Defence cooperation for strategic outreach

The IAF's fleet of C-130J Super Hercules, on the tarmac at Hindon Air Force Station. Induction of new platforms will give India considerable strategic capability
WITH its growing economy and gradually increasing military power, India is looking increasingly outwards to safeguard wider national interests, particularly its sea lanes of communication. Since the 1998 nuclear tests at Pokhran, India has entered into strategic partnerships with most major powers, including the United States, and is becoming increasingly conscious that it must fulfil its responsibilities as an emerging Asian power. 
Unlike in the past when it remained steadfastly non-aligned, in today's rapidly globalising world India cannot afford to 'go it alone' any longer - even if it still shuns military alliances. The bilateral strategic partnerships that India is engaged in building with France, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the US, among others, hinge around varying levels of defence cooperation. While small-scale tactical-level exercises have been held by the armies and the air forces, the navies have consistently raised the bar and have been conducting large-scale manoeuvres. 
Large naval exercises are not new to the Indian Ocean region and the Indian Navy has always participated in them with relish. From 1949 up to the 1965 war, the Indian Navy joined other Commonwealth navies, including Australia, Britain, and Pakistan, to participate regularly in exercises called Joint Exercises Trincomalee. Then the Royal Navy pulled out of the Indian Ocean and the US Sixth and Seventh Fleets sailed in to fill the vacuum. As Indo-US relations were estranged, especially after tough sanctions were imposed on India consequent to the Pokhran-I nuclear test in May 1974, the Indian Navy became isolated in the region. The first joint exercises with the US Navy, part of the Malabar series, were held in 1994 when Indo-US defence cooperation was revived. 
The knee-jerk reactions that followed the Pokhran-II nuclear explosions in May 1998 soon gave way to a more rational international appraisal of India's emergence as a Southern Asian military power and many navies began to call on India's ports. The Indian Navy soon began to exercise with the navies of Britain, France, Indonesia, Oman, Russia, Thailand, Singapore and the US. In addition to these bilateral exercises in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy availed the opportunity of port calls to Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand to carry out limited exercises in their waters. 
From bilateral exercises to multilateral ones, which reduce sailing time and costs and multiply operational benefits, was but a short step. Till then the largest ever multinational exercise in the Indian Ocean, Malabar 07 was conducted in the Bay of Bengal by the navies of Australia, Japan, India, Singapore and the US in the first week of September 2007. Over two dozen destroyers, corvettes, submarines and three aircraft carriers (USS Nimitz, USS Kitty Hawk and INS Viraat) and a large number of shore-based aircraft participated in the week-long exercise. Since then these exercises have been conducted regularly. 
New Great Game in Asia 
The Malabar exercises are conducted to understand and learn from each other's tactics, techniques and procedures, augment levels of interoperability and show presence for enhancing maritime security in the Indian Ocean region. The declared aims of these naval exercises are to practice joint patrolling of international sea lanes; anti-piracy measures; procedures for disaster relief; and, casualty evacuation. There is clearly an underlying message in these annual exercises that has not gone unnoticed in the intended quarters. Much like the Great Game played out in Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the major Asian powers and the US are jostling for advantage to maintain the balance of power in Asia. 
India is a reluctant newcomer to this new Great Game. Several pointers mark the power play in force. China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics have come together to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to guard their own interests and balance ASEAN and APEC. China is assiduously engaged in pursuing a "string of pearls" doctrine that is clearly aimed at the strategic encirclement of India and has been flexing its military muscle in the South China Sea. China has created client states around India that are dependent on China for their major arms purchases (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan). By making inroads into Nepal and building ports at Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and in Myanmar, China is not only jockeying to safeguard the sea lanes over which its oil and gas flow but also attempting to confine India to the backwaters of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. 
Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had suggested a "quadrilateral" meeting between Australia, Japan, India and the US some months ago. This move raised China's suspicions and the recent multilateral exercise have fuelled these further. China formally queried the Japanese about the underlying motives as it became apprehensive that the four democracies were likely to gang up against it. Chinese scholars and analysts dubbed this loose group of democracies as an Asian NATO in the making. The quadrilateral is unlikely to become a cooperative military venture as India does not join military alliances and prefers to maintain its strategic autonomy. Also, the Chinese, Indian and Russian foreign ministers have met four times in the last three years though both China and India gave a lukewarm response to a former Russian PM Yevgeny Primakov's proposal for a strategic triangle between the three of them. 
Strategic Outreach 
In keeping with its growing power and responsibilities, India has been steadily enhancing its expeditionary and military intervention capabilities. These growing capabilities have been amply demonstrated in recent times. During the 1991 Gulf War, India had airlifted 150,000 civilian workers who had been forced to leave Iraq, from the airfield at Amman, Jordan, over a period of 30 days. This was the largest airlift since the Berlin airlift at the end of World War II. During the South East Asian tsunami in 2004, the Indian armed forces were in the forefront of rescue and relief operations. Over 70 Indian Navy ships had set sail with rescue teams and relief material in less than 72 hours of the disaster even though the Indian people on the eastern seaboard had themselves suffered horrendously. Indian naval ships on a goodwill visit to European countries during the Lebanon war in 2006 lifted and brought back 5,000 Indian civilian refugees. 
India is set to join the world's major powers in terms of its ability to undertake out of area contingency operations. With the arrival of INS Jalashwa, the erstwhile USS Trenton, India's strategic sea-lift capability has been upgraded to lifting one infantry battalion at a time. India is considering the acquisition of more such ships. The SU-30 MKI long-range fighter-bombers with air-to-air refuelling capability that India acquired from Russia, the C-130J Special Forces transport aircraft from the US and the AWACS and maritime surveillance capabilities that India intends to build over the next five to 10 years, will give India considerable strategic outreach. However, India has consistently favoured military interventions only under a UN umbrella. Though that position is unlikely to change quickly, India may join future coalitions of the willing when its vital national interests are threatened and need to be defended. 
As a key player in Asia and a large democracy with which India has commonality of interests, the US is emerging as India's leading strategic partner. Though there is a broad national consensus on the contours of the emerging relationship with the US, particularly enhanced defence cooperation and civil nuclear energy cooperation, some of the opposition parties are not convinced that the government has adopted the right approach. India's communist parties, which were supporting the government till the 2009 elections to Parliament, are steadfastly opposed to deeper relations with the US. Their position is guided by apprehensions that India will become a subaltern power and will be forced to compromise its strategic autonomy. The opposition of the Left Parties flows mainly from a pathological hatred of the US as an "imperial" power rather than from genuine national security concerns and they are completely outnumbered. The right wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), initiated the ongoing defence and security relationship with the US but is now ambivalent about supporting it. 
India hedges its bets