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Will India be the 'lynchpin' for US strategy in Asia?

June 11, 2012 12:38 IST

US Secretary of Defence Leon E Panetta's two-day visit to India last week to reinforce bilateral strategic defence and strategic cooperation seems to have gone well for the US, but will the India  side take initiative and grasp the aggressive US hand? Seema Mustafa reports

US Secretary of Defence Leon E Panetta was in New Delhi for a two-day visit, after attending the Shangrila dialogue in Singapore and stopping en route in Hanoi.

His purpose was very clear: in immediate terms to get India to partially bankroll United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation operations in Afghanistan and secure a commitment from New Delhi for a deeper engagement in that violence-torn nation; and in the longer term give effect to his new defence strategy where India has the role of a "lynchpin" in the proposed US "rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific region".

In the immediate terms Panetta is said to have been fairly successful in getting India on board in stepping up the training of the Afghan security personnel, committing more funds for the so-called reconstruction of Afghanistan programme, and although this has still to be confirmed getting a tentative 'yes' for the supply of military tanks and armoured vehicles to Afghanistan.

The US is clearly worried about Pakistan and while Panetta chose his words a little delicately, even he could not get away from describing US relations with the Pakistan military as 'complicated' and 'difficult' and at times 'frustrating'.

Despite this he said, "The US cannot just walk away from that relationship; we have to continue to find areas for engagement." Referring to the blocked transit supply routes and the continuing controversy over US drone attacks he admitted, "It is not easy to improve relations but it is necessary."

Panetta did not choose sensational terms, but the problems with Pakistan were underlined, and rather effectively, in his soft tones where he confirmed news of the deteriorating relations between Washington and Islamabad.

He even put US-Pakistan relations at par with India-Pakistan relations, maintaining that both countries had to keep working to improve the difficult relationship with Pakistan. It thus becomes all the more imperative for the US to draw India into Afghanistan, and while it has not been able to wear down the Indian resistance to sending troops to Kabul, it clearly hopes to step up the military engagement in terms of training and hardware.

Interestingly, Panetta ruled out the possibility of a United Nations peace post of troops from different countries, possibly India, in Afghanistan, maintaining that the US had managed to establish a democratic governing system in that country and "we do not have a Plan B because we don't think we need a Plan B."

But it is the new defence strategy that needs to be watched as it indicates a major and finally formal shift in US policy.

Panetta spoke of five crucial elements of the new strategy:

One: The US military being developed into a "leaner force, casual, deployable, flexible on the cutting edge of technology";

Two: Rebalancing to shift the focus on two crucial areas, the Pacific-Indian Ocean and the Middle East; "We will expand our military partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia," he said.

Three: Decision to maintain presence all over the globe through an "innovative" rotational approach in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America

Four: Develop the power to confront more than one enemy at a time

Five: Investments in cyber space, unmanned systems, special forces, and capability to mobilise when facing crises situations.

It was clear from this that the US operations will expand significantly in the Pacific-Indian Ocean and it is here that it wants to develop India as a "lynchpin" for joint action in the interception of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, or block terrorist attacks.

It has been clear for a long while now that the US has been targetting the Indian Navy as one of the most professional navies in this side of the world to help it monitor the high seas, particularly the South China seas that has elicited adverse reaction from China on more than one occasion.

Panetta claimed that the US vision was for a "peaceful Indian Ocean supported by growing Indian capabilities". And that the US would do its bit through the rotational presence of marines in Australia, littoral combat ships rotating through Singapore and other US military deployments in the region. He admitted that six of America's 11 aircraft carriers would be deployed in this region.

In response to questions Panetta continued to maintain that all this was in response to threats from tiny North Korea and other such "challenges". He sought to make light about the perceived threat from China and the fact that the US was keen on developing India as a frontline state against China.

He, however, claimed that China had the same goals as US and India and should realise that it too needed to work together to secure the seas and the shores. That China does not think along the same lines is of course a matter that had Minister of External Affairs SM Krishna visiting Beijing on the exact same days as Panetta was in Delhi.

The official Indian position has been to secure the waters for multilateral trade, and for the international community, but it remains to be seen whether it will be able to join an aggressive US military in the seas to practically ensure this.

The Indian strategic establishment is drawn between the glamorous seduction by the US  -- promise of new aircraft, state of the art technology and assurances such as "India and the US are the only two countries to operate the P8-I maritime surveillance aircraft" -- and the dry but real China that is breathing down our borders.

No seduction or glowing words here, but just the established presence of a growing country right in the neighbourhood that would work better as a friend than an enemy. Hence, the visible efforts by the Indian government to keep the balance between the two, a task that is becoming more difficult by the day in the absence of a though-out strategic vision.

India is using its usual ad hoc approach to work out the details of these two relationships, and given the fact that both Washington and Beijing are thinking decades ahead, it will not be premature to state that instead of determining its destiny New Delhi is getting into the precarious position of getting its destiny thrust on it.

Panetta's message articulated at a meeting hosted by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses at New Delhi did not leave much room for the usual hedging by the Indian establishment. He offered military support at all levels of hardware, exercises, technology in return for Indian partnership in the region.

He made it clear that the US was going to expand into the region one way or the other, and despite the funds crunch it was determined to "turn the corner". He outlined recent successes as the US ability to have contained the Al Qaeda, of bringing democratic rule as he put it in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, of having impacted on terrorism, and of NATO action in Libya.

It was clear that what many in this part of the world term as heinous action constitutes "success" for the US and there has been no re-thinking on these policies that are instead being given form and substance in the new defence strategy.

Panetta identified the possible new areas of US intervention as Yemen, North Africa, Somalia that he said were ridden with terrorism; North Korea; Iran; Middle East and the new battlefield of cyber attacks. He reached out to India to grasp the aggressive US hand.

It is now for this government, crawling under the weight of inertia and stupidity, to decide where its fortunes really lie, and what it needs to do to keep itself from becoming just a beggar waiting for wishes to become horses; and emerging from the morass with its own strategic doctrine aimed at securing Indian interests in the region and the world.

The last sounds good, but why does one get the feeling that all that the Indian strategic establishment is capable of is to wait for the sound of pounding hooves in the hope of snitching a ride.

Seema Mustafa in New Delhi