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Time for an American base in an Indian island
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Prakash Nanda | Date:14 Sep , 2020 0 Comments
Prakash Nanda
is a journalist and editorial consultant for Indian Defence Review. He is also the author of “Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy.”

If anything, the just concluded visit of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to Russian capital Moscow for attending the meet of the defence ministers of the member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) has exposed the Chinese duplicity once again. It was the Chinese side which requested a parley of the defence ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the SCO meet to defuse the war-like situation surrounding the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. Though initially hesitant, the Indian side acceded to the Chinese request. On September 4, Singh and his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe met and talked for two hours and twenty minutes.

It now seems that the meeting did not deliver anything concrete. As per a statement released on Indian Defence Ministry’s official Twitter handle, Rajnath Singh conveyed India’s position on the developments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) including in the Galwan valley in the Western Sector of the India-China Border Areas in the last few months. “Raksha Mantri emphasised that the actions of the Chinese troops, including amassing of a large number of troops, their aggressive behaviour and attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo were in violation of the bilateral agreements,” said the statement.  On the other hand, the Chinese Defence Ministry came with a statement that the responsibility of the tensions “lies entirely with India”. It further added, “China’s territory cannot be lost, and the Chinese military is fully determined, capable, and confident to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Who has grabbed whose territory? Conceding the point that the India-China boundaries are not yet demarcated to be accepted mutually, the fact remains that we have what is called the LAC whose sanctity is not be disturbed till the two countries negotiate a mutually acceptable border. But China has been periodically crossing the LAC to encroach areas under Indian control. India wants an end to this Chinese practice and has been very reasonable to request the restoration of the status quo that existed in April this year. But the Chinese are not listening.

What should India do to retrieve the situation? In my considered view, since China is fast emerging to a destabliser of the global peace, global regimes and global order, India has to opt for a common and comprehensive approach with other great powers of the world, an approach that has political, military, economic and legal components.

At this point of time India’s national interests will be better served by closely coordinating with fellow democracies in the Indo-Pacific (Japan, Australia, republic of Korea, among others) in general and the Unites States in particular. It should not be viewed as jettisoning Indian sovereignty. Doing so will be a superficial view. Being members of the NATO, France always and Turkey recently have displayed their strategic autonomy. Both have defied the US many a time. Turkey recently ignored the US warnings and went ahead with buying Russian weapons (S – 200 missiles). Similarly, Turkey refused to let the US troops use its territory to launch an offensive in northern Iraq in 2003.  South Korea, which has a formal security alliance with the US, has not hesitated to talk with the Communist North Korea and do business with China, much to the displeasure of Washington. These examples are illustrative, not exhaustive.

Under the present circumstances, it will not be a bad idea if India decides to grant some base facilities, preferably somewhere in Andaman and Nicobar islands. It may be noted here that the Pentagon is looking for base-opportunities in the  Indo-Pacific under its  2004 Global Defense Posture Review (GDPR) plans that are “for increasing the number of overseas US facilities by replacing and supplementing large Cold War-era bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea with smaller facilities known as forward operating sites, or FOSs (small installations that can be rapidly built up), and cooperative security locations, or CSLs (host-nation facilities with little U.S. personnel but with equipment and logistical capabilities), both of which can be activated when necessary. These FOSs and CSLs will be used against sources of regional instability”.

Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh asks his Chinese counterpart to maintain peace at LAC

Raksha Mantri  Rajnath Singh met General Wei Fenghe, State Councillor and Defence Minister of China on 4th September in Moscow on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting. The two Ministers had frank and in-depth discussions about the developments in the India-China border areas as well as on India-China relations.
Raksha Mantri categorically conveyed India’s position on the developments along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) including in the Galwan valley in the Western Sector of the India-China Border Areasin the last few months. He emphasised that the actions of the Chinese troops, including amassing of large number of troops, their aggressive behaviour and attempts to unilaterally alter the status quo were in violation of the bilateral agreements and not in keeping with the understandings reached between the Special Representatives of two sides.  RM stated clearly that while the Indian troops had always taken a very responsible approach towards border management, but at the same time there should also be no doubt about our determination to protect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Raksha Mantri said that both sides should take guidance from the consensus of the leaders that maintenance of peace and tranquillity in the India-China border areas was essential for the further development of our bilateral relations and that two sides should not allow differences to become disputes. Accordingly, the two sides should resolve the ongoing situation and outstanding issues in the border areas peacefully through dialogue. The Chinese Defence Minister conveyed that Chinese side too desired to resolve the issues peacefully.  Raksha Mantri advised that it was important therefore that Chinese side should work with the Indian side for complete disengagement at the earliest from all friction areas including Pangong Lake as well as de-escalation in border areas in accordance with the bilateral agreements and protocols on maintenance of peace and tranquillity in border areas, strictly respect and observe the line of actual control and should not make attempts to unilaterally change status quo. He further said that the current situation should be handled responsibly and that neither side should take any further action that could either complicate the situation or escalate matters in the border areas.  Raksha Mantri conveyed that the two sides should continue their discussions, including through diplomatic and military channels, to ensure complete disengagement and de-escalation and full restoration of peace and tranquillity along the LAC at the earliest.

India will match China’s capabilities: Dr S Jaishankar

Like every other country in the world, we are very cognizant of the rise of China. We are an immediate neighbour of China, so obviously if you are a neighbour, you are directly impacted by the rise of, what I say in my book, is potential global power. India has also been rising in this period, maybe not at the same degree or the same pace as China, but if you look at the last 30 years, clearly, India’s rise has also been one of the major global stories. So, if you have two countries, two societies of a billion people, each with a history and culture that they have, it is very important that they reach some kind of understanding or equilibrium between them.

This is a practical world. If the country is going to get more powerful, you are going to see its influence in geographies in areas we have not seen before. You are going to see activities and capabilities that you have not seen before. We will see that from China, and I dare say in some areas they will see it in us. This is modus vivendi (way of life) between India and China and I actually say in my book, this is extremely consequential for both countries and actually for the rest of the world.

(This statement is based on speech delivred by EAM at recently held US-India Strategic Partnership Forum’s annual leadership summit) 

The Indo-Pacific Strategy report published by the US in 2019 describes China as its “biggest competitor”, the country which also happens to be India’s principal enemy. The report also describes China as a revisionist power; something India realises very well from its experiences with its northern “neighbour”, which China “became”  by virtue of the latter’s annexation of Tibet ( historically, it was Tibet, not China, that was India’s neighbour across the Himalayas). This convergence between the US and India with regard to China is, no doubt, one of the reasons for this new nomenclature of the “Indo-Pacific” from its earlier one of “Asia-Pacific”. And interestingly, other major democracies of the region such as Japan and Australia have happily accepted the change, notwithstanding the public denunciation of it by China.   All told, the Indo-Pacific region is one of the most critical regions for the future for the US, India, Japan and Australia. As much as 60% of the global maritime trade goes through this region.

The US has gone even one step forward in this regard. It has changed the name of one of its most important military units, known as the Pacific Command (USPACOM), to “Indo-Pacific Command” (USINDOPACOM) in 2018. It is said that that the US Navy now plans to deploy 60 percent of its surface ships in the Indo-Pacific.  That being the case,  it is but natural that the US Navy wants safe territories in or adjoining  Arabian Sea, Andaman & Nicobar and Bay of Bengal for refuelling and other logistic support.

It is all the more so in the wake of the reported uncertainties over American presence in Diego Garcia, arguably  America’s most important — and secretive — overseas assets in the Indian Ocean. And that is because this base was given to America in 1965 by the UK, then colonial ruler of Mauritius, whose territories include Diego Garcia. Last year the UK lost its claim over Diego Garcia in the International Court of Justice. London had cleaved it from Mauritius and renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory, a move that the United Nations’ highest court in 2019 ruled was illegal under international law.

Secondly, policy makers and analysts in the US now prefer closer military relations with democratic countries willing to host the military facilities for the American troops with base facilities to those that are authoritarian. The US is fast realising that nondemocratic regimes are inherently unreliable hosts, though entering into alliances with them is much easier.  But then not only the longevity of these regimes are suspect because of their very nature (always vulnerable to democratic pressures from below), thus raising questions over their successors’ commitment to the alliance; their rulers, when strong and stable, also renege on their liability to the alliance in the absence of the restrictions of a constitution, an independent judiciary, and an elected legislature in a true sense.

In fact, it is much easier for authoritarian regimes to violate treaties. We have the glowing example of how Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov literally cheated the Americans after entering an agreement with the then Bush regime in March 2002 to set up the Karshi-Khanabad air base (also known as K2) in southern Uzbekistan for launching operations into Afghanistan, but not before grabbing US assistance, both direct and indirect, worth of nearly $ 400 million. Similarly, America’s weary military alliance with Pakistan that has cost the Americans nearly $40 billion since the September 11 attacks is too well-known for an elaboration.

On the contrary, security alliances or interactions among democracies are much more enduring. There may be occasional hiccups because of domestic developments of the democratic partners, but despite all that the governments do continue to honour their security commitments because those deals are guaranteed by an established legal order. That explains why notwithstanding the differences among the leaders from time to time, America’s security relations with Germany, the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea are fundamentally sound.

Security alliance with America has also been economically beneficial to the host countries, helping their investment, trade, political development, and economic growth, directly and indirectly. According to recent report, the US currently has approximately 174,000 active-duty personnel deployed to overseas locations in approximately 140 countries. The Department of Defense Comptroller’s Office estimates the total cost of overseas bases and deployments at US$24.4 billion in fiscal year 2020. These figures generally exclude the costs of ongoing combat operations.

I have already argued how it is superficial to argue that countries having security treaty commitments, including base-facilities, with a powerful country lose their independence or strategic autonomy. It is not perhaps well-known that apart from providing military facilities to the US on its soil as a NATO member, Germany hosts also a base to the UK. At its peak, the UK had more than 55,000 personnel stationed in West Germany with the potential to amass up to 150,000 in case a conflict had broken out.  Now the number has considerably come down but the UK still maintains its Ayrshire Barracks in Mönchengladbach with the capacity to store 2,000 vehicles, with access to munitions. Does that mean Germany follows always the US in its global interactions or for that matter does it agree with the UK on the latter’s BREXIT policy?

Forget about Germany, which one of the leading and developed countries of the world. Even a tiny African nation Djibouti, which is strategically placed at the entrance to the Red Sea , is home to more foreign bases than any other country in the world. Linking Africa and the West Asia (Middle East) and opening out to Europe via the Suez Canal in the north, the Red Sea is of particular interest to the global markets; it is also the main passage-way for Gulf oil to reach North America. Since rising to power in 1999, President Ismael Omar Guellah opened up the economically fragile country to foreign powers seeking to lease land for military bases. In return, the autocratic leader, who reformed the constitution in 2010 to expand the powers of the presidency and remove term limits, gained people’s  support for the country’s economic gains from these bases that  guarantee  a level of stability and generates more than $300 million for the country annually.

As the former colonial power, France still has one of its largest concentrations of its overseas forces stationed in Djibouti. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States also established Camp Lemonnier—its only permanent military installation in Africa—in order to combat terrorist threats in Yemen and the Horn of Africa. The Italians also have their own base, while troops from Germany and Spain are hosted by the French. Japan’s only foreign military base is also based in the capital Djibouti and is now set for expansion as a counterweight to China’s increasing influence. However, ironically, in 2017, China became the latest country to open a military base in the Horn of Africa nation. President   Guellah must be a man of great talents to manage all these contradictions!

If anything all the above examples underscore then that is the point that entering into a more active security alliance with the United States will not mean India giving up its strategic autonomy and sovereignty. On the other hand, it will prove to be a great deterrent like nothing else to the Chinese hostility. Of course, there can be legitimate questions on America’s reliability as an ally.  But then, as I have argued, America has rarely ditched a country that is genuinely a democracy.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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