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How India is undoing China's string of pearls

By Nitin Gokhale
October 07, 2010 19:24 IST
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New Delhi's defence establishment has quietly put in place India's own counter-measures to woo and bolster China's neighbours as a long-term strategy, says Nitin Gokhale

One of the least understood and less scrutinised facets of India's diplomacy is perhaps New Delhi's 'Look East' policy, now nearly two decades old.

Launched during Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao's regime primarily to try and integrate India's newly liberalising economy with that of the Asian 'tigers', that policy is now quietly evolving into a more robust military-to-military partnership with important nations in that region.

Over the past three months alone, top Indian military leadership has made important trips to key nations in South-East and East Asia -- Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.

Indian Army chief General V K Singh was in Vietnam in July, furthering an already strong strategic relationship. General Singh's visit was the first in a decade by an Indian army chief.

Apart from meeting his Vietnamese counterpart, Deputy Chief of General Staff Pham Hong Loi, the Indian army chief discussed with Vietnam's National Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh, the road map to implement the 2009 memorandum of understanding between the two ministries of defence.

Two areas where India and Vietnam will focus their immediate attention were training of military personnel and dialogue between experts on strategic affairs on both sides.

General Singh's visit will be followed by Defence Minister A K Antony's mid-October trip to Hanoi when he will participate in the first-ever regional meeting of political leaders in the defence field.

As the current chair of ASEAN, Vietnam has invited India to the ASEAN+8 defence ministers meeting. The 10-member ASEAN will be joined by Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States at that important conclave.

Although Indo-Vietnam political and diplomatic ties can be traced back to Jawaharlal Nehru's time, it was only in the post 1990s that the two nations decided to build and strengthen military-to-military relationship.

This development was a result of two main reasons -- one historical, the other contemporary.

To begin with, both India and Vietnam had borne the brunt of Chinese aggression -- India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979.

And two, the collapse of the Soviet Union, for long a security guarantor for both India and Vietnam in Asia, left New Delhi and Hanoi without an all-weather, all-powerful friend.

Both India and Vietnam, who have long-pending territorial disputes with China thus decided to unite against their common adversary. Located on the edges of South-East Asia, Vietnam is ideally placed to prevent China's expansion into the South China Sea.

So, for over a decade now, India has been providing Vietnam with assistance in beefing up its naval and air capabilities in an attempt to deny China total supremacy in the South China Sea.

Both New Delhi and Hanoi traditionally sourced majority of their military hardware from the erstwhile Soviet Union. That commonality has meant that both can share expertise and resources available with their respective armed forces in terms of handling and maintaining the Soviet-era weaponry.

India, for instance, has repaired and upgraded over 100 MiG 21 planes of the Vietnamese Air Force and supplied them with enhanced avionics and radar systems. Indian Air Force pilots have also been training their Vietnamese counterparts.

The Indian Navy, by far larger than the Vietnamese navy, has been supplying critical spares to Hanoi for its Russian origin ships and missile boats.

After Antony's 2007 visit to Vietnam, the Indian and Vietnamese coast guards have engaged in joint patrols, and both navies participated in a joint exercise in 2007.

But Vietnam is not the only nation India is inching closer to in China's immediate neighbourhood.

Antony, who is fast emerging as a quiet but effective player in India's military diplomacy, in early September became the first Indian defence minister ever to visit South Korea, a pro-US, anti-China nation in the vicinity.

He led a top-notch team of military and civil officials like Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar, Vice-Admiral RK Dhowan, Lieutenant General K T Parnaik, DRDA Chief Controller C K Prahlada, and Sundaram Krishna, special adviser to the defence minister.

The visit was a follow-up on the declaration issued by both countries during President Lee Myung-bak's state visit to New Delhi in January, when it was decided to elevate bilateral relationship to a 'strategic partnership'.

Although nowhere near the level of Indo-Vietnam defence cooperation, the newly evolving India-South Korea partnership is being seen as a vital component of India's game plan to counter China's increasing footprint in the subcontinent.

Seoul is a perfect counter balance to the China-North Korea-Myanmar-Pakistan axis that New Delhi and US regard as a major irritant in the Asia-Pacific region.

Moving eastward, India is actively pursuing deeper defence cooperation with Japan. Last week, for the first time, India is expanding its defence ties with Japan, a newfound strategic partner in the region.

Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, chairman of India's Chiefs of Staff Committee, the senior-most Indian military officer, led an Indian delegation to Japan on September 28 to participate in the first military-to-military talks between the two countries.

Naik's visit comes just weeks ahead of a trip by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Tokyo in late October.

Naik's visit is a follow-up to Antony's discussions in Japan last year, when the two countries expressed their commitment to contribute to bilateral and regional cooperation, which in other words is an effort to build regional partnerships to counter the growing influence of China.

High level visits apart, the Indian Navy has been quite active in its friendly forays into the Pacific. A flotilla of Indian warships is about to complete a month-long deployment to the Pacific that included visits to Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

So while Indian strategic thinkers have been busy sounding frequent alarms over China's increasing forays into the Indian Ocean and have often overstated the fears of Beijing's 'String of Pearls' around India, New Delhi's defence establishment has quietly put in place India's own counter measures to woo and bolster China's neighbours as a long-term strategy.

Whatever the consequences of this strategy and counter-strategy, one thing is sure: The Indian Ocean and its periphery are poised to become the new playground for the 21st century version of the Great Game in the years to come.

Nitin Gokhale is Defence Editor, NDTV.

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