Why should the US claim that India is its friend and partner in South Asia and yet initiate processes that are not India-friendly, particularly when other friends and allies of the kind from the West on the one hand, and East and South-East Asia on the other, have experienced an entirely different American treatment all along?
The post-Cold War world saw South Asian regional power/super-power India readjusting itself to the emerging global reality. After dabbling for a short while with exciting possibilities of a multi-polar world, like much of the non-US West, India too ‘fell in line’, so to say, and accepted the ‘sole super-power’ as the leader.
Yet, India has reserved for itself ‘strategic independence’, though not to the same levels as during the Cold War era. At the time, India was in the ‘Soviet camp’, yes, and questions of ‘divided loyalty’ by either did not arise. It was more so after the erstwhile Soviet Union and China parting ways. That is not-to-be under the ‘American care’ of India’s regional and strategic interests.
For historic reasons and wrong perceptions, the US chose to side with Pakistan during the ‘Cold War’ troubles in South Asia.
The US was also seen in dabbling with other regional affairs affecting Indian security and concerns. The relative American silence on Pakistani high-handedness in yet-to-be born Bangladesh was a case in point.
The US interest in southern Sri Lanka, also in the Seventies, was possibly the first time since the Second World War when India was made to feel concerned about the nation’s security from the vast Indian Ocean side, which it could not have hoped to secure with limited naval and air-power at the time.
Beginning with the times, and for a variety of reasons, India has gone on to strengthen its Navy and Air Force presence in peninsular India, for a constant look-out for trouble in the abutting Indian Ocean. It has also opened a tri-Services Command in the Andamans.
The Indian concerns from the Bangladesh War era emanated partially from the Pakistani sinking of a Navy submarine ‘INS Khukri’, off Diu-Gujarat coasts in the west, and of Pakistan submarine, ‘PNS Ghazi’, not far away from the eastern Vishakapatnam, both during the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971). The emergence of the other Asian adversary in China as an Indian Ocean power in the post-Cold War years, or China’s aspirations in this regard, was/is another cause.
The LTTE as the non-State actor in and from neighbouring Sri Lanka, with a troublesome ‘naval’ and infant/infantile ‘air force’ presence too troubled India, though only up to a point. The use of Indian maritime territory by Pakistan’s ISI during the 26/11 ‘Mumbai terror attacks’ of 2008 was yet another pointer of threats from ‘semi’ or ‘demi-State’ actors in the maritime domain.
The Indian Naval Doctrine provides for such contingencies. It also provides for the Navy to spread out its sphere of influence, up to Vietnam, which has also been facing troubles from China, on the maritime front, too. This does not necessarily mean that India would unhesitatingly deploy the Navy. Instead, it could well mean that India is strategising for a greater regional naval role for itself, considering in particular the volume of maritime trade, both of the nation and the rest of the world.
In a way, the Indian efforts at the expansion of its naval presence, if not outright reach, could blossom and fructify if, and only if, its post-Cold War ‘friends’ in the US and the rest of the West, including newly-empowered Japan and Australia, keep off India’s side of the Ocean and abutting nations, at the very least. That’s not happening, however.
Sphere of influence
There is no harm for India if friendly but distant maritime neighbours/powerful like Australia and Japan seek to share the security burden in the shared neighbourhood. The two are existing middle-powers, seeking to be acknowledged as such, thanks to the American initiatives in the post-Cold War years.
Along with India, Australia and Japan have similar interest and concerns in the Indian Ocean. However, unlike India and Japan, Australia does not have any territorial disputes with China. Unless they feel upset about Indian naval reach up to Vietnamese coast, not far away from theirs, there is no reason why Australia and Japan, for instance, should be out in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood, at times without taking India into confidence.
At the annual ‘Galle Dialogue-2015’ of world navies, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to the US as the ‘elephant in the room’ in the Indian Ocean. He also talked in terms of balancing off non-regional naval powers in the neighbourhood seas. That way, the unspoken Indian concerns are not without reason or history.
Almost since India attained Independence in 1947, and even before that, the world has considered/acknowledged the South Asian neighbourhood as India’s “traditional sphere of influence”. The end of the Second War, which witnessed some land and maritime battles in the Indian neighbourhood, lent greater relevance to the claims, aspirations and expectations.
Statistics of population, size and economy apart, there has been no greater power than India in the South Asian region, then and now. More recently, however, China, as an existing irritant and an emerging super-power, has contested references to the Indian Ocean as “India’s Ocean”. However, it is unwilling to extend the argument to the South and East China Seas, where it has laid imaginative claims to territory in defence of its over-arching ‘super-power’ ambitions.
In the era of India-Soviet ‘friendship and cooperation’, India could count on the latter to stand by it in times of international political/diplomatic pressure, including those at the UN Security Council. India could take the Soviet ‘veto-vote’ almost for granted. It used to be joked that whenever Pakistan mentioned the ‘K-word’ for ‘Kashmir issue’, the Soviet PR at the UNSC or UNGA would raise his hands in contest/protest even if an Indian official were to be absent.
Of equal, if not greater, importance in geo-strategic terms for India was the ready Soviet acceptance of South Asia as the ‘sphere of Indian influence’ in bilateral terms equations. Throughout the years of bilateral friendship and cooperation, the Soviet Union did not seem to have had a South Asia policy independent of India’s. Rather, they were believed to be viewing South Asia through the Indian prism – and only the Indian prism – with all its colours, variations and angles, if any.
The only exception was possibly the disastrous ‘Soviet intervention’ in Afghanistan. Like the rest of the world, the Soviet Union handed down the Indian friend with a fait accompli, and without prior notice or consultation. In hindsight, it could be said that had the Soviet Union sought and obtained honest Indian advice, it might have saved itself the subsequent dissolution as a nation-State, development model and the ‘balancing pole’ in geo-strategic terms after the two Great Wars.
For the ‘day after’
In the post-Cold War uni-polar world, the US has suffered a near-similar fate in the quick-sands that Afghanistan has been for ‘foreign invaders’ for generations and centuries. It could save itself of the humiliation and high military spending, if only it had chosen India for the regional ally post-9/11. Instead, the US preferred Pakistan, and the results are there for all to see.
True, then Indian Prime Minister A B Vajpayee readily offered Indian cooperation to target 9/11 terror-brains hiding in Afghanistan, anxious that the US should not go to Pakistan. In context, it can be concluded that had the US sought India’s partnership instead, at the drawing-board level, India might have convinced the Americans about the foolhardiness of going into ‘unknown territory’ without adequate knowledge and preparation.
In the end, be it in Afghanistan or Iraq, post-Cold War, or Vietnam, the Philippines or Shah’s Iran during the Cold War years, the US seemed to have stepped in with a massive politico-military strategy without providing for the ‘day after’. Victory alone was in sight for the US in every overseas expedition after tasting it in the Second World War.
In all this, the nation’s military and military-minded strategists seem to be focussing more on tactics than politico-diplomatic efforts. Be it the testing of the A-bomb against a ‘recalcitrant’ Japan in the Second World War, or of ‘orange gas’ in Vietnam, or the fly-by-wire battle techniques against post-Cold War Iraq and Afghanistan, military victory was ensured, but not its automatic translation into politico-diplomatic victory.
Much of it might owe to the ‘uni-focussed’ and ‘victory-guaranteed’ (?) American unwillingness to learn and acknowledge the local moods and methods — be it in Vietnam earlier or Iraq-Afghanistan now. In Syria for instance, American strategy planners committed the same mistake/sin of backing those that would turn against them, but with a difference.
In Afghanistan, Osama bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda took on the US after the exit and ultimate collapse of the common Soviet adversary. In Syria, even while fighting the Government forces of President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic ‘freedom-fighters’ have gathered under the ‘IS’ umbrella and turned against the US and allies, who fed, trained and armed them, over the past years.
Again, Indian inputs might have helped the US in pre-entry political strategy-making for and in Syria, without relying entirely on its own military might, all-American statecraft and perceived CIA cunning. Be it Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria, the US has instead been seeking Indian military engagement, if only to present it as a greater ‘global alliance’ than otherwise.
Good times, bad times
Where does all of it lead to in the emerging Indian Ocean geo-strategic scenario in relation to India and its immediate Ocean neighbourhood in particular? Independent American engagement with individual nations of the region, and those by the nation’s western allies, in the South Asian neighbourhood could unnerve India soon enough. It’s not without reason, either.
Today, nations like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, among others – but barring Pakistan – have acknowledged India as the ‘regional super-power’. Even in adversity of a kind, Nepal, and discomfort of the previous year, Maldives, for instance, have taken repeated notice of the inevitable, larger-than-life Indian ‘presence’ in the region, be it in their good times or bad times.
It was thus that in the contemporary context, India rushed massive supplies of drinking water to Maldives, when capital Male was faced with an ‘accidental crisis’ in December 2014. A decade earlier, India had rushed all assistance to Maldives and Sri Lanka, at the height of the damage and destruction, wrought by the ‘Asian tsunami’. More recently, the Indian aid and assistance after Nepal’s destructive earth-quake of 2015 bears mention.
All of it had a politico-military message for these countries. Most, if not all of India’s neighbours, acknowledge, though mostly in private, their own inherent inability to ‘secure’ themselves from external threats. In the case of Maldives (‘Operation Cactus’, 1988), Nepal (Maoists) and Sri Lanka (LTTE), for instance, they also took Indian inputs and assistance of very many kinds, to neutralise military/terrorist threat to the nation’s sovereignty, territory and integrity.
Be it war-time or non-combat times, the Indian message(s) was clear, becoming clearer with each passing episode of the kind. One, India would sent out military assistance to neighbourhood nations in need of help, without looking at the past or future, if only to ensure the continuity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation concerned. Two, and more importantly in the regional and geo-strategic contexts, the Indian armed forces would not over-stay for a minute more than required/authorised, whenever summoned – be it in war-time conditions locally, or on rescue and reconstruction missions.
Not their adversary
In the Indian context, if not wholly in India’s perceptions, neighbourhood security concerns are two-fold. Not all neighbours, particularly those in the Indian Ocean, extending now up to Seychelles and Mauritius, see China as an adversary. Instead, they see China as an opportunity.
Nonetheless, they do not really want to engage China on the security and geo-strategic front, for reasons of protecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Engaging China militarily, or offering China and/or Pakistan any military facility, other than by way of procuring their weapons and fighters, a la Sri Lanka in its war against the LTTE, could trigger super-power rivalry in their immediate neighbourhood. None of them want to create a problem that they are eternally ill-equipped to handle or manage.
It’s this realisation that has driven the four nations in India’s immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood – Maldives and Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles – to acknowledge India as the regional power capable of ‘securing’ their sovereignty and territorial integrity in times of internal or external threats to their existence as a ‘nation-State’, as has been known in the modern-day context.
Yet, they do not acknowledge China or Pakistan as a threat, as perceives them both to be on its front. India needs to address this dichotomy to the full, if it is not to feel upset again about a close neighbour like Sri Lanka letting Chinese submarines sail through its waters and berth at its ports – under the guise of deployment against ‘Somali piracy’ in the Yemeni waters.
As the strategic community and sections of the political leadership and policy-makers are wont to point out, India in the past had not taken any or all of them into confidence, on its geo-strategic partnerships, or changing of partners.
There are those in Sri Lanka, who for instance, point out how the Indian engagement in the ‘Bangladesh War’ and with the Soviet Union during the period set off apprehensions, fears and suspicions in their minds.
They argue that India did not do anything to dispel their anxieties. It was in this background, they further claim, the Sri Lankan State and strategic community, for instance, looked upon India with greater suspicion than about the new-found ‘Soviet linkage’, when the latter began training and arming Tamil youth militants.
They refuse to acknowledge the Indian stand on rights violations, and those violations-triggered cross-border migration of those times – which applied as much to then East Pakistan as to Sri Lanka later. Be it East Pakistan or Sri Lanka later, the Indian concerns related to the overnight change of regional demography with its electoral and security consequences within the country.
Yet, there need not have been any apprehension in Sri Lanka about India fighting another ‘separatist battle’, this time in the South. Any division of Sri Lanka, then or now, would only increase Indian security and geo-strategic concerns in the shared waters, not lessen or eliminate them.
There may be a further deviation just now with regard to Sri Lanka – and also between the ‘Eelam War’ years and post-war years. It’s relevant also because it’s kind of a case-study in and from the region. The Indian policy-maker needs to take note of the same, and act upon the same.
The change of political leadership may have facilitated it, but the question arises what if India had met all of Sri Lanka’s war-time military needs, and thus not let the nation depend on China and Pakistan for arms and ammunition (which proved their ‘worth’ at crucial stages in the war).
Turning on head
This is however not to under-estimate the key Indian political and tactical support, which the other two could not have offered or mustered to the same extent, internationally. This also leads to the post-war Sri Lankan situation, in which the US and other western ‘friends’ of India from the post-Cold War era have turned regional equations almost on its head.
Unlike the Cold War era Soviet ‘ally’ (?) of India, present-day Western friends, starting with the US and the one-time British colonial master in the region, have been making ‘independent’ political and diplomatic inroads into India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’. It’s more visible in the case of Sri Lanka and to a greater or lesser extent, Maldives, but it does not exclude the rest in the region.
It was thus that the US took a diametrically opposite view from India on the last parliamentary polls in Bangladesh, for instance. On Sri Lanka, first by cajoling India into accepting a ‘compromise’ resolution of sorts on ‘accountability issues’ on ‘war-crimes’ when it needed India’s vote and support the most, and then ignoring India almost completely, the US and its western allies moved ahead on the UNHRC front, until a new political dispensation in Sri Lanka became a co-signatory.
In neighbouring Maldives, now, the two sides have different approaches to what essentially is an ‘internal’ political matter involving local law and courts in relation to former President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed’s conviction and jail-term in the ‘Judge Abdulla abduction case’. India had to rebuilt bilateral relations all over again after purportedly sending out ‘confusing signals’ with Anni’s arrest the previous year – for a ‘crime’ unreasonably upgraded as ‘terrorism’, but otherwise acknowledged by him.
Be it Sri Lanka or Maldives, the Indian position on ‘rights violations’ has gone a sea-change between the Cold War years and now. Today, India feels more responsible to protecting the concerns and interests of neighbouring State players than in the past, if only to ensure greater cooperation and mutual understanding at the government-to-government level, independent of whoever the people of those nations elect as their rulers.
Falling by wayside
It may also have to do with the changed global scenario between then and now. Earlier, China was not a big player in the region, or elsewhere, too. The US, the dominant ‘adversarial power’ if there was one, did not have the same human rights concerns in South Asia at the very least – not as much as it has now, or India had at the time.
In the present-day Indian context, it needs to keep the neighbours on its side, especially on the security and geo-strategic front(s). Despite the confidence of shaping up as a super-power in its time, India is yet to acquire the ‘neighbourhood confidence’, which has been a sine quo non in the case of the US and the Soviet Union in their time.
The less confident of the two, owing to its methods of bull-dozing neighbours, fell by the wayside. The other one has survived and grown, owing mainly to its friendly approach and policy towards neighbours. India can take heart that China is following the Soviet example in its immediate East and South-East Asian neighbourhood. China’s ‘good neighbourly’ relations, if it could be called so is limited to India’s neighbours, not its own.
Uneasy at best
For all this, however, the ever-growing India-US relations are uneasy at best. Despite bipartisan consensus between the ‘Big Two’ political players in the two countries, there is no effort to build mutual confidence of the ‘Soviet era’ kind. India and Indians expect that, and would have nothing less. The change of political leaderships might have helped in a way, yet the basic Indian psyche and expectations remain unchanged.
Hence, there is a nagging Indian discomfort at the grassroots-level (as different from the politico-administrative interlocutors) about the US ‘Pakistan policy’. Despite periodic Indian efforts at building bridges with Pakistani political leadership, there is off-again-on-again Indian discourse about the perceived American unwillingness to declare Pakistan as a ‘State sponsor of terrorism’.
In the commonly-perceived Indian view, if not Pakistan as a nation, the ISI most definitely qualify to be treated on par with the Al Qaeda and the IS, in the American and global perception – and acted upon. It’s not happening, and they are frustrated. In comparison, American demands/expectations on Indian participation on the ground in troubled Afghanistan and/or Iraq could not muster groundswell of support inside the country.
There is thus no question of the Indian government taking that route. Where Indian inputs could matter, there is yet to be substantial cooperation. While the US may be providing intelligence inputs to India on terrorism, it has not matured to levels where India could count on the US as a partner to fight off anti-India terrorism.
Instead, the US has only asked India to join in, in fighting terrorism that affected the US and its western allies. If the US were to take the Indian concerns seriously – or, so goes a certain perception, the American forces in the region should have by now openly attempted to neutralise ISI brand of terrorism. Today, the US stops with advice and half-hearted condemnation – or, so goes the street-level Indian perception.
The political and policy views are not entirely at variance, either. In average Indian perception, the US should open its heart and show that India is there, or India is also there, going beyond military sales and other commercial investments. It also would have to show that Pakistan is not there – or, at least not in the way it is perceived on Indian streets. It’s more so in the context of the ‘nationalist’ (!) BJP ruling the Centre than the predecessor ‘national’ Congress!
Going beyond Pakistan and the ISI, the US, though not a stranger to Indian Ocean geo-politics and geo-strategic presence, is often seen as working at cross-purposes to the Indian ‘friend and partner’ in South Asia. It’s thus that the US has embarrassed Sri Lanka on the ‘war crimes’ front, knowing full well, the Indian predicament in the matter, almost from the start.
Needless to point out, the US and its western allies cannot claim to be ‘clean’ – or, have come clean — on the HR and war-crimes front in Afghanistan and Iraq, even in this post-Cold War era. International NGOs funded by these nations, directly and indirectly, too have been selective, likewise. Though it is all beside the point in the context of India’s decision-making on issues of the kind, on Colombo streets, as different from Jaffna streets, the American ‘double-standards’ get repeated mention – and by extension, the Indian position, one way or the other.
In the even more immediate context, the British NATO partner of the US has been taking even more interest in Sri Lankan affairs. It cannot be just in terms of ‘war crimes’ or even the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil votes’ nearer home. There are reasons for India to feel uncomfortable with the British moves in and on Sri Lanka – and cannot but think it together with possible American interests, engagement and encouragement.
Prime Minister David Cameron toured the war-affected Northern Province of Sri Lanka during the Commonwealth Summit in November 2013. In the absence of then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom the Channel IV ‘expose’ of Sri Lankan war crimes and political pressure from inside India (in Tamil Nadu, to be precise) had forced to drop his travel plans, Cameron declared that he was the first ‘world leader’ to visit the North.
More recently, Hugo Swire, the British Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), was the chief guest at the annual Tamil harvest festival of ‘Thai Pongal’ at northern Jaffna in January 2015. Present on the occasion was Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Northern Province Tamil Chief Minister, Justice C V Wigneswaran.
From the British side, too, it has not stopped with Sri Lanka, after the US made moves independent of the Indian partner in the region on the controversial SOFA deal with the short-lived Maldivian Government of President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Manik (2012-13).
Political pressure from within Maldives killed the American initiative on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
Earlier, the US had obtained an earlier concession from the predecessor Nasheed Government, through the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). In Sri Lanka, the US signed a 10-year ACSA with the erstwhile Rajapaksa regime in March 2017. It should hence be coming up for review this time next year.
What is important about these ACSAs and failed SOFA bid in Maldives is the fact that all the while the US was telling India that it would have to be apprehensive of China, not that India did not know it. All through, the US and its western allies (the UK is only one of them) had been doing security, if not weapons business of the China-Pakistan kind, with India’s critical Indian Ocean neighbours, and mostly without taking India into full/fuller confidence, as should have been the case.
Sri Lanka as ‘observer’
It does not stop there, either. In Maldives, which prides itself as not being a colony of the UK or any other European power, the Cameron Government has taken political positions that are not entirely comforting to India. Maldives and India are now building bridges after the previous year’s chillness in bilateral relations, particularly on the military and security fronts, distinguishing the same from development funding from China.
PM Cameron’s recent meeting with jailed former Maldivian President, Mohammed Nasheed, now in the UK on ‘medical leave’, at his 10 Downing Street official residence, may have slipped by Indian policy-makers. The same cannot be said of Cameron’s subsequent comment that Sri Lanka, alongside the UK, was observing the prevailing situation in Maldives.
Cameron’s comment has the potential of straining Maldives-Sri Lanka relations than already, especially over the ‘Nasheed issue’. From the Indian perspective, it has a stronger message from the Cameron Government, as much over Maldives now as it was over Sri Lanka during his Jaffna visit. His statement that Sri Lanka was ‘observing’ Maldives situation has implications for India-Sri Lanka relations, as well – if only over a period.
There can be no denying that Sri Lanka has political and stability stakes in Maldives, but it is not to the same extent as that of India’s. Sri Lanka does not fear any extra-regional power, say, China, pitching tent in Maldives. India does. India has also been made to feel apprehensive by the conduct of the current Sri Lankan leadership viz Maldives, which the world earlier had reserved for India, and India alone, from within the shared neighbourhood.
Where does it all lead to? Independent of bilateral defence cooperation, sales and purchases over the past 10 years and more, India even otherwise could not have expected the US or its western allies to fight its wars for it, near or far. The US has greater economic interests in and with China, and continues to remain confused over Pakistan on terrorism front (independent of the ‘Kashmir issue’).
Yet, the US has been making the right kind of noises and symbolic moods on the South and East China Seas. It’s not known to have undermined the influence of any of its bigger/senior partner in the region. It’s so in the case of Cold War era, western allies of the US, who too have not stirred their traditional friends and allies in the East/South-East Asian region.
It does not seem to be the case with India in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The medium and long-term American strategy for the region thus remains confused and contradictory at times, independent of its approach to Pakistan and China, jointly or severally. If anything, American efforts at carrying Pakistan along are also aimed at denying China a committed ally in South Asia.
It stops there, however. The American grand strategy of protecting and promoting the nation’s ‘supreme self-interests’ does not seem to have taken into account the political and strategic predicament of new-found friends and partners like India, just now. If not handled with care, or addressed early on, it could have consequences for bilateral relations in ways that the US may not be able to reconcile with or re-calibrate.
In context, it is also not unlikely that the US is apprehensive of India patching up with Pakistan and China on what essentially are border disputes. The ‘Kashmir issue’ is more complex in terms of sentiments and politics, domestic and otherwise. In comparison, the India-China border-dispute requires greater political will than at present, to resolve.
It’s not an empty call to say that post-Cold War geo-strategic situation could change for the good and entirely so, should India patch up its present-day problems of every kind with China and Pakistan. It is easier said than done, but attempts have been continued to be made – but with hiccups of every kind cropping up every now and again.
For India to become a super-power, it would have to maintain good relations with its immediate neighbours. For China likewise to become a super-power in its time, it will require to restore normalcy in relations with India. It cannot hope to make friends with neighbours across the South and East China Seas, who are full-time and more serious allies of the US and the rest of the West, almost since the Second World War.
In the midst of all this is a re-emerging Russia, particularly after it had seemingly acknowledged its inherent limitations to become a ‘super-power’ of the previous kind, early on. Peace in the shared regions of India and Pakistan, China and Russia, though over-ambitious and unachievable just now, can alter the global equilibrium as none has done, ever.
In these decades after the Second World War, most global adversities of every kind have moved closer to the Indian sub-continent, with every such episode. But a changed geo-political situation in the region could bring the world to this region, and in ways exactly opposite than at present.
The US may not be unaware of the emerging situation. It may not be able to reverse the trend after a point – if such a point exists and is reached by the regional powers. The question is this: Is the US preparing already for such an eventuality? Otherwise, why should the US claim that India is its friend and partner in South Asia and yet initiate processes that are not India-friendly, particularly when other friends and allies of the kind from the West on the one hand, and East and South-East Asia on the other, have experienced an entirely different American treatment all along.