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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 43

India holds the Key in NATO’s World View

Tuesday 16 October 2007, by M K Bhadrakumar


Summing up the 10-year ties between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a Russian military analyst wrote:

Relations between the two are a marriage of convenience, where husband and wife live together, often socialise with others as a couple, and show every sign of respect for each other.

At the same time, they sleep in different rooms, and have separate households and personal expenses. Each side is primarily pursuing its interests, and although the couple is formally married, they cannot be called a real family.

A portrait of arranged marriages wouldn’t unduly perturb Indians. But it would be a sobering thought for Delhi how shockingly brief Russia’s dalliance with the NATO turned out to be when it rubbed against the realities of life.

As the NATO steps up its courtship of India, Delhi too will have to think about the kind of relationship it desires. Not surprisingly, when External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoof Scheffer met in New York on September 28, both sides chose to keep their landmark 45-minute meeting on a low key.

Washington genuinely seeks a NATO-India partnership. As the NATO retools for the 21st century for new missions in Africa and South Asia, and as it advances across the Middle East toward the Indian Ocean, looking for global partnerships (numbering 20 at present), India inevitably figures in its agenda. This became starkly evident last month.

NATO Exercises in the Indian Ocean

There was something very poignant about the NATO naval force making its historic visit to the Indian Ocean last month. The NATO maritime mission involved ships from six member countries, which set sail from Europe on July 30. The 12,500 nautical mile route involved circumnavigating Africa. Though they could have taken a direct route via the Suez Canal, they preferred to come hugging the west coast of Africa and on to the Niger Delta, gingerly rounding the Horn of Africa—just as the first Portuguese and Dutch ships came to India’s Malabar Coast in the 15th century.

Ships from Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Canada and the United States, forming the NATO’s so-called Standing Naval Maritime Group, one of four such groups of the Western alliance, undertook the two-month mission. After making port in Cape Town, the ships entered the Indian Ocean in the first week of September and conducted exercises off the coast of Somalia, and arrived in the Seychelles for a four-day port visit from September 14-18. They re-entered the Mediterranean via the Red Sea last week.

A NATO announcement said the deployment in the Indian Ocean aimed to demonstrate the alliance’s continuing ability to respond to emerging crisis situations on a global scale and foster close links with regional navies and other maritime organisations.

Scheffer said:

Maritime security, ensuring the safe passage of shipping and supporting a coordinated international approach to protect energy supplies are high priorities for NATO.

NATO’s Global Partnerships

The initiative follows the NATO’s summit meeting in Riga, Latvia, in November last year, where the focus was on the alliance’s switch to a global strategy, concentrating on operations outside its traditional zone of responsibility, responding to global challenges and international security and stability.

As the newly appointed US ambassador to NATO, Victoria Nuland, said in the run-up to the Riga summit, the “post-Cold War honeymoon” is over and NATO needs to develop capabilities “wherever and whenever they may arise”. “NATO must be the place where we talk about all the issues affecting our future—the Middle East, Iraq, North Korea, China, Iran, just to name a few,” she added.

The NATO mission to the Indian Ocean has been undertaken hardly six months ahead of the April 2008 summit meeting of the NATO in Bucharest, Romania, where the agenda is expected to be the alliance’s further enlargement as well as strengthening its capacity and reach to undertake missions with partners around the globe.

The emphasis is, to quote Daniel Fried, the US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, from his testimony in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in Washington in July, in action in key operations in the world ... [since] it is the greatest security instrument of the trans-Atlantic democratic community to deal with security challenges today and tomorrow.

He listed these security challenges facing the NATO as including violent extremism, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, failed states, cyber attacks and insecurity of energy resources.

Africa Calling

The so-called global challenges are in one way or the other evident in many of the countries of the Indian Ocean region, which, therefore, becomes a theatre of priority for the alliance. But that’s not the whole picture.

The leitmotif of the renewed scramble for Africa by Western powers is largely to be traced to the growing Chinese challenge to Western dominance over Africa and the requirement to protect oil. Almost 15 per cent of the US’ oil imports come from Africa.

The NATO’s future role in the Indian Ocean forms part of a well-thought-out Western strategy. The NATO’s naval mission to the Indian Ocean in September coincided with another major initiative by Washington. The newly created Africa Command (AFRICOM) of the US military, reflecting the long-term strategic value of Africa, is poised to begin its initial operations in October.

The newly appointed AFRICOM commander, General William E. “Kip” Ward, has stressed the “need for close coordination” with the NATO. Indeed, since July 2005, the NATO has provided air transport for peacekeeping forces in Darfur. But Ward anticipates a deeper and vastly expanded NATO involvement in Africa.

He said last week:

AFRICOM could assist NATO efforts on the African continent by ensuring close coordination of US contributions and capabilities to NATO operations and training. NATO is uniquely suited to allow AFRICOM access to European interests and capabilities and experience on the African continent ... AFRICOM can provide logistical support to NATO, professional military training and engagement in conjunction with and other security operation and outreach efforts.

AFRICOM’s “command tasks” are profound. As a senior US official put it, they are not about “searching for militants in lawless or ungoverned areas” or about “chasing terrorists around Africa”; rather, they include among other things “conducting region-wide security operations” and “if necessary, conducting military operations”.

Significantly, on September 20, Washington pressed ahead with a resolution in the United Nations Security Council on Afghanistan with a new element—the US-led coalition’s Operation Enduring Freedom maritime interception compo-nent.

Russia pointed out that such a blanket provision giving the right of maritime interception did not appear in any of the previous Security Council resolutions on Afghanistan or any conflict situation for that matter. Russia sought clarifica-tion, and proposed that instead of blanket permission, the resolution should reflect the imperative observance of international law and national legislation in carrying out any actions involving interception of ships in the Indian Ocean’s waters.

However, Russian concerns were ignored and the US pressed for a vote.
The new provision effectively gives the US-led coalition in Afghanistan the right to intercept and board vessels suspected of carrying arms or reinforcements for terror groups that operate in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas. It serves the purpose of legitimising the NATO’s future maritime activities in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea—an ominous development against the background of the US’ standoff with Iran.

NATO in the Asia-Pacific

At the same time, the NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue (1995) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative or ICI (2004) have already brought the alliance from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf region. The NATO presence in the Persian Gulf took a solid footing when Saudi Arabia became an ICI partner in January. The alliance is now set to consider a formal link-up with the Gulf Cooperation Council comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In comparison, the Indian Ocean region remains a “vacuum” for the NATO, though it has made headway in the Asia-Pacific region. Of course, the NATO gives the spin that the issue is not how far it can or should go, but how to enable the alliance to act wherever its collective security interests are at stake. It insists that it is “not pushing into Asia or the Pacific region”, but countries such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea have displayed an interest in working with the NATO, and the alliance has welcomed this.

Unlike with the NATO’s Gulf and the Middle Eastern partners, which are all authoritarian regimes, the alliance prides itself as sharing “common values” with its partners in the Asia-Pacific. Here, the NATO’s refrain is “common values and common security threats”. It is easy to see that such exclusivity is intended to keep out China.

During a visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels in January, the first by a Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe summed up the paradigm:
Japan and NATO are partners. We have in common such fundamental values as freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It is only natural that we cooperate in protecting and promoting those values. My government is committed to reinforcing the stability and prosperity of the world based on the fundamental values I have just mentioned. For its part, NATO is widening the circle of freedom through an expansion of membership and partnerships.

Significantly, in the same speech, Abe referred to “some uncertainties surrounding China”, such as its defence expenditure and its “continued lack of transparency”, and the need for Japan and NATO, therefore, to “pay close attention to the future of this nation”.

From Japan’s perspective, a joint security agenda with the NATO would include Asian nuclear non-proliferation (North Korea and Myanmar), prevention of a cross-strait conflict between China and Taiwan, and balancing the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in which China and Russia play a lead role. Involving the NATO in northeast Asia’s security problems and ensuring a credible deterrence against China through increased partnership with the NATO would be Japan’s optimal aim.

Through its robust partnership with the NATO, Tokyo hopes to ensure that a coalition composed of partners who share basic democratic values takes place in the Asia-Pacific. Japan defines it as an active coalition for maintaining global security, comprising countries that subscribe to Euro-Atlantic values. Such an approach would leave the NATO to form an association with China, but that would remain an affiliation system, like Russia’s, for the limited purpose of engagement and confidence-building.

Japan’s partnership with the NATO runs parallel to its three-way defence cooperation with the US and Australia. In March, Japan and Australia signed a groundbreaking defence pact with Australia. Tokyo and Washington have already begun installing a missile shield in Japan. In April, officials from Japan, the US and Australia agreed to study a plan for a joint missile system. Progress on this front has been rapid.

Alongside, the NATO has also veered round to the view that the US’ long-range missile defence system doesn’t upset the strategic balance. More important, the NATO is open to the idea of “bolting together” with the US system its own national short-and mid-range missile defence systems.

Though the missile shield is projected as a defensive system, China doesn’t see it that way. As a Chinese scholar, Jin Linbo of the China Institute of International Studies, put it,

We [China] cannot regard it as a defensive system just because that’s what it is called. Since ancient times both spears and shields have been regarded as weapons in Chinese culture—because shields can make spears useless.

China sees the joint US-Japan-Australia missile shield as focused on curbing it.

Bridging the Indian Ocean

For any security system in the Asia-Pacific (the US, Japan and Australia), India remains the prize catch. Equally, without India, the NATO’s partnerships in the Indian Ocean region would remain inherently weak. Abe, during his recent visit to India, invited India to become part of a coalition of Asian democracies.

Thus, India was involved in naval exercises with the US, Japan and Australia last month in the Bay of Bengal. Billed as the “Malabar” exercise, it was similar in scope to the “Talisman Saber” in June between the US and Australia (with Japan as an observer), which involved 20,000 US troops and 7500 Australian forces, backed by an aircraft carrier, 10 US ships, 20 Australian ships and 125 aircraft.

Both “Malabar” and “Talisman Saber” maintained the pretence that they were intended against sea piracy, drug trafficking and for coordinating disaster relief and humanitarian efforts. But they were largely seen as templates of a collective security system in the making, under US leadership.
Japan is pressing India to enter into a defence cooperation framework with it—a memorandum of understanding at the very least. The outgoing Japanese ambassador to India said recently:

Military-to-military exchanges [with India] are very much advanced ... It is time to prepare some framework to cover all the ingredients. That is the intention of both governments.

India has taken part in the past year in a strategic dialogue format with the US, Japan and Australia. Another round of this is due soon. Japan is pushing for raising the level of this interaction to the ministerial level.

Simultaneously, the US is also pressing for the “inter-operability” of its armed forces with India’s. Sustained efforts in this direction by both sides are evident. In the past five years, for instance, more than half of the military exercises held by India with foreign armed forces have been with the US. Of course, “inter-operability” with the US armed forces would enable India to partake of the US’ plans for missile defence systems.

NATO woos India

Thus, a matrix is developing. As far as Delhi is concerned, at the root of it lies the problem that India is unable to come to terms with China’s phenomenal rise. The talk in Tokyo and Canberra that they do not want a “unipolar” situation emerging on Asia’s strategic chessboard easily finds resonance in Delhi.

The meeting between the External Affairs Minister and the NATO Secretary-General in New York last week should be viewed against a huge backdrop rather than the limited canvas of Afghanistan. The NATO-India consultation has so far remained unpublicised at the official level. Delhi has traditionally lacked a “bloc mentality” and Indian public opinion largely militates against the idea.

Any pronounced gravitation toward an “Asian NATO” form of collective security will inevitably affect India’s relations with China. (India shares Australia’s predicament on this score.) Therefore, India has to perform some very tricky rope acts in the period ahead. In a major speech during a visit to Thailand on September 14, Pranab Mukherjee stressed:

The India-China partnership is an important determinant for regional and global peace and development, and for Asia’s emergence as the political and economic centre of the new international order.

Three days later, addressing the strategic community in Seoul, the External Affairs Minister underlined the importance of a “truly integrated Asian economy that will draw on the economic potential of India and China”. Expressing confidence that India’s “strategic and cooperative partnership [with China] will mature and steadily develop”, he added:
Sensitivity to mutual aspirations is the underpinning for building confidence and trust. There is enough space and opportunity for both of us to grow and develop.

The challenge for Indian diplomacy will be to convincingly interpret the implications of its “strategic partnership” with the US. The perception is growing, and is incrementally gaining credibility, that India is aligning with a US-led security system in Asia. Clearly, the request by the NATO Secretary-General to call on the Indian Minister for External Affairs wouldn’t have been made without Washington’s nod.

(Courtesy : Asia Times)

M. K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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