On May 17, The EurAsian Times had reported that “the US Hunting for More Military Bases to Cripple China; India One of the Options”.
Since the US Navy is said to be planning to deploy 60 percent of its surface ships in the Indo-Pacific, it wants safe territories in or the adjoining Arabian Sea, Andaman & Nicobar, and the Bay of Bengal for refueling and other logistic support.
In fact, the Pentagon has been looking for base opportunities in the Indo-Pacific since its 2004 Global Defense Posture Review (GDPR) plans that are “for increasing the number of overseas US facilities by replacing and supplementing large Cold War-era bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea with smaller facilities known as forward operating sites, or FOSs (small installations that can be rapidly built-up), and cooperative security locations, or CSLs (host-nation facilities with little U.S. personnel but with equipment and logistical capabilities), both of which can be activated when necessary.
These FOSs and CSLs will be used against sources of regional instability”.
India-US Defense Cooperations
As over the last 20 years in the sphere of defense, India and the United States have come a long way – from signing the New Framework for Defense Cooperation in June 2005 to become “major defense partners” in 2016, conducting the largest number of peace-time military exercises bilaterally every year (nearly 70), and concluding the three “basic agreements” of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) – it is argued that there are merits in the idea of India granting the US some base facilities.
Professor Amit Gupta of the United States Air Force’s Air War College, Alabama, argues that since the US is now India’s natural ally in protecting their common interests against China, “it is time to take the relationship to the next level and that means providing the US with a military base which would allow the US Navy to have a chokepoint to the Strait of Malacca, thereby putting pressure on Chinese maritime assets and its oil supply routes.”
Gupta adds, “Such an arrangement would also convince Washington that New Delhi is not just about long-winded speeches followed up by little substantive measures but is actually willing to help maintain the Asian security system” in the wake of the increasing acceptance of the geopolitical concept of “Indo-Pacific” and the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) of the two countries along with Japan and Australia.
India’s Nonalignment Policy
It may be argued that India’s traditional policy of nonalignment may come in the way of providing base facilities to another country. During the Cold War, India had reportedly rejected a proposal from Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Gorshkov for a naval base for the then Soviet Union and Moscow never raised the issue again. But non-alignment is no longer a viable foreign policy instrument; in fact, it has become untenable.
It may sound strange but it is true that nonalignment has never been defined in any nonaligned forum ever since its formal birth in 1961 at Belgrade, the capital of the then Yugoslavia. As a result, as the famous Yugoslavian diplomat, Leo Mates, had once remarked, “There are as many definitions of nonalignment as there are nonaligned countries and possibly even more”.
At its third summit at Lusaka in 1970, the NAM (Nonaligned Movement) declared its “aims” which sound like a summary of the “purposes” of the United Nations. But what is the point in explaining what one “will” do without describing what one “is”?
However, it is agreed that nonalignment is not a goal in itself but an instrument of foreign policy. But then as the goal of every country’s foreign policy is to promote and consolidate its national interests, it logically follows that a nonaligned country has got the same right to promote its national interests as anyone else.
Therefore, what is wrong if by concluding a security treaty or lending a military base, a nonaligned country wants to promote its national interests (augmenting economic, technological, and military power)?
Even during the height of the Cold War, most of the nonaligned countries had always committed to either the “East” (Moscow) or the “West” (Washington DC). This is evident from their voting pattern on major issues in the United Nations during that period.
Focus On Indo-Pacific
Viewed thus, if at this point of time India’s national interests will be better served by closely coordinating with fellow democracies in the Indo-Pacific (Japan, Australia, Republic of Korea, among others) in general and the United States in particular, and that includes proving base facilities, it should not be viewed as jettisoning Indian sovereignty. Doing so will be a superficial view.
Being members of NATO, France always and Turkey recently have displayed their strategic autonomy. Both have defied the US many a time. Turkey has ignored the US warnings and went ahead with buying Russian weapons (S–400 missiles). Similarly, Turkey refused to let the US troops use its territory to launch an offensive in northern Iraq in 2003.
South Korea, which has a formal security alliance with the US, has not hesitated to talk with communist North Korea and do business with China, much to the displeasure of Washington. These examples are illustrative, not exhaustive.
It is superficial to argue that countries having security treaty commitments, including base-facilities, with a powerful country lose their independence or strategic autonomy. It is not perhaps well-known that apart from providing military facilities to the US on its soil as a NATO member, Germany hosts also a base to the UK.
At its peak, the UK had more than 55,000 personnel stationed in West Germany with the potential to amass up to 150,000 in case a conflict had broken out. Now the number has considerably come down but the UK still maintains its Ayrshire Barracks in Mönchengladbach with the capacity to store 2,000 vehicles, with access to munitions. Does that mean Germany follows always the US in its global interactions or for that matter does it agree with the UK on the latter’s BREXIT policy?
The ‘Djibouti Model’
Forget about Germany, which is one of the leading and developed countries in the world. Even a tiny African nation Djibouti, which is strategically placed at the entrance to the Red Sea, is home to more foreign bases, that of rival powers, than any other country in the world.
Linking Africa and West Asia (Middle East) and opening out to Europe via the Suez Canal in the north, the Red Sea is of particular interest to the global markets; it is also the main passageway for Gulf oil to reach North America.
Since rising to power in 1999, President Ismael Omar Guellah opened up the economically fragile country to foreign powers seeking to lease land for military bases.
In return, the autocratic leader, who reformed the constitution in 2010 to expand the powers of the presidency and remove term limits, gained people’s support for the country’s economic gains from these bases that guarantee a level of stability and generates more than $300 million for the country annually.
As the former colonial power, France still has one of the largest concentrations of its overseas forces stationed in Djibouti.
After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States also established Camp Lemonnier—its only permanent military installation in Africa—in order to combat terrorist threats in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
The Italians also have their own base in this tiny country, while troops from Germany and Spain are hosted by the French.
Japan’s only foreign military base is also based in the capital Djibouti and is now set for expansion as a counterweight to China’s increasing influence.
However, ironically, in 2017, China became the latest country to open a military base in the ‘Horn of Africa’ nation. President Guellah must be a man of great talents to manage all these contradictions!
If anything, all the above examples underscore the point that entering into a more active security alliance with the United States will not mean India giving up its strategic autonomy and sovereignty. On the other hand, it will prove to be a great deterrent like nothing else to the Chinese hostility.