When the US Navy and Indian forces held their annual bilateral amphibious training exercise in late September, it got little attention from the international media. It was, after all, a relatively small, joint tabletop exercise between the two nations.
But the interesting thing about Exercise Habu Nag was not in the manoeuvres that were being executed, nor their size. It was all about the location—in the waters off Japan’s Okinawa, just as Sino-Japanese tensions were rising over a maritime territorial dispute.
Indeed, it’s fitting that the issue of China again loomed so large over the exercises, because it has been Chinese criticism that in the past couple of years has deterred India from engaging fully with the United States in this way.
Habu Nag is only one of the 35 joint exercises conducted by the Indian and the US armed forces over the past five years. But it marked a noticeable shift even from last year, when the Indian Ministry of Defence refused to grant permission for similar participation by an Indian contingent in an exercise with the United States.
India’s hesitation in 2009 partly stemmed from Beijing’s very vocal protest in 2007 after the US, Indian, Australian, Japanese and Singaporean navies staged the unprecedented Malabar Exercise in the Bay of Bengal, manoeuvres that China saw as part of an attempt at encirclement.
But with India deciding this year to set such concerns aside, Habu Nag saw a week’s worth of training that involved the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2). As part of the exercise, officers from the Indian Army’s lone amphibious brigade and Indian Navy embarked on the ship to observe the US Marine Corps in action, with a view to enhancing bilateral interoperability, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response between US and Indian officers.
‘A key aspect is that the US has Marines embedded with Navy staff, doing jobs for the Navy that are Marine Corps oriented and vice versa,’ Lt Col Evan Holt, a US Marine liaison officer who worked with the Indian officers, was quoted as saying. ‘We want to demonstrate how two different services with two different goals mesh their operations and personnel to complete those goals.’
Cmdr Gagan Kaushal, of the Indian Navy, noted for his part that the exercise gave India the chance to see for itself up close how the US military works.
So what prompted the Indian change of heart this year?
For a start, Beijing and New Delhi aren’t exactly on the best of terms right now, despite exponentially rising bilateral trade between the two. Military exchanges between the two countries are currently on hold following Beijing's refusal to allow a top Indian Army general to visit China. Beijing cited his posting in Jammu and Kashmir, an area China deems disputed territory between India and Pakistan, as the reason for its decision. Meanwhile, China has also refused to abandon its policy of issuing paper visas to citizens of Jammu and Kashmir, despite vociferous Indian protests.
Against this backdrop, the long border between the two countries remains unsettled and prone to misunderstandings, accidents and standoffs. Yet any confrontation between India and China isn’t likely to come on land—it is much more likely to occur in the Indian Ocean Region and South China Sea. For, while Beijing doesn’t even accept Indian pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean region, New Delhi is itself pushing its way into the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea—an area Beijing regards as a core interest.
Understanding Sino-India tensions is essential if trying to make sense of Indo-US defence ties. Washington, still the dominant naval power in the Asia-Pacific, understands that its primacy will sooner or later be challenged by an increasingly assertive China. The United States is therefore looking at a rising India as a stable, reliable partner to provide strategic balance in Asia.
The signs of co-operation between India and the United States, both in the present and for the future, are increasingly evident. Currently, more than 100 officers from India train in various higher defence institutions in the United States each year, while the US typically sends dozens of officers to India to get a sense of Indian operational philosophy and counter-insurgency strategies.
For the past half a decade, India’s famed Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare (CIJW) School has been a favoured stop for various US infantry battalions going into operations in Afghanistan, and before that in Iraq. India, which has more than five decades’ experience tackling internal insurgencies, has much to offer in terms of tactical advice.
But defence co-operation has been extending past training and war games. The United States’ gigantic military-industrial complex, actively supported by the Pentagon, is aggressively trying to sell several new and not-so-new military platforms to the Indian armed forces.
The USS Trenton, a decrepit amphibious ship, was the first such platform bought by the Indian Navy, in 2007, for the ‘throwaway’ price of $50 million.
But that was just a start.
In the past three years, India has placed orders for six heavy-lift military transport planes C-130J, the first of which are to be handed over to the Indian Air Force next month. Additionally, India has also contracted Boeing to supply eight 737-derivative P-8i Poseidon long range maritime patrol aircraft. The contract, concluded in January 2009, was originally worth $2.1 billion.
And now, on the eve of President Barack Obama’s visit to India, Washington has been pressing India to purchase US military hardware worth in excess of $13 billion. Who gets a piece of this Indian pie will largely depend on which fighter aircraft the Indian Air Force decides to buy to shore up its fast depleting combat jet strength—US firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing are among six foreign companies that have bid for the $11 billion fighter jet deal.
Another deal hanging in the balance is $3.5 billion worth 10 C-17 Globemaster planes for the Indian Air Force.
Between the combat jets bid and the C-17 offer, the latter is likely to be concluded faster, since India’s defence minister, AK Antony, reportedly prefers government-to-government military sales under the ‘Foreign Military Sales’ programme that the US often offers friendly countries. Antony, a careful, probity-obsessed politician, is known to prefer this route to avoid any hint of the corruption that’s so often a staple of multi-vendor bids for large military contracts.
That said, he has so far resisted US pressure to sign what the Americans called two ‘enabling’ agreements: the Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA). CISMOA entails the laying down of protocols for interoperability and assuring the security of communication between the armed forces of the two countries, while the LSA would allow the armed forces of the two countries to procure fuel and supplies from each other's facilities.
India’s refusal to sign them has been an ongoing frustration for the Americans, while India for its part is annoyed that failure to do so would mean the platforms would have to be divested of cutting-edge electronics.
The question now is whether Obama’s visit will be able to help resolve what are, in strategic terms, ‘minor’ irritants in Indo-US defence cooperation. If some path to a solution is found, it will allow the two countries to build on the defence friendship they’ve rekindled, and allow them the scope to create an effective counter-balance to an increasingly assertive China.
Nitin Gokhale is Security and Strategic Affairs Editor for NDTV, one of India’s leading broadcasters.