An alliance in the making

Print edition : December 08, 2001

The NDA government, which has extended unstinted support to the United States' war against Afghanistan, now attempts to forge closer military ties with the U.S. despite strong criticism of the move both at home and abroad.

AFTER the events of September 11, the United States has been busy identifying allies and marking out potential enemies. Those countries that do not subscribe to the U.S.' prescriptions on tackling terrorism have been put on the list of potential enemies. Among them are countries as far flung as Indonesia and Venezuela.

Admiral Dennis Blair, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, with Defence Minister George Fernandes in New Delhi on November 28.-AJIT KUMAR/AP

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, while condemning the horrific events of September 11 on U.S. soil, pointed out that he was against the killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan. Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, mindful of adverse public opinion and the militant Muslim groups in her own country, did not fully endorse the U.S. military move against Afghanistan, unlike most of the other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad had expressed his reservations about the killing of innocents by the U.S. military machine, and so Damascus too has been put on notice by the hawks in the Bush administration. Senior Bush administration officials have not ruled out the use of military force in Indonesia, Syria, Sudan and other countries, which they claim harbour terrorists.

"America is threatening war against half of the world and India has decided to be part of the American-led coalition," said a senior diplomat based in New Delhi. India is among the 40-odd countries that share sensitive military intelligence with Washington. Under the National Democratic Alliance government, it was also among the first countries to offer logistical facilities to the U.S., even before members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) did so. It was also among the first to endorse the National Missile Defence (NMD) system proposed to be deployed by the U.S., though the NMD is clearly violative of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty.

The U.S. did not avail itself of the Indian offer in the war in Afghanistan owing to geographical exigencies. However, the Bush Administration has made it clear that it wants a sustained military cooperation with India. Although unhappy with Washington for giving primacy to Pakistan in its war efforts, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has on several occasions shown its eagerness to cooperate with Washington. Even before the war, the government had wanted a close military and intelligence relationship with the U.S.

When it was first reported that high-level U.S.-India defence cooperation talks were going on and that the U.S. had requested for base facilities, External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh made a strong denial in early October. But he was soon contradicted by the re-inducted Defence Minister George Fernandes, who revealed that talks for expanded military cooperation between the two countries were under way and that India was not averse to closer defence cooperation with the U.S. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was allowed to set up shop in Delhi before former President Bill Clinton visited India in 2000.

In the last six months there has been a flurry of high-level visits. In July, General Henry Shelton, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), visited India. He was the first U.S. JCS to visit the country. In November, there was increased activity on the diplomatic front. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was in Washington and was one among many important world leaders who visited the White House to show solidarity with the U.S. President. The Indian side was not very happy with the continuing pro-Pakistan tilt of the Bush administration. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, who was also in the U.S. , was given much more coverage by the media there and had the privilege of spending an hour and a half with the U.S. President. The joint statement released after the meeting underlined the centrality of the Kashmir issue.

In comparison, Bush's talks with Vajpayee lasted only half an hour. Vajpayee later complained to Indian mediapersons that there was disappointment in India about the U.S. response to its concerns. Despite the Indian government's whole-hearted embrace of the U.S. after September 11, Bush has not questioned Pakistan on the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir. On the other hand, Bush had warned New Delhi to desist from taking any action against Pakistan until the war in Afghanistan was over. The Indian Prime Minister's letter to the U.S. President following the terrorist attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building in the first week of October (Frontline, October 26, 2001), asking the U.S. government to rein in Pakistan, has been interpreted as a virtual invitation to the U.S. to intervene in Kashmir.

Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defence Secretary, who was in New Delhi on a brief visit, stressed the need for "strategic cooperation" with India. Admiral Dennis Blair, the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, visited New Delhi in the last week of November for talks with the Indian defence establishment. Speaking to the media in New Delhi, Blair said that the U.S. looked forward to building an "unprecedented" military-to-military relationship with India. He went on to say that the ties would be "non-traditional and unconventional". He said that the ties need not be necessarily formalised in a defence treaty. Blair has been busy visiting other countries in the Asia-Pacific region to gather logistical and other kinds of support for the war in Afghanistan. India, along with some South-East Asian nations such as Singapore and the Philippines, continue to be among the enthusiastic drum-beaters of the U.S. war efforts.

Blair said that issues related to counter-terrorism, energy security, peace keeping, training and exercise were discussed during his interaction with Indian officials. He clarified that greater security cooperation between the two countries would include the protection of sea-lanes and energy supplies. U.S. officials have suggested that large-scale joint military exercises involving the military forces of the two countries would be held soon and that most of the remaining military sanctions against India, imposed in the wake of Pokhran-II, would also be eased soon.

While Blair was in India, a U.S. Navy Destroyer, the USS John Young, belonging to the Seventh Fleet, docked in the Chennai harbour in the last week of November. A helicopter from the ship allegedly undertook a reconnaissance flight over strategic installations in and around Chennai, including the nuclear power plant at Kalpakkam, 60 km south of the city. There were strong protests in Parliament about the incident, but the Defence Ministry took the stand that the helicopter did not enter Indian air space. Opposition parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) have refused to accept the government's stance and demanded an apology from the U.S. government. The CPI(M) Polit Bureau has criticised the Vajpayee government for allowing the U.S. warships participating in the Afghanistan war to dock and refuel at Indian ports. American sailors have been given rest and recreation (R&R) facilities by the Indian authorities, which are usually given to troops from countries with which there are close military relations. India has allowed U.S. naval vessels to avail themselves of the refuelling facilities offered by the Indian government. In early November, another U.S. ship, USS O'Brien, had docked in Chennai. Another vessel is expected to dock in Mumbai soon.

A meeting of the Indo-U.S. Defence Policy Group is scheduled for the first week of December and will be attended by Douglas Feith, the U.S. Under Secretary of Defence. All the high-level meetings are the outcome of the decisions taken in Washington after Jaswant Singh visited the U.S. in April this year, when he also held the defence portfolio. A decision to renew U.S.-India military ties, which were suspended after the Pokhran-II tests in 1998, was taken then. Joint Indo-U.S. military exercises will be resumed soon. The Indian government wants the ties to be more wide-ranging than envisaged by the Bush administration. It wants joint patrolling along with the U.S. from the Gulf to the South China Sea. As of now, the U.S. government has limited the naval partnership with India to the Southern Command, headed by Admiral Blair.

Home Ministry sources have confirmed that the U.S. and India have agreed to upgrade their intelligence sharing arrangement to include the "exchange of military intelligence". India's intelligence agencies such as the Research and Analyses Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) have strengthened their cooperation with Washington since September 11. According to reports in the U.S. media, India is among the 50 countries that provide intelligence to the U.S. at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The Indian government is said to have informally given permission to U.S. military planes involved in the war to overfly Indian territory.

The BJP-led government's policy appears to be to extend unhesitating support to the U.S. on all major international issues. It is therefore no surprise that India's credibility has taken a beating in many parts of the world. A diplomat said that until the early 1990s developing countries looked up to India for moral leadership. Today, India is viewed with suspicion by many nations in the developing world. Not surprisingly, India's lukewarm bid in November to host the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) conference was treated with scepticism. Many diplomats who belong to African and Arab countries were suspicious of India's motives while trying to lead the movement again, given the present government's pronounced tilt towards the West.

The BJP government had gone to great lengths to distance itself from movements such as NAM. Neither the Prime Minister nor the External Affairs Minister was present at the G-77 meet in Havana last year despite the presence of leaders of all other prominent NAM countries. Jaswant Singh, while defending the government's tilt towards the U.S., said in Parliament during the winter session that "foreign policy cannot be based on nostalgia and prejudice. It is the country's national interests that guide and determine foreign policy". Increasingly, the present government is giving the impression that it considers the U.S.' War Against Terrorism as its own war. "The factory called Afghanistan is being brought to a standstill and dismantled and the country (India) will directly benefit from this," he told Parliament.

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