Wednesday, October 22, 2008

NATO reaches into the Indian Ocean

By M K Bhadrakumar - Asia Times, Oct 21, 2008

The informal meeting of the defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries in Budapest, Hungary, on October 9-10 was notable for three reasons.

One, it was United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' last engagement with his NATO counterparts. Unsurprisingly, there was curiosity whether Gates would bring to bear on NATO's Afghan war any new thinking. But that was not to be, as a strategy review is still underway in Washington.

Two, it emerged that the alliance sanctioned more muscle power for the war by authorizing NATO to use force against Afghan poppy cultivators and drug traffickers - a controversial decision which troubles many member countries.

Three, the Budapest meet deliberated on issues regarding the transformation of the alliance. Despite the global financial crisis, there was no loss of US hegemony. The NATO-Georgia Commission, created at the US's insistence, met on October 10 for the first time and the alliance reiterated its commitment to continue the supervisory process set in hand at the Bucharest summit in April "with a view to Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations". A somewhat vague formulation short of Tbilisi's expectation, but a step forward nonetheless on the path of the alliance's expansion as charted by the US.

A well-planned move
The most far-reaching decision at the Budapest meet was NATO's decision to establish a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, ostensibly for protecting World Food Program ships carrying relief for famine-stricken Somalia.

Announcing the decision on October 10, a NATO spokesman said, "The United Nations asked for NATO's help to address this problem [piracy off Somalia's coast]. Today, the ministers agreed that NATO should play a role. NATO will have its Standing Naval Maritime Group, which is composed of seven ships, in the region within two weeks." He added that NATO would work with "all allies who have ships in the area now".

By October 15, seven ships from NATO navies had already transited the Suez Canal on their way to the Indian Ocean. En route, they will conduct a series of Persian Gulf port visits to countries neighboring Iran - Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which are NATO's "partners" within the framework of the so-called Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The mission comprises ships from the US, Britain, Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General John Craddock, acknowledged that the mission furthers the alliance's ambition to become a global political organization. He said, "The threat of piracy is real and growing in many parts of the world today, and this response is a good illustration of NATO's ability to adapt quickly to new security challenges."

Evidently, NATO has been carefully planning its Indian Ocean deployment. The speed with which it dispatched the ships betrays an element of haste, likely anticipating that some among the littoral states in the Indian Ocean region might contest such deployment by a Western military alliance. By acting with lightning speed and without publicity, NATO surely created a fait accompli.

String of coincidences
By any reckoning, NATO's naval deployment in the Indian Ocean region is a historic move and a milestone in the alliance's transformation. Even at the height of the Cold War, the alliance didn't have a presence in the Indian Ocean. Such deployments almost always tend to be open-ended.

In retrospect, the first-ever visit by a NATO naval force in mid-September last year to the Indian Ocean was a full-dress rehearsal to this end. Brussels said at that time, "The aim of the mission is to demonstrate NATO's capability to uphold security and international law on the high seas and build links with regional navies." In 2007, a NATO naval force visited Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and Somalia and conducted exercises in the Indian Ocean and then re-entered the Mediterranean via the Red Sea in end-September.

The NATO deployment has already had some curious fallout. In an interesting coincidence, on October 16, just as the NATO force was reaching the Persian Gulf, an Indian Defense Ministry spokesman announced in New Delhi, "The [Indian] government today approved deployment of an Indian naval warship in the Gulf of Aden to patrol the normal route followed by Indian-flagged ships during passage between Salalah in Oman and Aden in Yemen. "The patrolling is commencing immediately."

The timing seems deliberate. Media reports indicated that the government had been working on this decision for several months. Like NATO, Delhi also acted fast when the time came, and an Indian ship has already set sail. Delhi initially briefed the media that the deployment came in the wake of an incident of Somali pirates hijacking a Japanese-owned merchant vessel on August 15, which had 18 Indians on board. But later, it backtracked and gave a broader connotation, saying, "However, the current decision to patrol African waters is not directly related [to the incident in August]."

The Indian statement said, "The presence of an Indian navy warship in this area will be significant as the Gulf of Aden is a major strategic choke point in the Indian Ocean region and provides access to the Suez Canal through which a sizeable portion of India's trade flows."

Indian officials said the warship would work in cooperation with the Western navies deployed in the region and would be supplemented with a larger force if need and that it would be well equipped. But Delhi obfuscated the fact that the Western deployment will be under the NATO flag and any cooperation with the Western navies will involve the Western alliance. Given the traditional Indian policy to steer clear of military blocs, Delhi is understandably sensitive.

Clearly, the Indian warship will eventually have to work in tandem with the NATO naval force. This will be the first time that the Indian armed forces will be working shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO forces in actual operations in territorial or international waters.

The operations hold the potential to shift India's ties with NATO to a qualitatively new level. The US has been encouraging India to forge ties with NATO as well as play a bigger role in maritime security affairs. The two countries have a bilateral protocol relating to cooperation in maritime security, which was signed in 2006. It says at the outset, "Consistent with their global strategic partnership and the new framework for their defense relationship, India and the United States committed themselves to comprehensive cooperation in ensuring a secure maritime domain. In doing so, they pledged to work together, and with other regional partners as necessary."

The Indian Navy command has been raring to go in the direction of close partnership with the US Navy in undertaking security responsibilities far beyond its territorial waters. The two navies have instituted an annual large-scale annual exercise in the Indian Ocean - the Malabar exercises. This year's exercises are currently under way along India's western coast.

Russia reviving base
To be sure, the littoral states would have taken note of the scrambling by NATO and India to deploy naval forces on a sea route that is crucial for the countries of the Asian region. Trade and imports of oil by China pass through this sea lane. All the same, China has merely reported on the NATO deployment without any comments. Russia, on the other hand, didn't bother to report but preferred to swiftly respond.

Last Tuesday, even as the NATO naval force left for the Indian Ocean, it was stated in Moscow that a missile frigate from Russia's Baltic fleet - aptly named Neustrashimy [Fearless] - was already heading to the Indian Ocean "to fight piracy off Somalia's coast". Moscow claimed that the Somali government sought Russian assistance.

Two days later, on Thursday, as the Indian Defense Ministry was making its announcement, it was revealed by the speaker of the Upper House of the Russian parliament, Segei Mironov, an influential politician close to the Kremlin, that Russia might resume its Soviet-era naval presence in Yemen. Interestingly, Mironov made the announcement while on a visit to Sana, Yemen. He said Yemen sought Russia's help to fight piracy and possible terrorist threats and that a decision would be taken in Moscow to respond in accordance with the "new direction" of Russia's foreign and defense policies.

"It is possible that the aspects of using Yemen ports not only for visits by Russia warships but also for more strategic goals will be considered," Mironov said. He further revealed that a visit by the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to Moscow is scheduled in the near future and the issue of military-technical cooperation will be on the agenda. Significantly, Mironov explained that Yemen had threat perception regarding groups affiliated to al-Qaeda, which might be hiding in the Somalia region. (The Soviet Union had a major naval base in the former South Yemen, which merged with North Yemen in 1990 to form the present-day Yemen.

In essence, Moscow has signaled to Washington (and Delhi and the other littoral states) that it, too, can play NATO's game and has the capacity and the will to fight a "war on terror" in the Indian Ocean.

The point is, Somalia has no effective government and the claim by NATO (or India) to have received the permission/request from Mogadishu to undertake naval patrolling in that country's territorial waters is untenable, to say the least. It is also a grey area as to whether such patrolling in the high seas will be in accordance with international law. NATO has taken cover under the pretext that the deployment is in response to a request by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, but then, Ban never acts without an eye on what Washington desires.

Clearly, Russia is establishing its toehold as a matter of principle, asserting that NATO and its "partners" in the region cannot arrogate to themselves the role of policemen in the Indian Ocean.

New cold-war chill
Logically speaking, the endeavor on the part of the US and India should have been to see if the problem of sea piracy could be handled through a regional initiative by the littoral states in the first instance. India, in fact, has a cooperation platform with the Indian Ocean rim countries, which could have been activated. But this variant hasn't been explored. Instead, NATO - and India and Russia - have hastened to assume the policemen's role. At a minimum, there should have been prior regional consultations since this is a matter of collective security, which also doesn't seem to have happened.

It is obvious that these first blasts of the new cold war have blown into the Indian Ocean region against the larger backdrop of big-power relations. A new command, Africom, has just taken over all US military operations in Africa with effect from October 1. Previously, Africa came under the US Central Command. The widespread perception in Africa is that Africom signifies a hidden US agenda of a scramble for resources under the pretext of the "war on terror".

The Associated Press reported recently, "Resistance to Africom among African governments has been so strong that [US] commanders abandoned their initial ambitions to install a headquarters on the continent. It is based in Stuttgart instead, with about two dozen Africom liaison officers posted at embassies."

It added, "Some African suspicions are rooted in the past. Washington's Cold War legacy of supporting brutal dictators, coupled with Africa's tragic colonial history, has spawned a distrust of foreigners. And many believe it's no coincidence Africom was born as emerging powerhouses like China and India embark on a new scramble for the continent's increasingly valuable resources."

US officials are on record that Africom and NATO envisage an institutional linkup in the downstream. The overall US strategy is to incrementally bring NATO into Africa so that its future role in the Indian Ocean (and Middle East) region as the instrument of US global security agenda becomes optimal. For the strategy to succeed in the Indian Ocean, however, NATO will need to align three key littoral states - India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. Singapore is a Cold War ally of the US. It overlooks the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait.

Endgame of Tamil insurgency
As for Sri Lanka, from the US point of view, its highly strategic location overlooking the sea lanes connecting the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Strait is of great value. The island is well placed to play the role of a permanent aircraft carrier. Washington is pressing ahead with a military solution to Sri Lanka's Tamil problem at any cost so that the Western-oriented Sinhalese political elite can focus on aligning Colombo with US regional strategy and act in concert with Delhi and Singapore.

It is plain to see that the end game of the Tamil insurgency has begun. The continuation of the insurgency only compels Sri Lanka to seek assistance from external quarters, including such sources as Iran, Pakistan and China. The Sinhalese elite would gladly jettison such dependence and orientate policies in a pro-West direction if provided the opportunity.

The US and India have been closely coordinating their policies on the situation in Sri Lanka, keeping the geostrategy in the Indian Ocean in mind. Cleaning up the Tamil insurgency and restoring Sri Lanka's capacity to work in concert with US strategy in the Indian Ocean has become an imperative need. Both Washington and Delhi are clear on this.

But for the US's strategy in the Indian Ocean, it is Delhi that is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown. The plain fact is that like Singapore and Sri Lanka, India also has impeccable geographical location, but additionally it also has significant muscle militarily. The US has assiduously cultivated the top brass of the Indian armed forces, especially the Indian navy. It has cleverly played on the navy's ambitions and corporate interests to have an expanded, pre-eminent presence in the Indian Ocean. The Indian navy is besotted with the idea of gaining access to US defense technology. Delhi belatedly realizes that the Indian navy is a powerful tool for foreign policy and diplomacy.

Equally, Washington has astutely worked on India's fears regarding a potential "encirclement" by China. While a consensus may be lacking as regards the scope, speed and effect of China's entry into the Indian Ocean region, the US and Indian strategic communities agree that China is an important factor that needs monitoring. China's increasing power, intentions and role in the Indian Ocean inevitably figure as a "hot" topic in US-India cogitations.

Conceivably, the recently concluded US-India civilian nuclear deal will give a fillip to military cooperation, in which navy-to-navy is already the oldest and strongest salient. Washington insists that its embrace of India is as a regional power and as an independent actor, especially as a naval power, and the impetus is wider than "balancing" or "containing" China. Some influential sections of the Indian strategic community would be inclined to take Washington at its word.

On balance, therefore, it is entirely conceivable that Delhi made its move on naval deployment in close consultation with the US within the framework of the two countries' much-acclaimed "strategic partnership", while taking into account the imperatives arising out of NATO's decision as well as the official launch of Africom by the Pentagon.

To what degree the Indian decision targets the Somali pirates and to what extent it remains a strategic move to dominate the Indian Ocean remains a matter of speculation. Even a clever pirate of the Caribbean like Captain Jack Sparrow would be left wondering whether to use wit and negotiation or to fight - or to flee a most dangerous situation.


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.