THE Indian Ocean is fast getting converted from a ‘zone of peace’ to an arena of competition and conflict. The US military has given a new name to its Pacific Command (PACOM), it is now called the US Indo-Pacific Command. The change is more than symbolic, it indicates that the American Combatant Command (COCOM) structure, erected to deal with a bipolar world and spread the American hegemony is undergoing transition. The idea is not new, the process of change had started in 2010, and the Trump administration has finally announced the decision. The COCOM architecture based on dividing the globe into six geographic combatant commands is being tweaked to cater to the rise of India and China in the 21st century. Stretching the jurisdiction of the Command beyond East Asia and into the subcontinent, is to make India an integral part of American strategy to manage China and Iran.
During the Cold War, America expected India to refrain from looking towards East Asia and remain confined to dealing with Pakistan. The rechristening process is to help the Indian Navy to reimagine the connectivity of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Including India within it strategic framework is a part of the US strategy to construct a global system of bilateral and multilateral alliances to sustain its hegemony. America does not want to counter the trend towards multi-polarity in the world, it desires to draw geopolitical mileage from it. After Bush administration’s near -solo forays into Iraq, America decided to incorporate others into doing the dirty work on its behalf. It was no longer interested in being the sole policeman of the world. It wanted its allies to share the burden. Therefore, America adopted a different approach in the Libyan war, it “Led From Behind” allowing the French generals and British admirals, on the front, to prove their soldiering abilities and earn some medals.
The lesson learnt from Libyan operations are being further employed by building new alliances and incorporating fresh partners. India is America’s catch of the 21st century, its elite (with most of the children either studying or employed in the US) is more than willing to serve the US strategic goals. The US soft power that has been in operation in India since 1950s, has done a tremendous work in terms of erecting elite networks and building an epistemic community that sees India as an extension of the US. Therefore when the Cold War ended and US needed to openly embrace India, there was very little resistance in India on being a junior partner of the United States. It is largely because of this confidence that the US state department’s long-term strategy includes a blueprint for 100 years strategic partnership with India.
The strategic partnership between the two countries was formalised in 2016 with the signing of the logistics agreement (LEMOA), which gives America access to military bases in India and for its private military contractors to work from the Indian soil. India is unlikely to use American bases due to exorbitant costs and also because it would hardly fetch any strategic advantage.
Prime Minister Modi speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue at Singapore said “India does not see the Indo-Pacific as a strategy or as a club of limited members. Nor as a grouping that seeks to dominate. And by no means… as directed against any country.” However, many within the Indian government and strategic community view and say that the concept of Indo-Pacific is basically oriented towards ‘containing China’ and has a strong security element incorporated into it. The community wants India to shed the tag of a ‘reluctant power’ and gear up ‘to embrace a larger role in the far wider theatre of the Indo-Pacific.’ The Indo-China command with its headquarters in Hawaii, is seeing India as a lynchpin in its regional strategy. The US is expecting Japan to take lead in the Pacific and India to be in the vanguard in the Indian Ocean. As the responsibilities of the Command increase, a new regional headquarters may be opened in India. Indonesia is also a part of the US Indo-Pacific Rimland initiative, acting as a connecting point between Japan and India.
The Prime Minister Modi’s denial of Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept was based on the diplomatic necessity because immediately after the Singapore conference, he proceeded to China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), meeting. SCO is a Eurasian construct spearheaded by China and Russia, where India is cooperating with the two to promote free and fair trade on the land routes.
The contradictions in India’s policy are glaring. It is supporting America in containing Chinese maritime trade in the Indo-Pacific and supporting the expansion of Chinese trade through the silk routes passing through Central Asia. India is developing a base at Sabang Island in Indonesia and aggravating Chinese ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and on the other hand it is taking up “Joint Development” projects in Afghanistan with the Chinese. However, there is no denying the fact that the Indo-US relations are structurally more strong than the Sino-Indian or India-Russia relations.
Despite the bonhomie on the sea front, the Indo-US partnership is currently passing through a rough patch. The US has passed a fatwa asking all countries, including India, to reduce oil purchases from Iran to nil by November 4. If India fails to comply, its companies will be subjected to sanctions. China and India are the two principal buyers of Iranian crude oil. China is expected to resist the US fatwa against Iranian oil. India is likely to seek an exemption from America that is willing to overlook its investments in Chabahar port. However, it remains doubtful that the unilateral announcement of sanctions against Iran will succeed. The markets are likely to discover new ways to trade Iran oil amid sanctions, particularly as Iranian oil prices are likely to fall and be discounted as its pool of buyers shrink, making prices more attractive to the Chinese and other price-sensitive buyers.
China is likely to defy the ban because it has been in the forefront of defeating the dollar hegemony in international trade. Furthermore, the Iran oil ban may help China to acquire greater stakes in Iranian gas field. It is reported that Iran has threatened that it will sell the French company Total’s ‘stakes in the South Pars gas fields to China because the former has failed to protect Iranian oil from US nuclear-related sanctions. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), already controls 30 percent of the project, if Total quits then it is likely to gets the French company's 50.1 percent stake, and become the lead share holder.
Not only is the US dictating India to boycott Iran, it is also forcing India to abandon Russia as the chief supplier of its military equipment. The US doesn’t want India to buy S400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia and if India does not agree then it will be subjected to sanctions under the US municipal law called “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act” (CAATSA). The US wants India to be completely dependent on it for its military needs.
One needs to understand that the US is a big power and it demands much from its partners than the benefits it provides them, especially in an era when its power base is declining and it is desperately seeking to find new ways to ensure the continuity of its empire.
India has no reason to help a falling empire that has given the postwar world, deadly wars that have destroyed nations and promoted inequalities through universalisation of neo-liberalism. The ruling elite in India, the advocates of free market, have put India in a tight spot, where its strategic options are continuously diminishing. Military ties with the US will only increase India’s defence expenditure and lead it towards privatisation of our armed forces.