By Seema Mustafa
The purpose of US defence secretary Leon E Panetta’s two-day visit to New Delhi was very clear. In immediate terms, it was to get India to partially bankroll US and Nato operations in Afghanistan and secure a commitment from New Delhi for a deeper engagement there; and in the longer term, to 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.’
Panetta is said to have been fairly successful in getting India on board in stepping up training for the Afghan forces, committing more funds for the so-called reconstruction of Afghanistan programme, and, although this is yet 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.”
Panetta did not choose sensational terms but the problems with Pakistan were underlined, and rather effectively. It thus became 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.
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”; 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 crisis 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.
It has been clear for a long while now that the US has been targeting the Indian Navy to help it monitor the high seas, particularly the South China Sea 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 the Marines in Australia, Littoral Combat ships rotating through Singapore and other US military deployments in the region. He admitted that six of the US 11 aircraft carriers would be deployed in this region.
Panetta maintained 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 front-line 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 a matter that had external affairs minister 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 ensure this.
The Indian strategic establishment is torn between the glamorous seduction by the US — promise of new aircraft, state-of-the-art technology and assurances like ‘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 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 clear 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, 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 IDSA, New Delhi, did not leave much room for the usual hedging by the Indian establishment. He offered military support at all levels 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 rethinking 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 — which 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.