Strategic realignments

Print edition : July 04, 2003

Jaswant Singh, the then External Affairs Minister, with his Afghanistan counterpart Abdullah Abdullah in New Delhi in October 2002. - S. ARNEJA

India forges new military and economic ties in the neighbourhood to counter what it perceives to be potential threats to its security and its ambitions of carving out a larger role for itself in the region.

INDIA and its neighbours and nuclear rivals, Pakistan and China, who are working in tandem, are weaving a complex web of treaties, defence alliances and covert agreements with South, Central and Far East Asian nations, each side trying to "encircle" strategically the other. Through concentric, sometimes overlapping, military and related intelligence sharing and economic agreements with these states, India hopes to `surround' Pakistan - its `immediate' adversary - and to `contain' China, its `long-term' security threat. "India is trying to break free of its inward-looking strategic insularity in an attempt to carve out a larger regional role for itself in keeping with its perceived vision and strength," a senior Army officer associated with New Delhi's `outward security thrust' said.

India recently firmed up arrangements to train the Afghan National Army (ANA), opened a military base in Tajikistan - its first outside the country - and plans to conduct joint manoeuvres with the Tajik Army. Fear of India's growing links with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics (CARs) led to Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf warning New Delhi to "lay off" the region, in a nationally televised address after the United States-led war against the Taliban was launched in October 2001. Security officers trace to New Delhi's growing links with Kabul the delay in Islamabad restoring air links with India, which would make overflights to Afghanistan easier than now.

An Indian Army team visited Kabul in early April to work out the details for training ANA personnel in weapon handling, map craft and fundamental battalion procedures. Capitalising on the goodwill it has earned by helping the Northern Alliance (N.A.) fight the Taliban militia from 2000 onwards, the Indian Army also plans to instruct Afghan recruits in demining operations and to teach them English. Military doctors, who had earlier opened a 25-bed hospital at Farkhor in Tajikistan close to the Afghan border, are training Afghan recruits as paramedics and nurses.

India's Border Roads Organisation (BRO) will construct a 220-km-long road in Afghanistan from Delaram to Zaranj on the Iranian border based on a survey conducted in December 2002. The Iranians, in turn, are upgrading the link from Zaranj to their new port of Chah Bahar, a project that is likely to be completed by 2007.

India enhanced its military profile in northern Afghanistan and Tajikistan after an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to New Delhi with 155 passengers and crew was, in 1999, hijacked and taken to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan by Pakistan-backed terrorists. Currently, Afghan military and police officers are being trained in India and Indian technicians have begun servicing the Afghan Air Force's fleet of obsolete MiG 21 fighters and other defence equipment supplied by the Soviet Union and Russia. "The Afghan Air Force and Army will work together (with India) to find new avenues of cooperation. The ANA also needs to be reorganised, for which we have sought Indian assistance," Afghan Defence Minister General Mohammad Qaseem Fahim said during his visit to New Delhi in May 2002.

"It is hoped that through such training programmes a new military and strategic equation will emerge between New Delhi and Kabul that will help develop a bilateral synergy," a senior military officer said. He added that such an alliance would give India a military and political presence in the region where the Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was once again active.

After the Taliban's defeat, under pressure from Washington, Pakistan's military and the ISI had withdrawn logistic support to the remnants of the Taliban and Islamic groups that are inimical to President Hamid Karzai's administration. But recent Western intelligence accounts indicate that the ISI and a group of retired senior Pakistani military officers with Islamist leanings are once again working to unite disparate Taliban elements inside Afghanistan and the tribal groups on the Pakistani border to sabotage Karzai's efforts to rebuild the war-ravaged country.

However, to Pakistan's chagrin, India has opened consulates at Mazar-e-Sharif and Heart in north and northwestern Afghanistan and in Jalalabad and Kandahar in the south to "evenly spread" its influence across the country. India is also dispatching desperately needed aid like foodgrains, engineering goods, buses, medicines and artificial limbs to Afghanistan. Alarmed by India's growing influence, evident from the growing popularity across the country of Hindi films, Pakistan appealed to Washington to curb the former's `forward policy'. Consequently, the U.S. issued a demarche to the Indian government in December 2002 objecting to its Jalalabad and Kandahar consulates, but the hubbub soon subsided.

India will also conduct its first ever-overseas military exercises with Tajikistan later this year, to increase its influence in the energy-rich CAR. Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials said that an advance Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) team had visited the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe recently to prepare for the exercises, an agreement regarding which was reached in 2002.

The manoeuvres will feature two IAF Antonov-32 transport aircraft demonstrating their lift capability and a platoon-strength of Indian Special Forces participating in parachute jumps and other commando exercises. "These manoeuvres will be a road map for further military exercises with other CARs," a military officer said in Delhi.

The base Farkhor was established in 2002 following a bilateral agreement signed during Defence Minister George Fernandes' visit to Dushanbe. The base is being used to funnel relief assistance that India pledged to Afghanistan after the Taliban's ouster in November 2001. Official sources said the base had been helpful in transporting assistance to Kabul following the ban on overflights India and Pakistan imposed on each other in December 2001. Large Indian military transport aircraft land at airfields near Farkhor and transfer their contents onto smaller planes that ferry them to nearby Kabul. India has also formalised an agreement to train Tajik defence personnel, service and retrofit the country's Soviet and Russian military equipment, and teach the personnel English.

New Delhi has also strengthened diplomatic and security relations with Teheran. It held naval exercises with the Iranian Navy in the Arabian Sea in March and has agreed to maintain Iran's military hardware, obtained mostly from Moscow. India will also train Iranian Navy personnel and service Iran's four Russian `Kilo' class submarines (Jane's Intelligence Review, March). In an agreement signed during President Syed Mohammed Khatami's visit to New Delhi in January, India agreed to develop a series of ports and roads linking Iran to Afghanistan and the CARs.

Both countries anticipate that such infrastructure schemes could brighten the prospects for the construction of an oil and gas pipeline from the resource-rich Caspian region to the Iranian coastline as an alternative to the one that is under consideration now, albeit tentatively, through Afghanistan into Pakistan and onwards to India. India expects that enhanced bilateral economic relations will automatically increase security ties with Iran, to Pakistan's disadvantage.

External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha with Mynamarese Foreign Minister U Win Aung after signing an agreement in New Delhi on January 20.-S. ARNEJA

MEANWHILE, on the eastern front India has reportedly given up its decade-long commitment to the cause of democracy in Myanmar for strategic and economic considerations. Backed by a developmental and commercial drive, it has made diplomatic thrust to blunt the well-established defence and strategic links between Yangon and Beijing and, to a lesser extent, Islamabad. Both Pakistan and China were among the few countries to defy international opinion and forge close military ties with Yangon's State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), in a clever move to complement their strategy of encircling India.

"India has long ignored China's, and to some extent Pakistan's, growing influence with Myanmar's military government at its peril. It is now looking to correct this imbalance," a senior military official said. In order to neutralise China's burgeoning influence with Yangon, India persuaded Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand some five years ago to form an economic cooperation group, the Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC), to enhance cooperation in trade and investment, communication and transport, tourism, energy projects and fisheries among the five nations.

In 2002, Jaswant Singh, as Foreign and Defence Minister, inaugurated a 180-km road from the border town of Moreh in Manipur to Kalemyo in Myanmar. He said that "stand-offish" relations with Yangon were against New Delhi's interests, which were guided by "the primacy of geo-political and geo-economic" considerations. Built by the BRO in over three years, the Rs.900-million highway will ultimately stretch to Myanmar's second largest city, Mandalay, thereby significantly helping India's underdeveloped and insurgency-ridden northeastern States of Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh enhance their trade.

India has also installed a remote-sensing and data-processing centre in Myanmar to help Yangon execute resource surveys to develop the country's infrastructure. The neighbours will also open a trading post at Champai-Ki border, in addition to the existing one at Moreh-Tamu to enhance bilateral economic cooperation and to work together to combat insurgency in either country. India also committed itself to developing the Akyab (Sittwe) port, which will allow goods from the northeastern States access to the sea.

China's presence in Myanmar worries India. "China is concentrating on increasing its power and influence and leveraging the strategic configuration of power to its advantage in South Asia," the Korean Journal of Defence Analysis said in its spring 2003 issue. It added that China's attempts at forging economic and military relationships and entering into defence ties with surrounding countries, and the sale of military equipment to them, were integral components of such a policy.

In a recent interview to Jane's Defence Weekly, Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Madhvendra Singh said that though Pakistan was the "obvious" threat, the Navy was also "concerned" about the Chinese Navy's "close interaction" with Indian Ocean states such as Myanmar. The Admiral said that China, which allocates around 33 per cent of its defence outlay to the Navy, is reportedly helping Myanmar modernise its naval bases by building radar and refitting and refuelling facilities that could support Chinese submarine operations in the region.

China is developing the Gwadar and Pasni ports on Pakistan's Makran coast, a move that could endanger vital Indian shipping routes in the Persian Gulf. Nearly 97 per cent of India's foreign trade in volume and 75 per cent in value is sea-borne with crude oil and petroleum products imported from West Asia. The Indian Navy is "closely" monitoring the Chinese activity on the Makran coast.

China is helping Myanmar modernise its naval bases at Hainggyi, the Coco's islands, Akyab, Za Det Kyi, Mergui and Khaukphyu by building radar and refitting and refuelling facilities. The Chinese are also believed to be establishing a signals intelligence (SIGINT) facility on the Coco's islands, 30 nautical miles from the Andaman Islands, to monitor Indian missile tests off the Orissa coast.

Fernandes, who openly supports Myanmar dissidents - many of who live in his official residence in Delhi - has discribed the Hianggyi base as a joint Sino-Myanmarese naval establishment and stated that the Coco's islands has been "loaned" to Beijing. China is reportedly training Myanmar's naval intelligence officials and helping Yangon survey the country's coastline that is contiguous with India.

Indian concerns also centre around increased Chinese involvement in the vital export to India of pulses and beans from Myanmar, worth around $300 million annually. Until recently, this trade was controlled by ethnic Indians operating out of Singapore. But under pressure from Myanmar, Chinese traders have moved in, raising Indian fears of subtle, undeclared embargoes that could be tactically manipulated.

Security sources said Beijing was also lobbying to save a corridor to the Indian Ocean from Southern China via Myanmar in addition to the established route via the Malacca Straits. As a first step in this direction, China has already constructed a highway from Kunming, capital of the Yunan province, to Shewli on the Myanmar border. According to a proposal that is being reviewed by Myanmar's military junta, Beijing wants to extend that road link to Sinkham for access to the Irrawady river, which flows through Yangon and into the Andaman Sea. Once completed, barges would transport Chinese goods down the Irrawady to Yangon and transfer them onto waiting Chinese ships. Yangon is currently resisting the move, but foreign diplomats said it was a matter of time before Beijing prevailed.

Pakistan has supplied Myanmar several shiploads of ordnance and other military hardware such as 106 mm M 40 recoilless rifles and various small arms over the past decade. It regularly trains Myanmar's soldiers to operate Chinese tanks, fighter aircraft and howitzers; Myanmar's Army officers attend Pakistan's Military Staff College at Quetta in Baluchistan province. Since 2001, a full-time Pakistani defence attach has been posted in Yangon.

Two years ago, three Pakistan Navy ships, including a submarine and a destroyer, called at Yangon, and this was followed by General Musharraf's visit to Myanmar. The joint communiqu issued at the end of the visit mentioned the Jammu and Kashmir issue, raising concern in New Delhi as Myanmar, rarely, if at all, comments on third countries. Security sources said that Pakistan was negotiating to build an airstrip in the Chin region of Myanmar, which is contiguous to Mizoram.

Meanwhile, Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean Region contributed largely to India establishing its first tri-service command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in October 2001. The fledgling tri-service command, based in Port Blair, is tasked with exerting influence over Indian Ocean sealanes, combating piracy and guaranteeing the smooth entry of ships heading towards the Malacca Straits. It also has surveillance and monitoring stations across the 750-km-long Andaman and Nicobar archipelago of 309 islands spanning 8,250 km. While the islands are situated 1,200 km away from India, they are just 90 km from Indonesia and 50 km from Myanmar. The IAF plans to establish a full-fledged fighter air base in southern Nicobar. The newly acquired Russian Su 30 MkIs are likely to be based there from time to time. A naval officer said: "China's moves to encircle India merit serious attention and need to be countered."

China's defence relations with India's other neighbours like Sri Lanka date back to the 1970s and are centred around the supply of military hardware such as tanks, armoured personnel carriers, small arms and varied ammunition. China has signed a defence cooperation agreement with Bangladesh to modernise the latter's military through direct sales and technical programmes. It is also seeking contracts to modernise Chittagong port.

India's relations with Bangladesh have deteriorated considerably over the past year, in contrast with Pakistan's increased influence in Dhaka, which has been bolstered by the success of fundamentalist Islamic parties in the country's national elections. New Delhi accuses Dhaka not only of arming and training insurgent groups operating across India's northeastern States, but also of granting the ISI access to the border regions. Millions of Bangladeshis migrate to India across the porous border in search of employment, and this has also contributed to the worsening of relations between Dhaka and New Delhi.

MEANWHILE, in South-East Asia, India has cemented a three-year-long agreement with Vietnam for increased military cooperation, the sale of the locally developed advanced light helicopters, and assistance in overhauling and providing spares to the latter's ageing MiG series fighter aircraft. Fernandes and his Vietnamese counterpart Lt.-Gen. Pham Van Tra agreed in Hanoi that while Vietnamese officers would train the Indian Army in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency operations, the Coast Guard and Vietnam's Sea Police would cooperate to combat piracy.

Reciprocal visits by senior military officers, regular exchange of intelligence and periodic dialogue between Indian and Vietnamese Defence Ministers are also part of the agreement. Security sources revealed that New Delhi had also agreed "in principle" to supply Vietnam its locally developed surface-to-surface Prithvi missile and to train Vietnamese scientists in Indian nuclear establishments, mainly to "spook" China. Hanoi had supported India's 1998 nuclear tests, convinced that New Delhi had security reasons for conducting them.

Defence officials view the agreement with Vietnam as India's attempt to strengthen its ties with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in order to counter China's growing military presence. In an indirect reference to China, Fernandes said that India had to learn to live with its neighbours even though they may be "difficult". He stated that India wanted to "firm up" its ties with ASEAN nations and that neglecting them would be at its own "peril".

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor