India and the US are stepping up defence cooperation and shoring up maritime security as fears of China’s increasingly belligerent moves in the South China Sea and beyond are rattling its smaller South East Asian neighbours, as well as the international community at large.
The US pivot to Asia, has been in place for sometime, but India — under cautious UPA defence minister AK Antony — remained hesitant to move closer to the US in defence matters. The process had begun years ago, but many of the problems had to do with the strict laws that US has on transfer of information and technology to a non-Nato and non-NPT signatory country like India. The fear that information would leak from India to its close friend Russia, was also a major consideration for the US. Former Indian ambassador to Washington Naresh Chandra, who has been part of the complicated negotiations, believes that now both sides have softened their respective positions and will be able to work together.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s NDA is also much more enthusiastic about having closer defence ties with the US and wants to cut through the bureaucratic red tape. Also, both India and the US are worried about China’s growing military clout. The US has long been looking for support from a large country like India. Washington wants New Delhi to take some responsibility in guarding the ocean lanes in its neighbourhood.
India can, to some extent, balance China’s might, at least in times of size. A loose coalition of navies — led by the US — is gradually emerging, with Australia, Japan, East Asian nations and India to help meet future challenges to the world's common waterways.
"With an eye on China, the US is keen for closer maritime cooperation with India," said defence analyst Rahul Bedi,
Three important announcements were made on Tuesday after talks between visiting Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. This will lay the foundation for closer cooperation between India and the US.
At a news conference after the meeting, Carter said that the two sides were working on signing a commercial shipping information agreement in the coming months. Parrikar added said that a logistics supply agreement between India and the US will also be sealed and signed, once again "in the coming months".
The defence minister added that the draft of the agreement will be ready in a month. This had been hanging fire for a while as the UPA government was not ready to take the plunge. The third announcement was about starting a maritime security dialogue between the two countries. The two countries will now have more complex naval exercises. The Malabar drills announced in 1992 began in earnest only a decade later as an annual bilateral exercise. From now however, it will be a three-nation-drill with Japan as the third permanent member, despite Chinese unhappiness.
When all three agreements are in place, India-US defence cooperation will be on its way. This level of cooperation has never happened in the past. Ahead of Carter's visit, a senior US defence official was quoted by Voice of America as saying, “We are doing things now with the Indians that could not have been imagined 10 or so years ago.” The logistic agreement will mean that US and Indian defence forces could use each other’s land, air and naval bases for resupplies, repair and rest.
This will, however, not mean that US troops will be stationed on Indian soil.
When asked specifically about this point at the news conference, Carter said, "No one is talking about US troops on Indian soil."
He added that the details of the logistic support will be decided upon by the two governments. US troops can be in India only on the invitation of the Government of India and the agreement is not binding on either nation.
Naval sources explained that this would simply mean providing petroleum, oil and lubricants that ships often require after being at sea for several months. One of the reasons New Delhi had hesitated in signing the logistic agreement earlier was the fear that if base facilities and docking for US warships were provided, India could end up in American wars. The facilities provided to the US in peace time would have to also be given when the US went to war. So the UPA had insisted that the agreement be "India-specific" and not like the ones that the US signed with other countries.
The wording of the agreement once completed will provide a clue about how the two sides have tackled this problem.
The commercial shipping information agreement will keep India’s Navy and coast guard in the loop about the movement of ships in the Indian Ocean as well as on the Pacific route. In recent times, China has been using its commercial vessels to go to disputed spots and when the vessels are challenged, China sends out its naval ships to join the commercial ship. All this is worrying countries who have claims to areas in the South China Sea. Tracking commercial ships and by extension, keeping a wary eye on the China, is part of the shipping information agreement.
India is planning to sign similar pacts with 27 countries. So far, India has already signed these with Australia, Singapore and Thailand.
The US will be the fourth nation.