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27 August, 2013

India and the US pivot

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Indian defence ministry denied last week a US air force general’s claim that his country will be locating military aircraft at Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern state of Kerala, as part of the strategy of pivoting to the Asia Pacific.

The pivot-to-Asia policy, also described as one of “rebalancing”, involves a shift away from the Middle East, where the US have been involved in armed conflicts in recent years, to the Far East with a view to meeting a possible challenge to its global supremacy from China.

The policy was announced in 2011, but the only concrete step taken so far in pursuance of it is the deployment of US marines in Australia.

The possibility of sending military aircraft to Thiruvananthapuram was mentioned by Herbert Carlisle, chief of US air force operations in the Pacific region, while talking to reporters in Washington last month.

He said US military presence in the Pacific would be dramatically expanded this year by sending jets on rotational basis to places where there was no presence now. Instead of making heavy investment in infrastructure, existing airfields in the region will be used.

Interestingly, Pakistan, America’s partner in the Central Treaty Organisation and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, two Cold War era military alliances, and collaborator in its campaign against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, is not among the countries Carlisle mentioned in this connection. Apparently, it has been left out in view of its close ties with China.

Only a few years ago, Washington and Beijing were moving close to each other, and some countries — Vietnam, for instance — were fearful of a US-China condominium over the region. The long-term interests of the countries demand that they maintain cordial relations with the two. However, it looks as though they may be compelled to choose between them.

China views the US rebalancing act as an attempt to counter its growing influence as a global power. It recently overtook the US as the world’s largest trading nation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has forecast that it may overtake the US as the world’s largest economy in the next three years.

To counter the US move, China has put in place what the Pentagon describes as a policy of “anti-access and area denial” (A2/AD). It involves investment in anti-ship, land attack and ballistic missiles, counter-space weapons and military cyberspace capabilities with a view to limiting US access to likely theatres of conflict in the region and restricting its movements within the theatre.

The US plan to send military aircraft on rotation is in fact part of a new war tactic to overcome A2/AD. Dubbed AirSea Battle, as distinct from the AirLand Battle concept evolved to meet possible Soviet threat to Europe during the Cold War, it envisages combined use of air and naval power.

Although the non-alignment policy, enunciated by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the context of the Cold War, has undergone mutations after the emergence of a unipolar world, there is little possibility of India associating itself with the US Pacific strategy since it will not be in its interest to do so. However, if the unresolved border dispute with China flares up the government may come under pressure to change its stance.

Several border incursions by Chinese troops have been reported in the past few months. Some critics have characterised the government’s response to them as meek and warned that the more timorous India is the more belligerent China will be.

Talks to resolve the border dispute have been going on for years without much progress. China has repeatedly stated that a quick resolution cannot be expected in view of the complex character of the dispute. It has proposed that the two countries sign a border defence cooperation agreement to prevent face-off between troops along the 4,000-kilometre long line of actual control.

Recently the Indian government approved a proposal to set up a mountain strike corps to meet the Chinese challenge. Some defence experts have questioned the wisdom of raising such a force. They are of the view that in view of the army’s drawbacks at the border the focus must be on the Indian Ocean, where China is weak.

In the wake of the Chinese aggression of 1961, Nehru himself had sought US nuclear protection. According to declassified CIA documents, his government also permitted US spy planes to use an Indian airfield.-- Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 27, 2013

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