Joint naval exercise: SEATO in new format?
Australia, India, Japan, Singapore and the USA held a joint Naval Exercise in the Bay of Bengal in the first week of September2007. Naval exercises are held around the world all around the year as part of normal defense activities by nations to train their armed forces. But this particular naval exercise has a different significance. This is probably the turning point in India's foreign and defense policies that may have very far-reaching effect on the overall global power equation. This naval exercise undoubtedly represents a major shift in India's strategic security perceptions. Actually, it signals India's entry into the "Quadrilateral initiative," a new strategic security combine in which it joins as a key member in the security triad of Australia, Japan and the US. Presumably, Singapore's participation as an add-on in the exercise signifies the finer dimensions of this initiative.
The "Malabar CY 07-2" as the naval exercise was code-named was held in the Bay of Bengal in the first week of September 2007. The exercise involved three carrier groups. The US as the biggest naval power in the Indian Ocean had the maximum representation. Its fleet of 13 ships included two aircraft carriers - the nuclear powered USS Nimitz, and the USS Kitty hawk, a nuclear submarine USS Chicago, two guided-missile cruisers, and six guided-missile destroyers. The participation of the Indian Navy, the second biggest navy in the region, included the only aircraft carrier INS Viraat, two destroyers, a submarine, a missile frigate, four corvettes, and a tanker. Indian naval maritime reconnaissance aircraft and shore based IAF fighters also participated in the exercise. The Japanese maritime self-defense forces had two naval craft. Australia had sent a frigate and a tanker while Singapore was represented by one of the most modern frigates. The size of representation of naval powers in the exercise was indicative of their relative dominance in strategic security arrangements in this part of the Indian Ocean.
Australia, Japan and the USA have a strategic alliance in the Asia-Pacific region, dominating the seas up to Malacca Strait. In the mid-fifties during the height of 'Cold War' period the US and her allies formed SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation). SEATO was designed to be a Southeast Asian version of NATO. The membership of SEATO reflected a mid-1950's combination of "out of area" powers and "in area" pro-western nations. France, the UK, and the USA represented the strongest Western powers. Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, and New Zealand represented the pro-western nations in the Southeast Asia. Pakistan was included not only because East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) was geographically close to Southeast Asia, but possibly because Pakistan was a member of the pro-Western alliance, CENTO (Central Treaty Organisation). Thus the pro-Western, anti-communist military alliances of the Middle East and Southeast Asia were linked by the membership of Pakistan.
SEATO was created as part of the "Truman Doctrine" of creating anti-communist bilateral and collective security treaties. These treaties were intended to create alliances that would contain communist power. This policy was considered to have been largely developed by American diplomat and Soviet expert George F. Kennan. President Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was the primary force behind the creation of SEATO, which expanded the concept of anti-communist collective security to Southeast Asia.
Right after independence India formulated a foreign policy, which was clearly keeping itself away from the cold war politics. India under Nehru's leadership played a leading role in charting a path away from the two power blocks. India opposed the creation of these military alliances and kept following a policy of neutralism. Since independence in 1947, the US had been trying to get India in their power equation. But it was Nehru's subtle maneuvering that kept India away from the Cold War rivalry and yet got desired support from the USA in time of crisis. The Indo-US relationship came to its lowest ebb during 1971 Bangladesh Crisis. With the passage of time things have changed.
Today India is in a buoyant mood and more self-assured, fortified by its noticeable economic progress and sustained rates of high growth. This has prompted the Indian elites and strategic analysts to project India as a Key Global Power. They also perceive that it can only be made possible by assistance from the United States and hence there is a need to have an intense strategic partnership or commitment to United States global strategic policies.
The dramatic improvement in the Indo-US defense relation is a major factor in the 'Quad initiative'. On June 28, 2005 India and the US signed the "New Framework for India-US Defense Relationship" formalising a long design for enhanced level of cooperation in military to military relations and in defense industrial and technological relationship. The historic Indo-US agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in March 2006 paved the way for closer interaction at the policy making level. India had been resisting the US soundings on joining the trilateral Asia-Pacific initiative. With the Indo-US nuclear deal nearing fruition, during his visit to Tokyo in December 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to India's participation in a security dialogue on regional issues with the triad.
The joint naval exercise of India, Japan, and the US off Japan's eastern coast held in April 2007 was presumably a curtain raiser for the things to come. This was signalled in the statement issued on May 1, 2007 by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma. Its objective was to get India to play a major role in the strategic setting of the region. This was followed by a first-ever official level quadrilateral exploratory talks between India and the three nations held on the sidelines of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) security policy meeting in Manila on May 24-25, 2007. To cap it all, President Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe focussed on how to promote engagement with India when they met on the sidelines of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney.
The whole exercise of involving India in the Quad initiative has increased the suspicion of China and other nations of the region. Are the four nations ganging up against China, as was the case in the mid-fifties? The nations of the region have reasons to feel so because the Quad's "Asian arc of freedom" (as Japan described it) covers areas starting from the Japan Sea to the eastern coast of Africa. China is particularly perturbed. In June 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao sought clarification on the issue from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the G8 summit in Germany. The Chinese issued diplomatic memos to the members of the Quad seeking more information on the initiative. All the four nations have been soft-pedalling the strategic aspect of the alliance, as they do not want to annoy China. They have tried to explain the initiative not as a military grouping but only "looking at issues of common interest." But there is no doubt that with the entry of India as the fourth member in an existing strategic security arrangement of three close Western allies, the strategic setting in the Asia Pacific region has changed.
Even a cursory analysis of the Malabar 2-07 exercise, will show that this was no exercise to improve only interoperability between nations. Situations like dissimilar air combat, interception of shore-based aircraft and air defense of war ships had been planned for the mock battle during the exercise. The main exercise revolved around smaller missions like assaulting shore-based targets, launching amphibious operations, and vessel searching and seizing.
The aims of the exercise clearly indicate that the alliance is designed to intervene even in smaller nations. China is not the same China of the 1950's; similarly the strategic scenario has also undergone substantial change. The most alarming aspect of this alliance is the binding of a strategic relationship between the US and India, which may revive the Cold War era military tensions in the region. Bangladesh has to keep a careful watch on the further developments in this field. India has a track record of military adventurism starting from 1948.
The author is a freelancer.