The itinerary of the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and the Defence Minister Mr A K Antony in May - June 2013 indicates that it is not just the United States but India too is carrying out a rebalancing towards the Asia Pacific. As usual India’s moves are far more subtle than that indicated by the speech of US President Barack Obama in November 2011 that marked America’s new strategic shift, more over in India’s case it appears to be more of an outreach rather than rebalancing for New Delhi has had a very low security presence in the region per se. But creating a sense of security or overcoming the fear psychosis vis a vis China that gripped the nation in April during the Depsang plateau incident by expanding strategic cooperation with Japan and countries in the Asia Pacific seems to be behind the big push in May – June.
Expansion of Japanese interest under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in building up security relationship with India has been much debated recently. Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Japan from 28 to 30 May has been heralded as a new era which is highlighted by the symbolic placement of defence as the fifth paragraph in the Joint Statement. The statement highlighted that the two Prime Ministers expressed satisfaction that the first bilateral exercise between the Indian Navy (IN) and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) was held in June 2012 off the coast of Japan and decided to conduct such exercises on a regular basis with increased frequency. Establishment of a Joint Working Group (JWG) to explore modality for the cooperation on the US-2 amphibian aircraft is another major advancement given that Japan continues to be restricted by its Constitution to undertake foreign military sales. The US -2 falls under the dual use category and the Joint Working Group is expected to work out the modalities for the deal.
The Indian Defence Minister Mr A K Antony’s visit to Australia, the first for any Indian Defence Minister was possibly the most defining shift in India’s defence cooperation in the region in recent times. Joint Statement issued on the occasion stated that the Defence Ministers acknowledged deepening strategic and defence cooperation between Australia and India. India and Australia have Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation concluded in 2006, the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation issued during the visit of the Australian Prime Minister to India in 2009 and the Joint Statement issued during Australian Prime Minister Ms. Julia Gillard’s visit to India in 2012 within which framework the talks were conducted.
The main strands of India Australia defence cooperation at present apart from usual round of high level visits and meets will be participation of an Indian naval ship in the International Fleet Review to be held in Sydney in October 2013. Other activities to be promoted include
(i) regular bilateral Defence Ministers’ Meetings;
(ii) promote exchanges between the defence establishments and the Armed Forces of both sides, including through the regular conduct of the Defence Policy Dialogue, Armed Forces Staff Talks and professional military exchanges;
(iii) bilateral Naval exchanges to build confidence and familiarity between Navies and work towards a bilateral maritime exercise in 2015;
(iv) cooperate in the Asia-Pacific region bilaterally and through various multilateral fora including the EAS, ARF and ADMM-Plus;
(v) enhance Indian Ocean cooperation, including through the framework and priorities of the IONS and the IOR-ARC
(vi) promote the sharing and exchange of professional knowledge and experiences through participation in training courses in each other’s military training institutions.
Australia’s increasing engagement with India is based on the Defence White Paper issued recently which as per the Australian Defence Minister Mr. Stephen Smith, ‘outlines the profound strategic changes that are occurring as economic, strategic and military weight shifts to our part of the world, the Indo-Pacific region’. Perth is likely to play a pivotal role in building up cooperation being the Australia’s Indian Ocean Naval Base, HMAS Stirling.
On his way out to Australia, Mr Antony was in Singapore where India and Singapore underlined their defence partnership as the agreement for extending use of Army training facilities in India for a further period of five years from August this year. The agreement was signed by the Indian Defence Secretary Mr Radha Krishna Mathur and the Singaporean Permanent Secretary of Defence Mr Chiang Chie Foo in the presence of the Defence Ministers of the two countries, Mr AK Antony and Dr Ng Eng Hen. The bilateral agreement for utilization of facilities in India by the Singapore Air Force and Army was signed in October 2007 and August 2008 respectively. The agreement for training and exercises of Singapore Air Force in India was extended up to October 2017 during the visit of Singapore’s Permanent Secretary of Defence to India in July 2012. The Ministry of Defence highlighted that Singapore is the only country to which India is offering such facilities.
After Dr Man Mohan Singh it was the turn of Defence Minister A K Antony who in his return trip from Australia visited Bangkok to discuss with Thailand possible areas of cooperation and collaboration in Defence production with his Thai counterpart Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat in Bangkok. Surprisingly even though he has warned the DRDO recently to, “perform or perish,” Mr Antony marketed the, “well established defence industry which can meet varying requirements of the Thai Armed Forces,” as per the Ministry of Defence Press release on the subject. He said India would welcome the visit of Thai teams to various Defence production facilities. Mr Antony also said conscious planning; hard work by our scientists and support by the government is resulting in the growth of a strong defence industrial base in the country.
Commenting possibly on the scenario in South China Sea, Mr Antony said, “We support the resolution of differences and disputes through the process of dialogue and consensus between the parties to such disputes. All countries must exercise restraint and resolve issues diplomatically, according to the principles of international law”. “India is committed to efforts of ADMM Plus, ARF and the East Asia Summit for promoting dialogue and consensus building among all countries of the region”, he added.
India and Thailand conducted a Defence Dialogue in February 2013 and regular Coordinated Patrol (CORPATs) are conducted by the Indian Navy and the Royal Thai Navy. The Joint Statement during the visit of Prime Minister Dr Man Mohan Singh to Thailand had expressed the host country’s interest in India’s defence industry.
Underpinning the high level engagement are the port calls by Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet headed by fleet commander Rear Admiral P Ajith Kumar which is on a month long voyage touching Singapore where it also participated in a maritime exhibition and bilateral naval exercise in May. INS Satpura, INS Ranvijay, INS Kirch and INS Shakti, the fleet tanker is visiting Malaysia, Vietnam and Philippines.
These moves would have certainly please the United States which is expanding presence in the region with the first of the four Littoral Combat Ships deployed in Singapore recently. Beijing on the other had will remain skeptical but the nature of emerging regional relations highlight the need for balancing by India rather than band wagoning evident in the recent engagements. This may be the defining trend for the future with the Indian Navy leading the way in the maritime sphere. For this the Indian Navy will have to strengthen the Eastern Fleet and also rig up a Southern Fleet in the future in case it seeks to make an impact on the vast waters of the Indian Ocean.