NAM and Nimitz

Print edition : July 27, 2007

An aerial view of USS Nimitz, a symbol of US military power in Indian waters.-

The docking of the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz in Chennai indicates that India seeks to consolidate defence relations with the US.

The recent remarks by United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice questioning the relevance of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in the contemporary world have evoked strong reactions in India. Condoleezza Rice made the comments at the US-India Business Council Meeting in Washington. She told her audience that NAM had "lost its meaning" and suggested that countries like India distance themselves from the movement and work towards closer relations with the US. Rice chose to express her views at a time when the nuclear cooperation deal between the two countries is on the verge of being finalised. Her statement also coincided with the docking of the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, in Chennai.

This is the first time that such a significant symbol of US military power registered its presence in Indian territorial waters. The ship was in the Indian Ocean as part of the large naval force the US has deployed in its efforts to put military pressure on countries such as Iran and Syria. USS Nimitz was one of the nine US warships that passed through the Straits of Hormuz recently after conducting war games specifically designed to put pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue. Interestingly, it was involved in the failed rescue attempt of US hostages in Teheran soon after the Islamic revolution in Iran. The helicopters involved in the attempt took off from the Nimitz. The carrier was also involved in actions that impinged on the sovereignty of countries such as Libya and Lebanon in the 1980s. Since the Iraq war, the Nimitz has been deployed for most of the time in the Persian Gulf region.

Until the 1980s, the Indian government used to be vociferous in its demand that the Indian Ocean should be converted into a zone of peace. However, since the 1990s, India's foreign policy has taken a noticeable pro-western shift. New Delhi has chosen to remain quiet on many contentious issues and has on occasions supported Washington openly. The vote in the International Atomic Energy Agency against Iran in 2006 is an illustration.

The Left parties and many opposition parties loudly protested against the docking of the Nimitz in an Indian port. They were particularly annoyed that a nuclear-powered ship, probably with nuclear weapons on board, was allowed to use an Indian port. There were big demonstrations against the docking of the ship in Chennai.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh assured the public that there were no nuclear weapons on board the ship. Officials say that 10 other nuclear-powered warships have visited Indian ports in recent years. Five of these were from the US.

The US military, as a matter of policy, refuses to confirm or deny the presence of nuclear weapons on board its vessels. As part of the 50-ship armada to the Persian Gulf, it is unlikely that USS Nimitz was not armed with a formidable arsenal of nuclear weapons. All the same, India's Department of Atomic Energy kept a "close watch on the ship"; it had prepared contingency plans to cope with any "emergency" situation.

Adding fuel to the fire was Condoleezza Rice's views on non-alignment. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) in a statement said that her speech was part of the message that was "being conveyed along with the assurance that the nuclear cooperation agreement can be finalised provided India understands the parameters of the `strategic alliance' with the United States".

In recent years, New Delhi seems to be bending over backwards to accommodate the "strategic interests" of Washington. Joint military exercises involving the armies of the two countries have intensified in scope and magnitude since they began in the mid-1990s.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government even went to the extent of offering basing facilities to the US military before it embarked on the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq following the events of September 11, 2001.

A demonstration organised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India near the Chennai port on July 2 in protest against the arrival of USS Nimitz.-M. VEDHAN

The NDA government was among the handful of governments worldwide that welcomed the Bush administration's "Strategic Missile Defence Initiative". At one point of time, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was even toying with the idea of despatching Indian soldiers to Iraq to help the US-led occupation forces.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is seeking to consolidate further the strategic and military relations with Washington. The "New Framework for the Defence Relationship" signed between the two countries in June 2005 laid out the parameters for the deepening defence relationship. The agreement called for joint exercises and collaboration in multinational operations. It also called for closer interaction with US allies in the region such as Japan and Australia.

The recent decision of the Indian, Australian and Japanese navies to hold joint exercises near Chinese territorial waters has angered Beijing. The Chinese government has sent a "note verbale" to New Delhi on this issue. This is a strong indicator of China's displeasure at the Indian military's decision to participate in war games in its backyard with staunch US allies. Australian Prime Minister John Howard warned recently that China's rapid military expansion risked causing greater instability in the region. Howard said that the Australian military must prepare for offensive operations in Asia.

Washington's desire to encircle China with a pro-US alliance is well known. The Japanese leadership has been calling on New Delhi to join in Washington-inspired projects such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. New Delhi seems to be keen on going in for US military hardware in a big way. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has already purchased a few Hercules transport planes while the Indian Navy has acquired USS Trenton, one of its costliest buys so far. It is now the second biggest ship in the Indian Navy. It would not be a surprise if the IAF opts for the US-made F-18s when it replenishes its advance jet-fighter force in the near future. The US Ambassador to India, David Mulford, has made an open campaign for the sale of US weaponry to India in the wake of USS Nimitz's docking in Chennai. In a statement, Mulford indicated that the sale of C-130 multi-role lift aircraft to India was imminent.

"India is discovering, as many other countries around the world already know, that buying from today's US military and defence companies is not just an exchange of money for goods, but rather the invitation for long-term partnership of support for the product throughout its life cycle," Mulford's statement said. He emphasised that the presence of the Nimitz in Chennai was "indeed confirmation that a new era in our defence relationship has arrived. We have seen a sea change in our relationship."

The US government since the late 1990s has been making concerted attempts to flood Asia with arms. China's recent decision to increase its military budget by 18 per cent is being wilfully interpreted by the Bush administration as an illustration of the growing military threat Beijing poses to the region though the US military budget is estimated to be five times more than that of China.

The US is on the verge of signing huge defence deals with Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Washington is currently putting pressure on Taipei to sign a $10-billion arms deal by hyping up the Chinese threat. Japan is to be given the top-of-the-line F-22 aircraft. South Korea has also announced its decision to go in for more advanced American jet fighters. In the last fiscal, the US signed arms-sale agreements worth $21 billion. Between 2001 and 2005, US arms sales totalled between $10 billion and $13 billion.

With strategic relations becoming so intimate, the US could be justified in demanding why India still wants to play a leading role in groupings like NAM. The Indian government was, however, quick to reject the views expressed by Condoleezza Rice. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, in a statement, emphasised the government's "firm and abiding commitment" to NAM. The Ministry's spokesperson pointed out that NAM had played "a significant role in ending apartheid and colonialism". The official went on to add that the movement had an important role to play "in promoting South-South cooperation and in the democratisation of the international system".

Condoleezza Rice has been criticising NAM ever since she took office. Before the Havana summit in 2006, she said that the leaders assembled there would use the NAM platform to "get up and give fiery speeches and say all kinds of things". There was considerable pressure on New Delhi at that time to downplay the event and let India be represented at a lower level at Havana.

The Bush administration's anger against NAM has only grown after Cuba assumed the chairmanship of the movement in September 2006. Though it has "observer status" in the movement, the US did not send a delegation to Havana.

At the Havana summit, the assembled leaders agreed to take concrete actions to strengthen South-South cooperation. Among the notable initiatives was the proposal to set up a bank of the South to challenge the monopoly of the Western-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The NAM leaders also pledged to work unitedly in forums like the United Nations on key issues affecting their countries, especially on matters relating to "national sovereignty". During his inaugural speech at the summit, the acting Cuban President Raul Castro criticised the US for its "irrational pretensions of world dominance".

Many world leaders questioned the untrammelled military spending of the US despite the Cold War having ended a decade and a half ago. They were critical of the US unilaterally assuming the right to wage "preventive wars", resorting to "regime changes" and occupying countries illegally.

The Havana Declaration condemned "all manifestations of unilateralism and attempts to exercise hegemonic domination in international relations". A recent survey, published in The Financial Times, in the United Kingdom, showed that the majority of Europeans viewed the US as the biggest threat to international stability.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his speech at the Havana summit, said that "the collective mission of the movement is more relevant than ever". He pointed out that the "voice of the global South is not heard as it should". New Delhi could perhaps learn a lesson or two from the way South Africa is conducting its diplomacy.

Despite intense pressure from Washington, Pretoria has taken an independent position on a whole range of issues. As a current non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, South Africa has refused to succumb to pressure from Washington on key issues like Darfur and Iran. Pretoria has refused to be a party to the destabilisation programmes initiated by the West against countries like Zimbabwe. At the same time, despite protests from Washington, South Africa continues to nurture close ties with China.

Other governments in Latin America and Asia, too, have chosen to stay away from the US embrace. Unlike the current dispensation in India, they have not taken for granted that the 21st century is an American one.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, during his recent trip to Iran, observed that the election of numerous anti-US governments in the region showed "that US imperialism was weakening". Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the visiting Venezuelan President that America's "greatness has deteriorated and it faces many problems. Independent countries should consider this and expand their cooperation".

At the Havana summit, NAM leaders emphatically backed Iran's "right" to nuclear energy.

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