The battle is on

Print edition : September 21, 2007

Aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Bay of Bengal on September 5 during the Malabar-2007, one of the largest ever joint military exercises.-DESHKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

Despite widespread protests, India joins in the naval exercises conducted in the Bay of Bengal by the U.S. and its regional allies.

Aircraft carrier USS

THE Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government went ahead with the large-scale quadrilateral military exercises despite protests from the Left parties. The navies of the United States, Japan, Australia, Singapore and India participated in the exercise, code-named Malabar-2007, conducted in the Bay of Bengal from September 4 to 9. The operational area of the exercises stretched from Visakhapatnam to the Andaman islands.

This is the first time that the Indian Navy has participated in an exercise of this scale involving the navies of countries long identified as being part of the U.S.-led military alliance in the region. The exercises came in the wake of the signing of the 123 Agreement between India and the U.S. The Congress leadership has in recent weeks sent out strong signals that it is willing to sacrifice the government it heads in order to preserve Indias close strategic partnership with the U.S. The Hyde Act passed by the U.S. Congress and statements made by leading U.S. officials have explicitly indicated that once the Indian government accepts the nuclear deal, Indias foreign policy will have to be congruent with that of the U.S.

Important foreign policy decisions by the UPA government in the past two years have shown a marked pro-U.S. tilt. Until the late 1980s, Congress governments at the Centre used to demand consistently that the Indian Ocean be turned into a zone of peace and made free of nuclear weapons. Today, ships like USS Nimitz, which as a matter of routine carry nuclear weapons, are allowed to berth in Indian ports.

The September military games came soon after the joint exercises India held with the U.S. and Japan in the western Pacific earlier this year. The Bay of Bengal drill is the 13th joint naval exercise involving India and the U.S. since 1994. This is a clear indication that strategic relations between the two countries have become very close indeed since the Cold War ended. More than half the military exercises the Indian Army has conducted since the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have been with the U.S. Army.

Among the U.S. ships that participated in the exercises were two aircraft carriers, USS Kitty Hawk and USS Nimitz. The Nimitz recently docked in Chennai after moving around the Persian Gulf with a flotilla of ships to threaten Iran. Both the ships were involved in the two Gulf wars. The Kitty Hawk comes with even more historical baggage. It was actively involved in the brutal war against the Vietnamese in the 1960s and the 1970s.

The military exercises India has conducted with non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) countries have generally been much smaller in scope and scale in comparison with the Malabar exercises. The two joint naval exercises conducted with China were basic in comparison with the wide-ranging and complex U.S.-India exercises, which involved aircraft carriers and submarines.

The 25 ships and submarines that participated in the Malabar exercises staged interception, submarine and anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction and Visit, Board, Search and Seize (VBSS) operations to counter terrorism on the high seas. The focus was reportedly on maintaining sea-lane security in the area around the Malacca Straits, through which much of East Asias energy supplies pass.

Defence Minister A.K. Anthony told Parliament in the last week of August that the exercises were in consonance with Indias foreign policy. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) strongly criticised the exercises, terming them harmful to Indias strategic interests. The party had warned that the exercises should be seen in the context of the wider implication of India being bound in a strategic alliance with the U.S..

The international community is also keeping a wary eye on the new developments in the region. Beijing has already made its misgivings about the exercises clear, despite senior American and Indian officials claiming that the exercises were not China-specific. Russia also has reasons to be concerned. Russia and China, along with the other Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) members, conducted a large-scale military exercise in August (see report on page 60).

Given the threat perception in Moscow, Beijing and the capitals of Central Asian countries, the SCO could soon evolve into a potent military bloc to confront the ever expanding NATO. The Russian air force and navy are active again on the global stage. Russian long-range aircraft have resumed flights over U.S. military bases. To counter American moves in the Indian Ocean, Russia has asked Syria to give its navy access to the Tartoos military base.

The scramble for a new balance of power is under way in Asia. With the socialist bloc no longer around, the U.S., after losing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and leaving behind a huge arc of instability in Asia, is portraying the new struggle as one between democracies and dictatorships. Russia and China will be portrayed as the leaders of the alliance of tyranny.

The U.S., Japan and Australia have already started viewing the SCO as a looming military threat. The Indian military establishment is trying to justify the multilateral exercises by arguing they are essential to combat Chinas string of pearls strategy to encircle India. According to this theory, propounded in Washington, the Chinese are busy building a string of bases in the Indian Ocean.

The former Indian Navy chief, Arun Prakash, has written that China has created weapon-client states such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and, Iran to surround India. Myanmar is known to be paranoid about its neutral status and has gone to considerable lengths to retain it. It is well known that Bangladesh, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have closer strategic links with Washington than Beijing. Iran, like India, is so far not known to be subservient to the strategic interests of a third country.

The CPI(M) Polit Bureau in a July 13 statement said that the naval exercises were a step towards India being drawn into the already existing trilateral military cooperation between the U.S., Japan and Australia. The exercises in the Bay of Bengal, the party said, should be viewed in the context of the New Framework for Defence Partnership signed between the Indian and U.S. governments in July 2005.

Aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in the Bay of Bengal on September 5 during the Malabar-2007, one of the largest ever joint military exercises.-DESHKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP

Aircraft carrier USS

Massive protest rallies, including two jathas (processions), one starting from Kolkata and the other from Chennai, were organised by the Left parties. The jathas converged on Visakhapatnam, a key Indian naval base on the east coast.

The public response to the jathas was overwhelming. Participants carried placards with slogans against U.S. imperialism. The jatha from Kolkata was flagged off by veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu. CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, speaking at a rally in Chennai, said that the joint naval exercises had a negative impact on the countrys sovereignty. He emphasised that strategic relations with the U.S. never figured in the Common Minimum Programme of the UPA.

Karat had pointed out much earlier in his speeches and articles that the defence agreement with the U.S. provided the basis for the defence establishments of the two countries to collaborate in multinational operations without the consent of the United Nations. The agreement also states that the two countries will collaborate in the missile defence initiative launched by the U.S. President George W. Bush during his first term in office. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), while in power, had also welcomed the missile defence initiative, making India, along with Japan and Taiwan, one of a handful of countries to do so.

Karat also pointed out that the U.S.-India defence agreement talks were about the shared security interests of the two countries in protecting the free flow of commerce, through land, air and sea, and preventing proliferation and terrorism on the high seas. It was therefore no coincidence that the exercises took place near the Malacca Straits, which was among the worlds busiest sea routes, he said.

Under BJP rule, the Indian government had already permitted the Indian Navy to escort U.S. ships through the Malacca Straits. India has agreed to sign the Logistics Support Agreement with the U.S., which will allow the U.S. armed forces access to Indian ports and military bases.

According to American media reports, India has already given tacit permission to the U.S. to set up lily-pod bases. The U.S. will stock up armaments in these bases, to be used in contingencies. Pakistan is already providing the Americans with these facilities. Thailand and the Philippines, which along with Pakistan have been traditionally close to the U.S., are the other countries that will allow American forces similar facilities.

The Congress party, while agreeing to set up a UPA-Left panel to discuss the concerns raised by the Left parties about the nuclear deal, has indicated that it will halt the talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) only temporarily. Congress president Sonia Gandhi has congratulated Manmohan Singh on the 123 deal, stating that the Prime Minister had fulfilled all the commitments he had made to Parliament on the issue.

Indications are that the Congress leadership is preparing for early elections with the nuclear issue as its central plank. A campaign is already under way blaming the Left and China for trying to prevent India from becoming a great power.

The government has a strong supporter in the main Opposition party on the issue of joint military exercises with the West. The leader of the BJP, L.K. Advani, is a vocal supporter of closer relations with Washington though he rather reluctantly opposes the nuclear deal. Advani told the media that it was in national interests to have close strategic relations with the U.S. He said that his party had no objections against the Bay of Bengal exercises.

The 15-member panel consisting of UPA and Left nominees will go into the details of the nuclear deal and propose further steps. The Left parties will have six members on the panel, including the general secretaries of the two communist parties. The Congress leadership has indicated that the recommendations of the panel will not be binding on the government. Left leaders have reacted by stating that the entire exercise will be meaningless if the panel is converted into a debating club. The Left also wants a commitment from the government that it will not start negotiations with the IAEA before the panel finalises its report.

The Congresss trouble shooter, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, seems to have staved off the collapse of the government for the time being by negotiating a short-term compromise formula. In the last week of August, the government agreed to the Left parties demand that there should be a pause in the operationalisation of the deal. Mukherjee said that operationalising of the deal will take into account the committees findings. He went on to add that the joint panel would look into the implications of the Hyde Act on the 123 Agreement and self-reliance in the nuclear sector along with the nuclear agreements implications on foreign policy and security cooperation.

CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat (left) and CPI leader D. Raja beside a portrait of V.O. Chidambaram Pillai, the freedom fighter who launched a shipping service to challenge British monopoly. The Left leaders garlanded the portrait to mark the launch of their "jatha" from Chennai.-PTI

CPI(M) general secretary

The government, at the same time, has indicated that it is keen to start negotiations with the IAEA in November, when the next meeting is scheduled.

Prakash Karat reiterated the Lefts position at a rally in Chennai that the agreement with the U.S. was unacceptable as it would allow Washington to blackmail New Delhi on issues of foreign policy.

Karat, in one of his speeches during the course of the jatha, said that the Left parties would not allow the country to become a junior ally of the U.S. The Prime Minister must decide whether he is fulfilling hi s commitments to the people of India or U.S. imperialism, Karat said.

It is not only on the foreign policy front that the Left parties are disillusioned with the UPA government. The bungling by the government on the agricultural front is also beginning to occupy centrestage. The governments decision to import 7.5 lakh tonnes of wheat at Rs.16 a kilogram while paying only Rs.8.50 a kilogram to domestic farmers has provoked a debate.

The Left parties have demanded that the government stop the import of wheat. The CPI(M) has also called for an inquiry into what is being called the wheat import scandal, arguing that the government should have offered an attractive procurement rate to Indian farmers instead of filling the coffers of multinational companies. The prices of wheat products have already shot up in the domestic market as a result of the ham-handed policies of the government.

The Left parties allege that the government in its so-called quest for energy security under the U.S. umbrella forgot to ensure food security for the people. After the campaign against the military exercises end, the CPI(M) will launch a week-long campaign, from September 9 to 15, against the Central governments economic policies. The focus will be on the raw deal given to the common man. The honeymoon between the Congress and the Left is definitely over. How much longer a loveless marriage will last is the million dollar question.

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