A spreading menace

Print edition : July 20, 2002

By forging new alliances and strategic agreements ostensibly to fight Islamic terrorism, the United States has, post-9/11, spread its military presence even to hitherto inaccessible areas in Asia.

THE September 11 attacks on the United States have, ironically, proved to be a strategic bonus for Washington in extending its military presence across Asia. Through a complex web of alliances, ostensibly to fight the scourge of Islamic terrorism, and backed by economic sops and clever strategic agreements, the world's lone superpower has manoeuvred itself not only to exploit the vast energy resources of the Central Asian Republics (CARs), but also to encircle China, its potential economic and military rival.

Ten months after 9/11, U.S. military presence is palpable not only in Kabul, Islamabad and strategically located CARs such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan - vital to U.S. oil conglomerates, anxious to begin laying pipelines to the Arabian Sea - but in varying degrees in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and to a lesser extent in Myanmar. Further east, the U.S. military is combating Al Qaeda cadres in the Philippines and bolstering its presence in Indonesia and the South China Sea.

The guided-missile cruiser USS Vincennes, part of the U.S. Navy's Seventh Fleet, in Asian waters.-AP PHOTO/KYODO NEWS

And, while seizing the opportunity to obtain its long-term energy and security interests, the U.S. has, expectedly, changed all rules of engagement. In its military alliances, especially with the CARs, it has either downplayed or ignored human rights considerations amongst its newfound allies and, in some cases, even rewarded them. Desperate for an alternative to the turbulent Arab states to meet its petroleum needs, the U.S. has emerged as the leading foreign investor in Central Asia's energy sector, openly declaring that it wants to promote political and economic stability in the area. Loosely translated, this means that it wants peace to ensure profit.

Washington's opening gambit immediately after 9/11 was, predictably, in the CARs, whose strategic location was vital in executing its campaign against the Taliban. The CARs, on the other hand, aware of their geographical importance, sensed a golden economic opportunity and the continuing partnership of convenience was cemented.

Initially, however, fearing militant reprisals and Moscow's opposition to military cooperation with Washington, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan declared that their territories were being utilised exclusively for humanitarian purposes. But as the incipient danger of a backlash and of Russian disapproval abated, official denials of military cooperation from Tashkent, Bishkek and Dushanbe disappeared.

According to Jane's Intelligence Review, the United Kingdom-based journal dealing with security issues, the "reality" of the agreements reached between Washington and the three CARs was quite different from that reported by the media. "Considering the extent of the international presence in Central Asia today, it is evident that detailed agreements were finalised during the weeks after September 11," the magazine declared in its June 2002 issue, indicating that contingency plans already existed to formulate such a partnership. After all, even when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, the U.S. establishment, in tandem with oil corporations like UNOCAL, was desperately trying to stitch up deals to run profitable pipelines through Afghanistan, unmindful of the militia's human rights records or its harsh treatment of women. Recent accounts confirm that besides organising operations in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. also covertly used Tajikistan, which shares borders with China, to launch special operations against the Taliban. Uzbekistan, offering the best military and transport facilities, was the "jewel" in Washington's military alliance in the region. In exchange for granting the U.S. access to the Khanabad airbase, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov was provided $25 million to buy weapons and defence hardware. Over the past six months, Washington promised another $100 million to Tashkent, with no strings attached.

Following Uzbekistan's initiative, Kyrgyzstan too allowed the U.S.-led coalition forces to build a large establishment at the Manas airport, adjoining Bishkek, which was used for both offensive and humanitarian operations. But unlike Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan has limited U.S. presence on its territory to one year. Western analysts, however, estimate that U.S. and allied military presence in Kyrgyzstan has so far generated around $14 million for the country. Another $40 million will be pumped into the country's economy by the year-end, mostly by the U.S.

Washington is also expected to spend $8 million to train and finance the Kyrgyz military until 2004, leading many analysts to anticipate that the U.S. is preparing itself for an extended stay, despite growing local opposition to its presence. Tajikistan, on the other hand, remains reticent about its relations with the U.S., though it offered its territory for covert operations against the Taliban. Security sources said the U.S. awarded around $120 million to Dushanbe, once again with no questions asked for services rendered.

Although U.S. officials are at pains to stress that their presence in the central Asian states is not an extended one, Washington's support to the authoritarian regimes, the grant of economic and military largesse and the building of near-permanent bases seem to suggest otherwise. Indications of these latent intentions have been provided also by assurances of more military aid to the region and moneys to acquire U.S. weaponry with a view to bolstering the U.S.' military-industrial complex, which was rapidly shrinking before 9/11. "The moment was greedily seized upon by Washington to re-enter, without any opposition, its old Cold War stamping ground in Asia to maximise profit," a Western diplomat said. He added that the presence of U.S. military bases at Manas and Khanabad in Uzbekistan is of grave concern to Beijing and Moscow who anticipate an eventual clash with Washington in the region awash with oil and gas deposits.

WHILE Islamabad and Kabul remain crucial to U.S. interests, Washington and Delhi, despite vociferous denials by both, are subtly forging mutual long-term military and security alliances aimed at containing China, despite the recent flurry of diplomatic overtures to Beijing for peace and tranquility.

In its new-found military partnership with the U.S., including strategic cooperation through dialogue, periodic policy reviews, reciprocal visits by senior officials and service commanders and an inflow of U.S. military hardware, India is anxious to convince Washington that it is not even willing to consider a Moscow-Delhi-Beijing triangle to ensure a multi-polar world. In 1998 the proposal for a strategic tie-up among Russia, India and China was mooted by former Russian Prime Minister E. Primakov to contain the spread of U.S. influence through the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's (NATO) eastward thrust and Washington's growing involvement in Central Asia for oil.

The U.S. Army base in Manas, near Bishkek, in Kyrgystan. Although U.S. officials take pains to stress that the American presence in the Central Asian states will not be an extended one, Washington's support to their authoritarian regimes, the grant of economic and military largesse to the states, and the building of near-permanent bases in the region seem to suggest otherwise.-YURI KUZMINYKH/AP

But China, wanting to fill the power vacuum after Washington's withdrawal from Asia in the wake of the Cold War, rejected India's role as a player in world affairs. India's nuclear tests in 1998, a renewed U.S. push into Asia in the late 1990s and President Bill Clinton's overtures to India in early 2000 that were later adapted by President George W. Bush's administration disturbed China. So did Washington's nuclear missile defence policy that New Delhi accepted with unquestioning alacrity.

Thereafter, China began engaging India definitively through high-level bilateral visits; by formulating a joint working group on terrorism, that met for the first time in April; and by moving forward on the vexatious border negotiations, stalled for nearly a decade. But the U.S. moved swiftly after 9/11, drawing India into its regional power game through a slew of treaties and agreements disguised as "long-term" military and security alliances, which, on closer examination, turned out to be aimed at the containment of China.

The December 2001 meeting of the Defence Policy Group (DPG) and the subsequent signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) by Defence Minister George Fernandes in Washington ensured the sharing of military intelligence between India and the U.S. It also guaranteed protection of technology secrets involving weapons sales and their local licensed manufacture. "India presented the U.S. a ripe military market that needed milking and Washington lost no time exploiting it," a Defence Ministry official said.

In April, under the first major U.S. defence contract with it in over four decades, India bought eight U.S.-built Firefinder weapon-locating radar for $146 million. Washington also cleared the sale of 20 other military items to New Delhi. It is also offering India an assorted range of military hardware such as multi-mission maritime reconnaissance aircraft and Harpoon anti-ship missiles (Frontline, June 21).

The sale of three Israeli airborne early-warning and control Phalcon systems to India too has been approved by Washington, but only after it forced Tel Aviv to cancel the deal with Beijing for similar platforms. And in the swiftly changing security scenario, the Indian and U.S. Navies are to patrol jointly the Malacca Straits over which China's Navy exercises considerable control. Foreign diplomats admitted that such moves were bound to "spook" China that too was fast expanding its Navy and moving into the Indian Ocean region. The biggest threat to the U.S. ally Japan from China is Beijing's ability to sever the Japanese sea lanes that run close to the Chinese mainland, a problem that could become acute if unification with Taiwan is achieved. The North Korean missile threat is another major source of Japanese concern.

The U.S. has also doubled to $1.05 million its funding for the International Military Education and Training programme for India. The single service executive steering groups that met recently in India and the U.S. have chalked out a schedule for wide-ranging bilateral manoeuvres to achieve "greater synergy". U.S. Special Forces trained their Indian counterparts for a fortnight in Agra in May and over 100 soldiers are scheduled to travel to Alaska for joint manoeuvres that include the application of bomb disposal techniques. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, recently visited the U.S. to finalise joint exercises between the two Air Forces.

Army officers admitted that Washington was using the same tested technique with the Indian military that it used successfully with Pakistani. Until the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in 1989, Washington augmented its influence in Islamabad by regularly dispatching Pakistani service officers and their children to the U.S. on courses and scholarships and even assuring many of them jobs in the U.S. after retirement. This symbiotic relationship was severed after the U.S. pulled out from the region in the early 1990s, and proved problematic when it returned after 9/11 as a new crop of officers was in charge. "A similar co-opting of India's military has begun," an officer who recently went on a six-week long trip to the U.S. said.

Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard B. Myers declared that a "solid" military partnership is important for the U.S. and India. Myers said: "The U.S. sees its relations with India as central to maintaining long-term stability in Asia and in fighting terrorism. The transformation of our military relationship is essential to achieving these goals." U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill confirmed Myers' statement by saying that bilateral relations between Washington and New Delhi were underpinned by "overlapping interests" and would include strengthening the overall strategic framework and intelligence sharing.

TIGHTENING its noose around Beijing, the U.S. is reported to be seeking to use India's burgeoning security and diplomatic relations with Vietnam to gain greater access to Hanoi. Much to China's chagrin, two years ago India and Vietnam signed an agreement for increased military cooperation, including the sale of Indian-built advanced light helicopters and New Delhi's assistance in overhauling and providing spares to Hanoi's ageing MiG series fighter aircraft. Defence sources revealed that besides training Vietnamese nuclear scientists, New Delhi also agreed "in principle" to supply Vietnam its locally developed surface-to-surface Prithvi missile.

Defence Minister George 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, India's Coast Guard and Vietnam's Sea Police would cooperate to combat piracy. Reciprocal visits by senior military officers, regular exchange of intelligence and a periodic dialogue between Indian and Vietnamese Defence Ministers were also part of the agreement.

In trying to "surround" China, the U.S. has a willing ally in India's military. A recent Indian Navy analysis pinpoints China's nuclear capability and modernised navy as its primary concern in the 21st century. In the "Strategic Review - The Maritime Dimension", the Navy declared that the power vacuum in the Indian Ocean region in the 21st century can only be filled by India, China or Japan either by "complete pre-eminence or by a mutual stand-off". In either case, the situation entails serious security implications for India, an insecurity that Washington is now fully exploiting.

China is rapidly modernising its Navy and building at least two 40,000 tonne aircraft carriers with a view to increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean by 2020. China has the second largest Navy in Asia after Russia. And, in keeping with China's revised doctrine of waging "modern warfare under high technology conditions on the high seas", it is focussing on developing a "blue water" naval capability centred on at least two aircraft carrier battle groups for the Indian Ocean and the Pacific respectively. China has also declared the navy its senior service.

India, on the other hand, claims that as part of its "encirclement policy", China is establishing a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) facility on the Great Coco's island, 40 nautical miles from the Andaman Islands, to monitor shipping in the Malacca Straits and conducting frequent missile tests off Orissa's east coast. Spending over $2 billion, China is also modernising Myanmar's naval bases at Munaung, Hainggyi, Katan island, Zadaikyi island and Mergui in order ultimately to utilise them for operations in the area as part of Beijing's plans to extend itself into the Indian Ocean besides building roads and airports. The Chinese are also constructing a road and waterway link from the southern Yunan provice to Yangon port in Myanmar to provide Beijing access to the Indian Ocean through the Bay of Bengal, thus obviating the need to cross the Malacca-Singapore straits. Since 1992, Beijing has supplied Myanmar arms worth $1.6 billion and is believed to be training some 300 of the country's Air Force and Navy personnel.

China's hold over Myanmar's military junta also led to U.S. pressure on Yangon to release the country's Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in May. The 56-year-old Nobel peace laureate, whose National League for Democracy swept the 1990 elections, was not allowed to assume office by the military junta and was placed under house arrest. To further complicate the situation, China's military and nuclear ally, Pakistan, too has close links with Myanmar. Pakistan had developed a close security and diplomatic relationship with the military junta after it seized power in Yangon in the late 1980s. And at a time when Myanmar's military administration faced sanctions and was considered an international untouchable, Pakistan supplied it several shiploads of ordnance and other military hardware worth nearly $3 million.

While military officers from Myanmar are currently attending Pakistan's Military Staff College at Quetta in Baluchistan province, others are reportedly undergoing training to operate howitzers and a range of tanks such as the T-69, T-63 and T-53s that Yangon recently acquired from China. Pakistan is also believed to be training Myanmar Air Force (MAF) officers to operate the two-seater Karakoram-8 jet trainers that double as ground attack aircraft. The MAF has acquired 14 such jets since 1998. While the K-8s are built in China, Islamabad has a 25 per cent interest in the project, thereby complementing Pakistan's level of involvement in Myanmar's overall defence establishment. The MAF also has a proliferating fleet of Chinese F-7 interceptors and A-5 ground attack craft that Pakistan also operates. Navy officers from Myanmar are also reportedly being trained in Pakistan.

Intelligence sources said that in December 2001 two Pakistani nuclear scientists, anticipating questioning by U.S. officials about their alleged links with the Taliban, sought sanctuary in Myanmar. Suleiman Assad and Mohammad Mukhtar, both in their late fifties, arrived in Yangon via Bangkok and were reportedly "secreted" away by the military administration in Sagaing, a suburb of Mandalay in central Myanmar. Western and Indian intelligence sources said Assad and Mukhtar left Pakistan when the U.S. was investigating two other Pakistani nuclear scientists for their links with the Taliban and possible help they may have provided it to build a "dirty bomb" or a crude radiological weapon capable of being detonated conventionally using explosives.

MEANWHILE, the Bush administration has asked Congress to sanction $20 million in unspecified, non-lethal military aid to Nepal. It includes body armour, night vision devices and varied equipment for the grossly under-equipped, near medieval Royal Nepal Army (RNA) that is desperately battling the Maoists.

Working in tandem with the British - whose association with Nepal dates back to 1815, and who continue to recruit Gurkha soldiers, albeit a token number - are around 40 U.S. "low-profile advisers", a euphemism for security specialists, recently posted in Kathmandu. These under-cover advisers are reportedly helping modernise the RNA and the near-defunct National Intelligence Directorate (NID) in order to counter the Maoists. The U.S. Ambassador to Kathmandu, Michael Mallinowski, was earlier posted in Peshawar. Sher Bahadur Deuba was the first Nepali Prime Minister to have met the U.S. President in the White House earlier this year.

While the RNA, which has never fought a war or been involved in counter-insurgency operations, desperately needs revamping, the NID, which was used principally to gather information on Nepalis during the decades of the panchayat system and to harass them, are incapable of adapting themselves to deal with the Maoist menace. "From the U.S., we need material assistance such as weapons, equipment and training to fight the terrorists and financial assistance to fight budgetary constraints," Prakash Sharan Mahat, advisor to Deuba, said recently. More than 3,000 people have died in six years of fighting in Nepal - more than a third of them since the Maoists walked out of peace talks with the government in November 2001.

Under Operation Balanced Style, while U.S. Sea Air Land Forces (SEALS) specialists have begun training the Sri Lankan Army and Navy and police teams from the country are being sent to the U.S. for anti-terrorism courses with emphasis on bomb disposal. The military cooperation has also been extended to the island's Air Force that operates a wide range of Israeli-made combat aircraft. With an eye on eastern Sri Lanka's Trincomalee port as a staging point for its assets based at Diego Garcia, Washington has also pressured the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to persevere in its peace offensive.

Trincomalee is one of the world's biggest natural deep-sea harbours that "controls" the Indian Ocean. Through a combination of diplomacy, bullying and astute bargaining, a paranoid India had, over several years, somehow managed to prevent outside powers from having access to Trincomalee. One of the key clauses of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Agreement that led to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) arriving in Sri Lanka declared that Trincomalee would not be controlled by any foreign power "inimical" to India. But with the U.S. now India's most coveted ally, New Delhi is unlikely to object to Washington neatly tying up all the strategic bonds to fully dominate the Asian region.

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