An Ambassador's forays

Published : Mar 30, 2002 00:00 IST

U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill visits the Nathu La Pass and other strategic locations in the northeastern region, underlining the deepening military relationship between India and the U.S.

A PHOTOGRAPH from United States Ambassador Robert Blackwill's February 2002 visit to northeastern India shows him, along with his wife, atop an elephant, gazing at a rhinoceros in the Kaziranga National Park. He was not, in fact, a lay tourist. The Ambassador spent much of his time well away from cameras, closeted with top military officials responsible for guarding India's border with China and Myanmar. No one is willing to go on record about just what was discussed. But the visit itself underlined the deepening military relationship between India and the U.S. and provided some indication of what the U.S. hopes to get from its new-found ally.

Blackwill's journey began dramatically on February 1 when he became the first foreign dignitary to be allowed to visit the 4,290-metre Nathu La Pass in Sikkim. Nathu La, whose name translates as "the pass of the listening ear", was the scene of bitter fighting in 1962. It remains one of the most important strategic positions on the border. Although Indian tourists have, in recent years, been allowed to visit Nathu La, foreign nationals are not allowed access. The Ambassador flew into Bagdogra in the Embassy's private jet. The U.S. consulate had chartered a jeep for his onward journey to Nathu La, but Blackwill finally chose to travel in a Maruti Baleno car borrowed from a local hotel owner. As he surveyed the barbed-wire fence that divides India and China, witnesses were treated to the spectacle of Chinese troops videotaping the U.S. Ambassador watching them.

From Gangtok, Blackwill travelled to other key military locations in the northeastern region. At the 4 Corps Headquarters in Dimapur, Assam, he was received by the Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General R.P. Singh. The Ambassador, informed sources say, was provided a detailed briefing on the situation on the border with Myanmar, with a specific focus on trans-border narcotics movement and its relationship with terrorism. Both India and Myanmar have cooperated to end narcotics and weapons trafficking through the Somra Tracts. The Ambassador was also scheduled to meet top officers of 3 Corps in Tezpur, Assam, another key formation tasked with both counter-terrorist duties in Assam and border responsibilities. In the wake of the December 13 attack on Parliament House in New Delhi, 3 Corps has been redeployed along the western border with Pakistan.

In political terms, it is hard to make sense of just what India wished to signal by allowing Blackwill to travel to Nathu La. Until 1993, China did not recognise Sikkim as being a part of India, on the ground that its former rulers had been vassals of the Dalai Lama. After the signing of a 1993 agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control, China signalled its willingness to consider recognising Sikkim as a part of India. From 1995, officers of both armies have met regularly at Nathu La to resolve local issues. Since then, Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling has lobbied energetically for the opening of the Nathu La border for trade and tourism. Tibet's capital Lhasa is some 850 km from Nathu La, and there was significant trade through the Pass before the India-China war. It is possible that Blackwill, who has an energetic interest in defence issues, simply wanted to see the famous Pass.

But it is difficult not to vest a wider significance in Blackwill's visit, given India's new-found military love affair with the U.S. At least a part of the U.S. defence establishment believes that an adversarial relationship with China is inevitable, and point to last year's standoff over an espionage aircraft and the ongoing spat over Nuclear Missile Defence to affirm their thesis. If some kind of face-off with China is possible, the U.S. has obvious reasons to seek a close relationship with the Indian Army. Northeastern India otherwise has no place in the U.S.' so-called war against terror. Last June, U.S. troops trained at the Indian Army's jungle warfare school at Virangte, but that in itself would hardly have warranted an ambassador-level visit to military facilities in the region.

At a dinner hosted for Blackwill by the Army after his Nathu La visit, there was little discussion of China or northeastern India. Much of the Ambassador's conversation, informed sources said, centred on the possible sale of Bell helicopters capable of operating at high altitude. The Indian Army is believed to be unhappy with the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), and has been seeking to acquire at least 30 new helicopters on a priority basis. The ALH was initially scheduled to use the U.S.-manufactured CR-800 engine, but was denied this technology in the wake of the Pokhran-II nuclear tests. According to reports, the ALH, equipped with French-made Turbomeca 333B2 engines, failed crucial vibration and thrust tests. Interestingly, neither the Chief Minister nor the Governor was present at the dinner, ensuring that it remained an all-military affair.

BLACKWILL has, indeed, been a key figure in pushing for arms sales to India. He recently announced that Indian requests for advanced weapons systems had been sent to the U.S. Congress for approval. India is believed to be in need of engines and electronic systems for its indigenous Light Combat Aircraft programme and the ALH, besides gun-locating radars and electronic warfare systems. While there has been no official confirmation of the precise systems that India is seeking, Blackwill made it clear in an interview in November last year that such sales would be part of a wider collaborative process. "I see a robust military-to-military exchange between India and the U.S.," Blackwill had said after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit to Washington in November 2001. "I think U.S.-India military relations have a big future," he concluded. "It is the kind of thing we have not done with anyone else in the world."

The last part of Blackwill's statement needs to be read in the context of Indian fears about U.S. military assistance to Pakistan. On November 7, the U.S. announced that it would be giving Pakistan $73 million worth of military assistance. Shortly afterwards, reports said Pakistan was to be given six Apache AH64 or AH64D Longbow assault helicopters as part of the deal. The AH64 is among the world's most lethal anti-tank weapons, and can play a key role in fighting off advances by India's armoured strike corps. The Longbow's new 64D version has "fire and forget" capabilities. The helicopter is highly resistant to counter attack, and can withstand hits from ammunition of up to 23 mm calibre.

Weapon systems, however are not the only, or even the most important, question raised by the new cosiness in Indo-U.S. defence ties. During Vajpayee's Washington visit, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh responded angrily to a news report that New Delhi had rejected a U.S. proposal for a "major military alliance". The report said that this included the training of U.S. troops on Indian soil and provision of Indian warships to escort U.S. Navy vessels in the Indian Ocean. Jaswant Singh dismissed the report as "wonderful fiction", suggesting that there was no such proposal in the first place. Just a few weeks on, it was clear that the report was wrong: such proposals did exist, but India accepted them only too happily.

In January, Defence Minister George Fernandes revealed that a proposal for the Indian Navy to join the U.S. Navy in policing the Malacca Straits had been sent to the Cabinet for approval. Earlier, the joint statement issued after the December 3 meeting of the U.S.-India Defence Policy Group (DPG) expressly committed both countries to "training for combined humanitarian airlift; combined special operations training; small unit ground/air exercises; naval joint personnel exchange and familiarisation; (and) combined training exercises between U.S. Marines and corresponding Indian forces".

Acting on the recommendations of the DPG, high-level delegations of military officers have been meeting to work out the precise logistics of joint training and operations. Thus far, the only firm claims of joint operations have come from the London-based Daily Telegraph, which reported that U.S. special forces were seeking Osama bin Laden in Jammu and Kashmir. That report has, however, been hotly, and credibly, denied.

Leaving aside principles, no one in the Union government seems to have taken a long, hard look at just what India stands to gain from this new alliance. If its intended purpose is to build some kind of front against China, history holds out uncomfortable lessons. Mountaineer Sydney Wignall's book, Spy on the Roof of the World, provided insights into British-backed espionage operations directed at China in the 1950s, executed behind Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's back. The consequences of that enterprise are well known. As important, a tradition of independence within the Indian armed forces seems, at least in part, to have been subverted. As late as 1995, the Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Surinder Singh, faxed his resignation to Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao after officers under his command were ordered to work under U.S. special forces searching for hostages kidnapped by the Harkat-ul-Ansar.

As things stand, there is no clear picture of what India stands to gain by transforming its armed forces into an adjunct of those of the U.S. And there is no sign that anyone in the Union government intends to give an answer any time soon.

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