval matters will rank high on the agenda.  Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar is hosting Carter at a naval base in his home state of Goa, while giving the US delegation a tour of India’s only functional aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya.  The US Navy 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge made a port of call to Goa after a stop in Mumbai, and will be on hand for Carter’s visit to Goa.  In the meantime, US sailors and marines will be participating in community service and taking on local college students in some friendly athletic competition, including a few cracks at the bat… the cricket bat.

There are substantive negotiations going on during this trip.  The Indian Navy is interested in buying 40 unarmed Predator drones for surveillance over the Indian Ocean.  If a deal were to go through soon these unmanned spy aircraft, made by the US company General Atomics, would be the first Predators ever to be operated by the Indian armed forces.  The US government and Indian government would first need to agree to this deal before General Atomics could fulfill the order.  Considering that the Predator is one of the sharpest tools in the US military arsenal, such a purchase would be a very big deal.  It could also open the door in the future for Predators that go beyond surveillance and reconnaissance, but are also armed with precision missiles.

Predator Drone.  Illustration from General Atomics

Carter has also said in Goa that the United States backs India’s naval expansion “as a net supplier of security in the region,” an oft-repeated phrase that has been analyzed in different ways for many months.  Taken literally, it would seem to mean that India is being encouraged to increase its naval capacity to be able to supply the vast Indian ocean with greater force projection capability than it needs for itself.  A number of other announcements expected this week include the sharing of aircraft carrier technology, but are contingent on the desired American roadmap for the future of the Indian Navy.

One can expect another important discussion item would be joint US-India naval patrols, which has never happened before.  In the weeks leading up to Ash Carter’s trip to India, Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris, Jr. voiced welcoming intimations to India about such a development, especially freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea  along with Japan and Australia, during a speech in New Delhi.  However, India has never conducted joint patrols with any country, as part of a larger structural foreign policy of non-alignment.  Defense Minister Parrikar and others promptly denied that India would conduct any such patrols.  The Obama White House and Pacific Command have had to say there is no “gag order” in response to rumblings that naval officers are off-message on China Sea related issues.

Screen Shot 2016-04-11 at 7.31.24 PMWe covered in the last installment how Exercise Malabar has become a successful partnership, but patrols are an unlikely step at this time.  India is no doubt worried about a Chinese response, especially in the three bodies of water, the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal, where India and China are already pushing to establish the naval upper hand.

China has for some years engaged in a strategic encirclement of India by close cooperation with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma.  The Chinese Navy recently docked its ships and submarines in Colombo’s port in a “friendly visit” that was not well-received by India in its own backyard.  China has also extensively supplied Burma’s military, and uses Burmese ports frequently.  Finally, the Chinese government helped build Pakistan’s Gwadar port, with the expectation of free passage for China’s Navy and commerce, while Pakistan conducts joint naval exercises with its closest ally.

Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, under China’s control. via nihao-salam.com

China’s encirclement of India cannot be completely dissociated from the perceived US encirclement of China.  Joint US-India naval patrols in one of the China Seas could trigger joint China-Sri Lanka-Pakistan-Burma patrols, or some combination thereof, in the waters around India.  Meanwhile, India still has to watch its vulnerable flank on the long, disputed, and treacherous shared borders with Pakistan and China.  Indian leaders consider themselves to be truly alone on these borders, and their actions on the seas could backfire along both land and sea.  Not to mention, both Pakistan and China have nuclear weapons pointing toward India’s major cities.

India is keen to not draw too much attention from China when it comes to US-India naval cooperation, while not rejecting America’s extended hand in cooperation on the seas altogether.  It is a difficult and delicate water dance indeed.  So far, India seems to be threading the needle by occasionally sending ships into the South China Sea, but not on joint patrol; aiming to procure Predator drones to spy on the oceans around India, but unarmed drones to start; participating in increasingly complex US-India joint exercises, but not joint patrols; training with US counterparts, but not fighting next to them against, for example, the common enemy of ISIS.

The United States appears willing to do more with India, when India is ready, not only on naval cooperation but also with other military branches.  Ash Carter is spending a precious 3 days in India even while his Defense Department is at war in the Middle East, because without increased Indian cooperation, there can’t really be a successful American “pivot to Asia.”  We are in the waning days of the Obama administration- and the highly restrained “Obama Doctrine” in US foreign policy.  Who knows what sort of US administration comes next?

It’s time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, and their teams to decide if India wants to fully engage the world’s only superpower, leaving non-alignment behind on terms that are favorable to both sides, and engage in the risky climb towards superpower status.  The risk comes from having to manage its own encirclement on the water, by land, and in the air.

Time heals all wounds, and India believes it has suffered many in its relationship with the United States over the years.  But we are in the year 2016.  The tea leaves seem exceedingly clear.  China has its grand global ambitions and is going to act very predictably the same regardless of how diplomatically or non-confrontational India behaves.

Proceed to Part 3: the most powerful naval partnership in the WORLD?https://usindiamonitor.com/2016/04/29/will-the-us-and-india-form-the-strongest-naval-partnership-in-the-world-part-3/

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor


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