US’s Indian Ocean bases and “Strategic Rebalancing Plan toward Asia and Pacific”(SRPAP)
By Bandu de Silva
In my last article entitled “America’s Indian Ocean bases, US Geneva Resolution ,……..” published in your website I did not discuss the significant impact that US’s Strategic Rebalancing Plan toward Asia-Pacific (SRPAP) might have on the US bases in other parts of the Indian Ocean. I mean particularly, on the prospects of continuation of the massive US military base in Diego Garcia after the present lease of the atoll to US expires in 2016, though I referred to indication of US activities elsewhere in the Asia –Pacific region since 2012 pointing out briefly that such a shift might have some effect. Though the future of Diego Garcia as such, did not figure in the discussions on the SRPAP what the rebalancing contained in the new strategy for Asia and Pacific could be expected to have some effect on the present concentration on Diego Garcia deserves to be looked into in some depth.
I have received some very useful feedbacks on that article pointing to inadequately discussed areas and others requiring emphasis requesting me to write further in elaboration. In this article I propose to deal more extensively as space permits, about the SRPAP and its prospective impact on the future of Diego Garcia base. As the SRPAP plan itself is still in its formative phase and constitutes a developing process which is expected to be continued under several administrations and is expected to take better shape by 2022, with little coming out of the strategic discussion so far, and no clear relationship to the existing bases in Diego Garcia have been indicated, some speculation creeping in to the present discussion has to be expected.
If, in the past, development of bases at Diego Garcia received priority under previous US administrations from the time of the heightened cold war between Super Powers, with the base later serving its maxim use during the Presidency of George Bush in America’s offensives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and again, after the decisions taken against global terrorism following 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Obama administration which was reeling under the economic down-turn, the US could be looking for alternatives which would put American forces abroad at highest point of efficiency without additional investment. This is not so with regard to the US 7th Fleet which has been operating in Asia and Pacific, the continuation of which the sheet anchor of US naval defence, has been declared, will proceed without any reduction of its capacity whatever may the economic circumstances. The 7th Fleet will continue to be the bedrock on which the SRPAP would finally rest.
SRPAP and LCS Programme
The origin of SRPAP, though can be traced to 2010, it began to be activated only in 2012. As explained by the former Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, stated at the US-Asia Security Summit held in June 2012. (Shangri-la Dialogue), it essentially lays emphasis on “modernization strengthening US’s alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.” US would not only enhance its relationship with traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Philippines and Thailand, but also with its regional friends like India, Singapore, New Zealand, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The LCS (Littoral Combatant Ships or Advance Defence Battleships) of which 16 ships were earlier poised ready to speedily move into any crisis area for engagement, is now extended to Singapore under the present SRPAP programme. That moves the operation area from the Pacific and South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. In this context, recent attempts to engage Maldives in a security cooperation arrangement with the establishment of a military base in the atolls, as well the distant prospects of military cooperation with Sri Lanka once the US’s present issues with the island are settled, can be seen as prospects which the US has in mind to advance the SRPAP plan. The plan to rope in Maldives has met with a reverse presently and the prospects of bringing Sri Lanka into the vortex remains a long term idea subject to a number of ‘ifs’ but not lost altogether as Biswal’s remarks indicate. The biggest if is the Indian factor. It depends on whether or not, the present level of security cooperation between US and India which seems to be confined to a few areas, with more emphasis on naval cooperation, where India is seen operating beyond its territorial limits, could be raised to meet the US objectives under SRPAP.
India is presently named only as a ‘friendly country’ along with Singapore and New Zealand to include which the SRPAP programme could be expanded – it is still an evolving plan – and if present indications are a guide, when the SRPAP is fully developed, US could be seen aspiring to become a partner in supporting India’s own security plan in which US has been seeking a share but has not made full progress due to India’s mixed political responses. With the depletion of US armed forces, India with her young population, is even being viewed according to the current discussion as a potential manpower source for its armed/naval sources.
From India’s point of view, Singapore is a friendly country and some understanding exists between them in naval cooperation with regard to the security of the Straits of Malacca.
Theoretically speaking, despite the expectations in Indo-US military cooperation from the time of the “Agreed Minute of Defence Relations of 1995 and the manifestations during President George Bush’s visit to India in 2001 when he spoke at the National Defence University of India on the National Missile Defence Programme, US-Indian military cooperation has not seen the rapid progress anticipated as far as public manifestations are concerned, but according to defence analysts significant new dimensions have arisen in the relationship.
Other security measures taking place under the projected SRPAP plan are the US marines rotational deployment to Darwin which commenced in 2012 and greater access to ports in that region, as I pointed out in my previous article.
It would seem from the way the discussion is progressing that use of drones for reconnaissance as well as offensive purposes could be a major element as SRPAP programme matures and takes full shape in the next decade. The initial steps in this direction which emerged from the dialogue between the US and the former Labour government of Australaia were seen in cooperation with Australia as discussed in the last article.
In the principle laying emphasis on “modernization strengthening US’s alliances and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region” under SRPAP, one can recognise the idea of economy creeping in and of sharing the burden of security of the region with other participant countries. It is here one can also recognise the thought of advisability and cost of maintaining isolated high-cost bases like Diego Garcia coming up, though not specifically pronounced. .
India’s Own Security Plan
India’s security plan has at the bottom of it concerns arising from the presence of two powers which she considers adversarial, both equipped with nuclear power. That is Pakistan with whom India has fought three wars across the border and mightier China with which she fought a single war with disastrous consequences. India’s relations with China have undergone substantial improvement at political and diplomatic level but the border issue still remains a source of concern to India.
Consequently, India is seen expanding her defence capacity, though avowedly not directed against any country. The defence budget of US $ 30 billion in fiscal year ending 31 March 2010, saw a 70 per cent increase from what it was five years earlier. This development can be seen in a parallel context to the growth of the defence budget in China in the new millennium which saw an increase from US $ 12.9 billion in 1999 to US $ 114.3 billion 1n 2013.
If President Bush’s lecture at the National Defence University in India on US National Missile Defence Shield plan did not catch on in India, the county developed its own missile shield defence system and placed it over the Himalayas. (This type of missiles were later sold to Vietnam which aroused further controversy with China. This programme of missile shield has been progressing well so much so that I wrote my last article India was seen successfully test-firing its advanced ballistic missile which has placed India as the third country after US and Russia to possess missiles capable of intercepting missiles fired at Indian targets at higher atmospheric levels as well as at lower level.
India’s security plan has also taken other directions too. Following the old Kautilyan principles, India has been developing a programme of security relationships with China’s other neighbours stressing attention on countries with which China has disturbed relationship. India’s Defence Agreement with Vietnam which was seen as a prelude to selling weapons to Hanoi, which included advance helicopters and providing spares to Hanoi’s aging Mig fighters – , while Vietnam offered training to India in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency operations, and coast guard cooperation in combatting piracy- stands out among them as going beyond India’s declared intention of safeguarding her maritime and economic interests in the South China Sea region, arising from India’s State Corporation’s participation with Vietnam in prospecting for oil in the disputed sea.
A further development seen in India’s own security plan associated with her Navy’s Look-East Policy, her role in guarding the Strait of Malacca, a project nicknamed ‘Malacca Dilemma’, a project which could cause severe problems to China’s oil supply lanes, a close military relationship is already in place with Singapore.
As briefly mentioned earlier, India economic interests have expanded to cooperation with Vietnam and has been fortified by a Defence Agreement. This Defence Agreement with Vietnam brings India into a direct confrontation with China with whom she has border disputes in the North-East. Though the economic interest is being emphasized, one cannot overlook this Indian intervention in South China Sea region so innocently without any ramifications on India’s other issues with China. That India is looking for pressure points to get China ease on the border conflict issue could also be seen from her developing military collaboration with Japan and Mongolia.
India’s military cooperation with Mongolia was formalized with the Agreement was signed in 2011 on defence cooperation between the two countries. Though the level of cooperation is presently confined to conducting joint exercises and exchanges of high level military officers, thje more important element is India’s plans to expand and upgrade ‘listening posts’ in Mongolia erected in 2004. The Cooperation Protocol between the Department of Space of Mongolia and military infrastructure of India under which India is believed to be considering the establishing Early warning Radar (EW) at undisclosed locations in Mongolia with capacity to monitoring Chinese missile tests in the vast surrounding desert region as well as Beijing’s expanding space programme.
India’s military cooperation Japan, with whom China has territorial issues over the Diyogu (Senkaku) island the administration of which US passed on to Japan when the Peace Agreement was signed, cannot be understood as a mere formality. Naval cooperation in the form of reciprocal visits by high ranking naval officers and joint exercises between the two navies have been a common feature. Looked at in the context of recent more confrontational presence by Japanese naval and air force in the disputed island of Diyogu (Senkaku) can be seen as a fallout of developments following SRPAP/LCS projects and the parallel political encouragement given to Japan during the visit of former Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, Indo-Japan cooperation in naval defence takes on an added dimension. Even at present a Japanese delegation of law makers led by former Japanese Foreign Minister Komura and deputy President of the ruling LDP is now visiting Beijing ostensibly to tone down the level of escalation of the conflict over Diyogu (Senkaku ) island which has assumed conflict proportions recently in view of Japanese retaliation with naval and air power.
Here India in her growing relations with China’s Asian neighbours was seen going beyond declared purpose of protecting her maritime and economic interests, which was the reason quoted for her developing economic and military cooperation with Vietnam. India’s entry into the South China Sea region as well as developing military relations with China’s other neighbours could be seen as India developing her own counter strategic policy toward China in military terms.
Biswal on Future Military cooperation with Sri Lanka
US Assistant Secretary Ms.Biswal’s very recent reference (Ceylon Today, 18/4/2014) at her address to the Harvard Forum need not be by-passed as one made to suit a critical audience. There has been some noises within Senate circles especially about the way the present administration is going about managing relations with Sri Lanka, a country with which US ought to develop a friendly and positive relationship in view of the islands’ strategic importance. Biswal was actually drawing from President Obama’s and Defence Secretary Kerry’s observations on new emphasis on relations with Asia -Pacific in which context her remark at the Harvard Forum about prospects of developing future military cooperation with Sri Lanka was made. It could be seen, as I observed in my last article, as falling into the pattern of thinking under the new development in shifting US strategic rebalancing policy toward Asia-Pacific even though the parametres of future military cooperation with the island state have not been made clear.
If one were to start from where things started and abruptly ended under President J.R.Jayewardene’s administration, one can be inclined to think that any resumption of military cooperation, besides resumption of military supplies, could centre more naval cooperation. Such naval cooperation also dominates US’s military cooperation with India. This is not because Sri Lankan navy has the infrastructure and any build up or capabilities comparable to what the Indian navy has, which is now seen engaging in any operations even beyond the territorial waters and providing escort services to commercial shipping from the Arabian Sea to Strait of Malacca during time of crisis, providing protection against Somali pirates in the East Indian Ocean and ready to intervene in the South China Sea region to protect India’s maritime and economic interests, but because, Sri Lanka, with its strategic harbor Trincomalee and her equally overall strategic position in the Indian Ocean through which world’s shipping routes carrying vital oil supplies to industrialised and other nations traverse, could provide an ideal strategic locality to monitor shipping on the sea lanes and even provide an ideal location for the future deployment of US’s Littoral Combatant Ships (LCS), like the one that US has now worked out with Singapore.
The prospect of US developing naval cooperation over the use of Trincomalee harbor by the US navy opened up during President J.R.Jayewardene’s administration when there was a reversal of policy followed by Mrs.Banadaranaike’s government over the use of Sri Lankan ports by foreign navies. It started with the Trincomalee harbor being opened for US marines for R & R purposes which India, under Mrs Indira Gandhi suspected might develop into a regular pattern and open up even greater military/naval cooperation between US and Sri Lanka. It was at this point that India intervened with her clandestine programme to support cross-border terrorism in Sri Lanka which finally led to the 30 year old internal war. But despite these intervening situations, Sri Lanka has never ceased to be in US radar. (It might be of interest to note that after September 11 terrorist attack in New York and declaration by US of war against international terrorism (Operation Enduring Freedom), India permitted US navy to use Indian port facilities for R & R purposes.) Up to that time, under Mrs.Bandaranaike’s avowed adherence to NAM and leadership in the IOPZ project, there was nothing for India to fear about Sri Lanka moving in any other direction which would cause concern to India. Mrs Bandaranaike’s position in the Sino-Indian border dispute was well understood though India would have liked Sri Lanka to support her position. President Jayewardene’s administration, with its western orientation and declared pro-US bias in foreign policy, made the difference for India to react.
Since after the Rajiv-Jayewardene Accord of July 1987 and Letters Exchanged under it, India is now in virtual control of the situation over Trincomalee which is central to any security issue connected with Sri Lanka, I argued that any future US interest in Sri Lanka/ Trincomalle has to be worked out as a joint Indo-US security plan for the region. To this it could be added that India acquiring economic interests in the Tincomalee oil tanks and Sampur Coal Power Project, as reasons that could be adduced for Indian naval interest in Trincomalee to safeguard India’s economic interests. That is the argument that the Indian Naval Chief presented over the dispute with China over Indian state owned Oil and Gas Corporation(ONGC0) having stakes in Oil and gas exploration in the disputed South China Sea region.
Assistant Secretary Biswal’s expectation about future prospects of development of military cooperation between US and Sri Lanka then has to take these historical realities into consideration. However, in the combined US-India perception of China as adversary with military aggressiveness towards her neighbours and more precisely, in the so called “String of Pearls,” in building of which China is being accused of, which focuses on ‘encirclement’ of India, one could see prospects of working toward such a development that Biswal envisaged. Such a development calls for bringing Sri Lanka into the security vortex to be developed between US and India which the present LCS programme envisages. Such a proposition is not without its difficulties, however, both from a geo-political and security angle as well as complex political perceptions in Indian circles. Basically, it would centre around if India would be prepared to barter her hold on Sri Lanka, especially, the Trincomalee harbor even to her ally US to gain a foothold.
Present political alignments in Sri Lanka in Sino-Sri Lankan relations may also not be conducive to such a pro- Indo-US future plan. China herself realises the forces at work and is doing her best to keep the present climate of good relations with Sri Lanka moving. In this context one could understand why so much pressure is being exerted on Sri Lanka at this time, which some see as an attempt to bring about a regime change to install a pro-Indo-US regime in the island. It is in this growing bi-lateral cooperation between China and Sri Lanka that US sees the prospects building up the ant-China front in India. The so called ‘String of Pearls’ concept in which the recently completed Hambantota harbor is the most recent ‘pearl,’ is presented as encircling India. The closer the Sino-Sri Lanka relations develop, it would provide grist to the mill working toward a US-India axis over China.
China’s Response to SRPAP and LCS programme as well as to that of India’s East-ward policy on the one hand and the hostile attitudes by Japan and others over disputed territorial issues in East China Sea and South China Sea, cannot be missed, however. This response has taken two directions. One is China trying to develop its own diplomatic offensive and defence cooperation programaes with US’s traditional allies like Japan and Australia, and US- friendly countries like India and Singapore, Mongolia and even Vietnam through high level exchanges of military officials, training for Singapore army. Even with India, the defence dialogue continues as seen from high level exchanges of visits of military officials, participation in joint naval exercises. The level of the dialogue of cooperation between China and India is much higher than anything that has taken place between China and Sri lanka except for the supply of Chinese armaments to Sri Lanka.
China has endeavoured to present her defence expenditure programme as being not intended as a threat to her neighbours but to protect her sovereignty and territorial integrity as a country with a long land border and a long sea front to defend.
The other direction of Chinese response is the expansion of her defence budget after the announcement of the plan for Security rebalancing in Asia and Pacific region. Western analysts see the increase in China’s defence budget in 2013 by 11.3 percent over that of the previous as a direct response to US’s SRPAP and associated developments in the region. This is arguable, however, as percentage increases of this magnitude is not a novel feature in the Chines defence budget.
To return to the main issue of concentration in this article, the future of US bases in Diego Garcia in the context of US strategic rebalancing toward Asia-Pacific, the subject has not figured precisely in the discussion so far. One could only imply from circumstantial factors like the disappearance of the competition from former Soviet Union which itself was making a bid to build up bases round the Indian Ocean, the declining importance of the Middle East where the military balance has been secured in favour of US and Western interests though leaving these countries like Iraq, Sudan, Libya in worst disarray internally, (only Syria where the situation has got complicated remains to be settled), and with US’s declared plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by this year, where the bases in Diego Garcia played their pivotal role, the maintenance of these bases at the cost of heavy expenditure and with prospects of international opinion once again rising against them, that the prospects of a shift of emphasis from the atolls in the southern part of the Indian Ocean to Asia-Pacific region cannot be ruled out. In geo-political terms, it could be understood as a ‘China-centred’ concentration of strategic balance that US is now working on, viewing China as a potential adversary who could rise to challenge US’s predominant military role in the world. What it means is that US wants to remain the sole super power exerting direct and hegemonic control of global power. There are many who disagree with the US perception which in the final analysis, is running opposite to her declared objective of creating conditions for global peace.