Linchpin of America's Pivot? U.S. Courts India to Maintain Military Superiority Over China
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In addition to a booming arms trade, India and the United States have conducted more than 50 joint military exercises in the last seven years. Against this, India’s joint exercises with other countries appear to be mere tokens.
Military-to-military relations have especially deepened in the realm of naval cooperation. The U.S. and Indian navies have cooperated operationally on four separate occasions: in the Strait of Malacca after 9/11, in disaster relief efforts after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004-2005, in a non-combative evacuation operation in Lebanon in 2006, and counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008.
In December 2001, the two countries reached an agreement on naval cooperation to secure the maritime routes between the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits known as “chokepoints.” During the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, naval ships were provided by India to safeguard U.S. non-combatant and merchant ships transiting the Straits of Malacca, which freed U.S. naval ships for service off the coast of Pakistan. This has been officially acknowledged by Washington as a contribution by India to the “war on terror.”
India was also one of the very few countries to join the “core group” set up by Washington in the wake of the 2004-2005 Indian Ocean tsunami. The “core group” was actually a Pentagon plan to assess the geo-strategic implications of the tsunami and to gain the U.S. military access to areas where it had not previously been permitted. It was disbanded because of sharp criticism from the United Nations and European nations like France.
But India is apparently not the only South Asian nation being courted by the United States. The Times of India reported in June that Washington is in the process of stationing a naval base in Chittagong, Bangladesh. “Worried by the increasing presence of Chinese naval bases in the South China Sea,” the paper reported, “America now eyes a counter-strategy as it wants an overall presence in Asia – right from Japan to the Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean.” The Bangladeshi government has denied the report, but if it’s true, it could cast a shadow on India’s own security strategy and on U.S.-Indian naval cooperation. However, such an initiative would be perfectly in tune with Washington’s ongoing quest for more naval facilities in the region.
Problems in the Neighborhood
Although Obama administration officials have often stated that the so-called “pivot” is not aimed at any particular country, the Strategic Guidance document admits that it concerns at least in part the growing influence of China. Happy to avail itself of U.S. military technology but reluctant to raise tensions with its sometime rival, India is understandably cautious about aligning too closely with the United States against China.
That is why, in response to Panetta’s overtures, Indian Defense Minister A. K. Antony emphasized “the need to strengthen multilateral security architecture in Asia and move to a pace comfortable to all countries concerned.” It did not go unnoticed that on exactly the same dates Panetta was in New Delhi, India’s Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna was in China affirming the Sino-Indian bilateral relationship as a priority for India’s foreign policy and expressing India’s desire to expand strategic cooperation with China. Likewise, several statements have appeared with claims by U.S. and Chinese leaders that they are committed to collaborating on security in South Asia.
India has a host of problems with China in South Asia. These include increasingly strident Chinese claims on Indian territory, the lack of any progress in border negotiations, China’s nuclear links with Pakistan, and China’s support for the Pakistani position on Kashmir. The United States’ silence on these matters has given the impression, albeit indirectly, that it supports the Chinese positions.