New Delhi finds a friend
Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)
When US President George W. Bush visited India this month, the spotlight fell on the controversial nuclear deal that had become a test of the new relationship between Washington and New Delhi. It was accepted by Mr Bush and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but the deal must still run the political gauntlet of lawmakers in both countries.
Meanwhile, Asia is digesting the implications of the emerging US-India alignment and its impact on the regional balance of power. New Delhi is working to improve its relations with Beijing, and has been wary of becoming part of any strategy overtly designed to contain China.
However, India's relations with the United States are intensifying on a broad front, military as well as civil. Last June, the two countries signed a framework agreement for defence relations over the next decade, as part of what American officials say will be a broader US-India strategic partnership with a global scope. Since then, bilateral military-to-military contacts have been extended. A joint exercise off India in September and October was the largest so far between the two navies.
The two leaders also agreed on a framework deal on maritime security. It covers co-operation to protect the free flow of commerce and counter threats at sea. These include: piracy and armed robbery; threats to the safety of ships, crew, property and the safety of navigation; illicit trafficking in weapons of mass destruction; environmental degradation and natural disasters.
Without specifically saying so, New Delhi appears ready to work with the US and its partners in a US programme - the Proliferation Security Initiative - to intercept illegal shipments of weapons of mass destruction at sea, on land and in the air. China has reservations about the initiative, fearing it could be used to blockade North Korea and Iran.
The US and India are also working to finalise a logistics-support agreement as quickly as possible. It will enable the Indian and US armed forces to co-operate more easily during combined training exercises as well as in disaster relief operations, of the kind that took place after the Asian tsunami of December 2004. How much further US-India defence ties will go in practice remains to be seen. But there is a lot of potential for collaboration in protecting the sea lanes between Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.
One such area is the connected straits of Malacca and Singapore, a key waterway because it provides the shortest route for most shipping between the Indian and Pacific oceans. It carries a substantial part of the world's trade, including 75 per cent of China's oil imports. Beijing is worried that, in an armed conflict over Taiwan, the US and Japan might intervene and try to prevent these vital energy supplies from reaching China.
With naval and air bases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, India commands the western approaches to these straits. It has offered to work more closely with Southeast Asian states to guard against piracy and possible terrorism, and to improve security for shipping there.
China indicated late last year that it did not oppose a greater Indian role in straits security. But Beijing's attitude may change if it sees India as a new proxy for the US in Asia.
(Originally appeared in the March 10, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)