Washington’s concerns over Indian Ocean Security: For whose benefit?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 02 Jan 2012 7 Comments

 On Dec. 20, a trilateral dialogue between India, Japan and the United States took place in Washington. It was a discussion that involved bureaucrats, not ministers. Nonetheless, these bureaucrats represented their respective countries, making it a trilateral dialogue. A joint statement issued after the day-long discussions said: “These discussions mark the beginning of a series of consultations among our three governments, who share common values and interests across the Asia-Pacific and the globe.”

At the time this dialogue took place, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba was in Washington. At a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gemba said: “On India, as the Secretary (of State) suggested, we affirmed that Japan and the United States are deepening [our] strategic relationship with India.”

The “Strategic Partnership” Hoax

The Japanese Foreign Minister did not explain what the phrase “strategic relationship” amounts to. It has become the norm among policymakers to toss this phrase around loosely. It is likely that Gemba was doing just that. The Americans are notorious for using this phrase to push their own interests above those of others.

The media said that the trilateral dialogue took place “amid heightened tensions between China and the Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and the Philippines over the issue of sovereignty over the resource-rich South China Sea” - implying that the trilateral dialogue centered on US concerns, dittoed by India and Japan, over the growing Chinese “threat’ in the region.

President Obama’s rip-roaring speech to the Australian parliamentarians in November made no bones about such US concerns. Some very senior American policymakers of old consider the speech “way over the top.” Nonetheless, it was evident that Obama was saying what he had in mind.

Announcing his decision to set up a military base in Australia, Obama told a joint conference with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard: “With my visit to the region, I am making it clear that the United States is stepping up its commitment to the entire Asia-Pacific region.” He said that from next year, US troops and aircraft will operate out of the tropical city of Darwin, only 820 kms (500 miles) from Indonesia, able to respond quickly to any humanitarian and security issues in Southeast Asia, where disputes over sovereignty of the South China Sea are causing rising tensions. “It is appropriate for us to make sure ... that the security architecture for the region is updated for the 21st century, and this initiative is going to allow us to do that,” Obama said.

Why is the United States looking for a “security architecture” thousands of miles away from home? Who is the enemy? Pres. Obama said the move was not an attempt to isolate China, which is concerned that Washington is trying to encircle it with bases in Japan and South Korea and now troops in Australia. But the effort to not identify China as an enemy rang hollow.

“The notion that we fear China is mistaken. The notion that we are looking to exclude China is mistaken,” Obama said, adding that China was not being excluded from the planned Transpacific Partnership (TTP) on trade. “We welcome a rising, peaceful China,” Obama said patronizingly. But he also pointed out that China’s rising power means it must take on greater responsibilities to ensure free trade and security in the region.

A Geostrategic Throwback

The purpose of that speech was not only to mobilize the major countries in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific, such as India, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia, to join the “security architecture” envisioned and dominated by the United States, but also to get under the umbrella, identifying China as an “enemy” or, at least, an enemy-in-the-making. The old Cold War tricks, eh?

On Dec. 19, The Diplomat, a Tokyo-based website, carried an article, “Why the Indian Ocean Matters,” penned by James Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. Holmes argues that today’s strategic questions represent a throwback of sorts to the issues that were discussed in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I, when Alfred Thayer Mahan, a geo-strategist; ex-President Theodore Roosevelt; and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt debated where to station the US fleet. The three sea-power proponents agreed that it should concentrate in the Pacific, Holmes said

Holmes says that situation exists today, and preparedness should be able to counter the estimated force that the strongest probable enemy can bring against you, factoring in not only the size and capacity of his maritime forces, but also political entanglements that siphon his forces to far-flung parts of the world.

“A glance at the map reveals two prospective adversaries for the United States and its allies, namely China and Iran. Both worry mainly about managing their own surroundings. Both can mass forces close to home. Neither has compelling interests that disperse its military forces to faraway theatres. And the chances of their ganging up on the US Navy are remote.” So the US Navy must prepare to face - or face down in crises short of war - a single opponent fighting with full force near its own shores.

Here’s how things shape up geo-strategically. “Cold War theatres like the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea no longer appear that menacing, while the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean could witness exciting times,” Holmes concludes.

“Us” Against “Them” 21st Century Style

In other words, Obama’s Washington has identified China and Iran as enemies and will be soon busy getting the ducks in a row. The plan is to suck India, Japan, South Korea et al in as “allies” against a new “axis” represented by China, Iran and perhaps, Russia, in due course.

There is no doubt that there are many walking the corridors of power in India who would very much like to align with the United States and identify China as an enemy. Their reasoning centers on “Chinese perfidy” during the 1960s over the border issues. They do not trust China, but they trust the United States. Why?

That is difficult to fathom. There is no question that the United States-India relationship has changed greatly since the time when both President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger considered India to a “Soviet stooge.” Now, Obama, to the great pride of the Indian premier, calls Manmohan Singh his “guru.”

Not surprisingly then, when Obama and Manmohan Singh met in Bali on Nov. 18, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, India’s prime minister confirmed that “there are no irritants between our two countries.” This assessment was consistent with Obama's view, expressed in New Delhi last year, that the India-US relationship is “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”

All of this begs the question: was India, indeed, a “Soviet stooge”? If the Americans were right, then were Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other Indian leaders just lying? Or, is it the other way around? If, indeed it were the other way around, then doesn’t it indicate that Washington chooses its allies not because of the ally’s integrity, but to “use” it as and when required to serve America’s own gobbledygook geostrategic interests?

A case in point is Pakistan. History tells us that Pakistan was the tested friend of the United States throughout the Cold War period. That friendship was not based on the role of Pakistan in the region, but it was built on Washington’s own interests. During those decades, Washington had no qualms providing Pakistan with advanced weaponry, although Islamabad was absolutely clear that it considered India its mortal enemy. By denying India similar advanced weaponry, Washington made clear its intent. Moreover, those who were associated with India’s nuclear power development then know very well the kinds of barriers that the United States was putting up to prevent India from developing nuclear power for commercial use. On the other hand, right under its nose, Pakistan, the tested ally, developed its nuclear weapons capabilities.

Also, those who were associated with India’s security forces will point out that the United States expressed little concern over the Pakistani military’s active support to such terrorist outfits as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohmmad, whose stated objective was to carry out terrorist activities within the Indian-part of Jammu and Kashmir to free Kashmiri Muslims from the “Indian yoke.” Despite many requests from New Delhi at the time, Washington chose to ignore activities by Pakistani terrorists who killed many Indian citizens and worsened the ground situation within Jammu and Kashmir.

No one in the White House any longer claims India is a “Soviet stooge,” or whatever, and that is good. At the same time, there is no doubt that the India of today has a much weaker constitution than it did years ago, and Washington’s new-fangled China bogey rallying cry could suck Manmohan Singh and his cohorts in to a dangerous situation.

The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review
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