Rebalancing with India

Rebalancing with India

India and U.S. Relations Strengthen in the Face of Chinese Aggression

Article by Sarosh Bana  |  Photos by the associated press

A Chinese surveillance ship tailing the 100,000-ton John C. Stennis U.S. aircraft carrier during the joint Malabar exercise in the Western Pacific with Indian and Japanese war ships, brought to the fore the deep schisms that now characterize the Indo-Asia-Pacific expanse.

The Indo-Asia-Pacific littoral has emerged as a flashpoint with China’s forays into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and its claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China and East China seas. Chinese aggression has sparked disputes with its neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. “We’re constantly evaluating our relationship with China and China’s behavior, including the South China Sea, where I emphasize we have very serious concerns about their aggressive militarization there,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter testified during a U.S. House Armed Services Committee hearing on the 2017 defense budget.

Malabar has been conducted almost yearly since 1992 by the Indian Navy (IN) and the U.S. Navy, alternately off India and in the western Pacific. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) participated in these joint drills in recent years. China objected to Japan’s involvement, especially during the sea phase of Malabar 2016 when the IN, JMSDF and the USS John C. Stennis strike group participated in exercises from June 14 to 17 in Pacific waters that Beijing claims as its territory. The militaries conducted the harbor phase of the exercise, designed to enhance cooperation among the participating navies, at the Sasebo naval base in southern Japan from June 10 to June 13.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan applaud Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his address to the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., in June 2016.

Perceived to be equipped with high-tech radio signal gathering and processing stations, the surveillance ship of the People’s Liberation Army Navy that shadowed the Malabar event was the same Dongdiao-class vessel,Type 815, that had trailed the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in 2014. RIMPAC is the largest international maritime warfare exercise and is held biennially by the U.S. Pacific Fleet in and around Hawaii and Southern California.

China, on invitation from the U.S., participated for the first time in 2014 in the multinational exercise, which has been conducted since 1971. China sent a missile destroyer, missile frigate, supply ship and hospital ship. Chinese officials had maintained then that their scout vessel was within its rights to operate in the region.

By conceding and not impeding Beijing’s right to conduct electronic surveillance from within Hawaii’s exclusive economic zone, the U.S. was seeking reciprocity from China to dissuade it from obstructing vessels in waters off its coast.

China again participated in RIMPAC 2016, the 25th edition of which occurred from June 30 to August 4 and involved 45 ships, five submarines, more than 200 aircraft and 25,000 personnel from more than 25 nations. RIMPAC provides training opportunities to foster collaboration in ensuring security of the maritime commons.

China’s military posturing challenges the U.S., which has been a Pacific power for more than two centuries. Beijing views Washington’s pursuit of its policy of a “pivot” to Asia as an American attempt to curb Chinese influence across the region and embolden countries to stand their ground against China in maritime disputes. Also termed “rebalance,” the strategy enunciates relocating 60 percent of U.S. naval assets, up from 50 percent, to the Indo-Asia-Pacific by 2020.

China is just as intent on raising its profile in the region, as this energy-hungry, export-driven economy that is heavily reliant on raw material and fuel imports seeks to buttress its suzerainty over the regional sea lines of communication that are critical to the survival of the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific community. China has been creating and militarizing reefs from dredged sands to further its access to marine resources in the region. It has also been extending its blue-water presence through the establishment of a major surface fleet and nuclear-submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea and by deploying precision cruise and advanced ballistic missiles that can target all U.S. bases and naval forces in the region.

It is within its “rebalance” initiative that the U.S. looks to Indian support, both diplomatic and military. Both sides have underscored the strategic significance of their defense ties and highlighted the growing strategic convergence between the U.S. “rebalance” and India’s “Act East” policy, which seeks to intensify New Delhi’s role in an Asia that is at the epicenter of the historic transformation of the world today.

As a demonstration of the operational reach and commitment to the “Act East” policy of this growing Asian economic, military and geopolitical power, a formidable armada of the IN’s Eastern Fleet steamed out of its base at Visakhapatnam on May 18, 2016, for a 2 1/2-month deployment to the South China Sea and its littoral. It was this deployment, comprising two home-built guided missile stealth frigates, a fleet support ship and an indigenous guided missile corvette, that participated in Malabar 2016.

India conducts more military exercises with the U.S. than with any other country and participated in 2016 in two that were held there, including RIMPAC. In April and May, a dozen Indian Air Force aircraft, including two U.S.-bought Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transporters, took part in Red Flag, the U.S. Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat training exercise with its allies. India returned after a gap of eight years to this exercise, held at Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base.

The U.S., in turn, participated in February 2015 in the International Fleet Review (IFR) of the Indian Navy on India’s east coast, where 50 countries were represented. Taking part were 24 foreign and 75 Indian warships; 45 Indian maritime aircraft, including the Boeing P-8I; and 22 Navy chiefs, apart from more than 4,000 international naval officers and Sailors. “United through Oceans” was the motto of the IFR, signifying that while the world was divided by geography, it was unified by the seas. There was repeated emphasis that oceans were the great blue commons that not only linked the global community but also granted it unfettered access. Visiting U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson had reported progress in talks on the joint development of India’s next-generation aircraft carrier. This, potentially the biggest military collaboration between the two countries, would involve design and construction of a carrier with combat capabilities superior to its Chinese counterparts.

Speakers at the concurrent International Maritime Conference — whose theme was “Partnering Together for a Secure Maritime Future” — expressed concerns about security challenges in the East and South China seas.

Indian Naval commandos demonstrate their capabilities during the International Fleet Review near Visakhapatnam, India, in February 2016.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Prof. Ye Hailin predicted this dispute would escalate if competitive issues overrode cooperative solutions. He argued that, given the overlap among the actions and policies of parties, the situation in the South China Sea may deteriorate with the possible risk of serious conflict because of differing interests.

India invited China to participate in the 2016 IFR, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi again emphasized “the importance of freedom of navigation and cooperation over competition in the use of international waters,” according to The Diplomat, an online news magazine.

Modi used his address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress on June 8, 2016, to respond to U.S. President Barack Obama’s keenness on leveraging the U.S.’ strategic partnership with India for enlisting it in balancing the rise of China in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Signaling the start of a new phase in India-U.S. relations, Modi affirmed that strong links between the two democracies could anchor peace, prosperity and stability “from Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. This can also help ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce, and freedom of navigation on seas,” he added, acclaiming the partnership as an extraordinary relationship and the U.S., an indispensable partner.

The prime minister’s allusion was clearly to China, which is also intent on furthering its interests in the IOR under the framework of its Maritime Silk Route that entails development of a string of ports, essentially encircling India, such as Kyaukphyu in Burma, the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan. China also has a military logistics base in Djibouti, Africa, to apparently service its warships engaged in counterpiracy operations near the Gulf of Aden.

Coastal protection and deterring aggression

India’s vast coastline of 7,615 kilometers abuts the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. One of the nation’s island enclaves, Andaman and Nicobar, is closer to Burma and Thailand than to the Indian mainland. The Indian Navy is tasked with securing the sea lines for the Indian Ocean region, stretching from the Persian Gulf in the west to the Malacca Strait in the east. Maritime movement in the region includes 66 percent of global oil, 50 percent of global container traffic and 33 percent of global cargo trade.

India finds a dire need to keep pace with developments in its littoral, with the steady buildup in undersea combat capabilities, to the west by Pakistan, and to the east and south by China — neighbors it has been at war with in the past. With one of the largest fleets of attack submarines comprising four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 53 diesel-electric submarines, Beijing is close to deploying a powerful sea-based nuclear deterrent through long-range nuclear-armed submarines. Five Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs may eventually be built, each armed with 12 JL-2 missiles that can deliver 1-ton nuclear warheads at a range of 4,320 nautical miles (8,000 kilometers).

Modi’s repeated references in his U.S. address to India’s commitment to freedom and democracy served as a reminder that his country offers Washington a like-minded partner in an increasingly unsettled region, and that it provides Asia with a model for development and progress more compatible with American values. This was his fourth visit to the U.S. in the two years that he has been in power. He has visited the U.S. more than any other country during his tenure. His engagement with Obama at the White House was the seventh between the two leaders, Obama too being the first U.S. president to have visited India twice during his tenure.

Committing to forge deeper cooperation with India that he calls a 21st century center of influence, Obama believes that with India assuming its rightful place in the world, the two countries have a historic opportunity to make their relationship “a defining partnership of the century ahead.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also maintained that the United States may now do more with India on a government-to-government basis than with virtually any other nation. Indeed, Modi was interrupted throughout his address by applause from U.S. lawmakers who increasingly see in India a democratic counterweight to China in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, left, and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar greet during an April 2016 joint news conference in New Delhi on military cooperation on disaster relief and other emergencies.

It is largely to its seaborne trade that China owes its spectacular economic transformation, where the 61 percent of its population living in extreme poverty in 1990 shrank to only 4 percent by 2015. One study states that of the 4 billion tons added to global seaborne trade between 2002 and 2014, Chinese imports accounted for 94 percent of the increase in iron ore volumes and 35 percent in coal volumes, while Chinese exports accounted for 60 percent of the expansion in container trade.

Though the U.S. has sought to be neutral, it is conscious of the need for freedom of navigation for all countries. It hence finds it imperative to raise its already formidable profile in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Its numerous military bases in the region include 17 in Japan and 12 in South Korea.

In furtherance of their “Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions,” India and the U.S. recently concluded a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement that facilitates mutual logistical support between the U.S. and Indian armed forces for authorized port visits, joint training, joint exercises, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts. They also agreed to conclude a commercial shipping information agreement that would help their navies work together to defend their territories and to promote and protect global commerce. Though India was not involved in the 1990-1991 Gulf War, it permitted U.S. warplanes to use Indian refueling facilities, despite strong reaction from Iraq that deemed the move “unacceptable from a friendly country like India.”

Strident political opposition, however, forced the then minority government to revoke its decision soon after U.S. military aircraft flying from the Philippines to the Gulf began landing in Mumbai, Agra and Chennai as the United Nations deadline neared for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. As a co-founder of the nonaligned movement, India had opposed Washington’s involvement in regional disputes and had maintained close ties with Baghdad but granted permission to the U.S. on “humanitarian grounds.”

New Delhi today does not want to be seen as too partisan, and it certainly does not desire the situation to precipitate into war. Its stance will likely be compelled by realism because it is circumspect about China’s vaulting ambitions and also about the crosshairs of conflicting interests in this region of immense geostrategic import.

Moreover, India faces another dimension of threat from China’s recent deal with Pakistan that will assist Islamabad in developing a remote sensing satellite for launch by June 2018. The satellite will monitor the progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that Beijing is investing U.S. $46 billion in and which will link western China to the Pakistani port city of Gwadar to provide China direct access to the Arabian Sea.

Obama strongly believes that Pakistan, which had al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden mysteriously living on its territory for five years, should act determinedly against terrorist groups operating from its soil and help spare India the “inexcusable terrorism” that it has endured for too long.

Yet, the U.S. State Department in February 2016 approved the sale to Pakistan of U.S. $700 million worth of eight dual-capable Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets, suitable for conventional and nuclear missions, despite opposition from some congressmen and India. The deal eventually fell through with U.S. reluctance to subsidize the sale, while Islamabad has threatened to procure Chinese or Russian fighter aircraft instead.

However, in April 2016 the U.S. Department of Defense awarded a contract to Bell Helicopter to manufacture and supply to Pakistan nine AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters worth U.S. $170 million under its foreign military sales funds. Islamabad has requested 15 of these helicopters, 32 T-700 GE 401C engines, and 1,000 AGM-114 R Hellfire II missiles.

Washington has claimed that this equipment will aid Pakistan in its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in South Asia, without upsetting the military balance with India. Following Modi’s visit, however, there is a widening view within the U.S. Congress that Pakistan is not committed to the war on terrorism.

While India has of late become the biggest buyer of U.S. weaponry, Washington had in the past decade shown that it could blockade supplies of crucial spares even in weapons systems not directly sold by it to India, but in which it had some involvement. Almost half the Indian Navy’s sole air strike force of British Aerospace Sea Harriers were grounded when the U.S. restrained the United Kingdom from supplying any spares because the U.S. had imposed sanctions on India following its 1998 nuclear tests. The aircraft was designed in the late 1970s as an Anglo-American development of the British Hawker Siddeley Harrier, and it was actually the British variant that India had purchased, yet the U.K. yielded to the American directive.

Washington similarly intervened in the case of the Westland WS-61 Sea King for the Indian Navy. The helicopters were British license-built versions of the American Sikorsky S-61 helicopter of the same name, built by the U.K.’s Westland Helicopters. In 2003, the U.S. offered to directly sell the vital spares for the Harriers and Sea Kings to India. It then dispatched a team of high-level officials and weapons manufacturers for a sales pitch, but top Indian naval officials expressed wariness over newer sanctions.

Around the same time, the U.S., which had previously agreed to India’s U.S. $1.1 billion deal with Israel for three Phalcon airborne early warning and control radar systems, blocked the sale because of rising tensions between India and Pakistan. The U.S. had deemed it wrong to sell such intelligence technology to India, given the tensions along its border with Pakistan. The U.S. later granted sanction, saying tensions had eased. There is also the view that the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper lost out on India’s U.S. $12 billion tender in 2011 for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft because of Indian concerns about the U.S.’ overly restrictive export policies, and U.S. congressional compulsions vetoing India’s deployment of an American front-line fighter in a theater of conflict. The loss of this coveted contract led then-U.S. Ambassador to India Timothy Roemer to step down.

Chinese posturing

Despite all its maneuvering, China at times portrays a more accommodative stance toward India. In July 2015, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced Beijing’s desire for maritime cooperation and dialogue with India and other South Asian countries to allay their concerns over increased Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean, including docking of its submarines in different ports in the region. The ministry expressed Chinese willingness to contribute constructively to peace and stability in the IOR.

While the Indo-Asia-Pacific has historically been driven by commercial interests, the widening unrest in the sea lanes that are the lifeline of this region may eventually compel the validity of a military front like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Much in the manner in which China’s growing might is being perceived today, the 28-member grouping was founded in 1949 in response to the threat posed by the then USSR to deter Soviet expansionism. NATO had codified cooperation in military preparedness among the co-signatories by stipulating that “an armed attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Though Indo-Asia-Pacific countries are keen on safeguarding their territorial interests, they are at the same time anxious not to let the regional conflicts flare into Asia’s next war. “There is no multilateral organization like NATO in the region,” noted Carter when he was U.S. deputy defense secretary. “And in the absence of an overarching security structure, the U.S. military presence has played a pivotal role over those last 60 years, providing nations with the space and the security necessary to make their own principled choices.”

A NATO-like platform may not evolve soon, but it appears inevitable in light of the rising volatility in the region. The similarities between now and at the time of NATO’s creation cannot be lost. Yet the U.S. and China have a high-stakes relationship; their two-way trade alone touched U.S. $598 billion in 2015, unlike the state of Cold War that had riven Washington and Moscow between the end of World War II and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

At times, the consideration eludes the various powers that the Indo-Asia-Pacific is big enough for all of us.