Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a fourth round of formal meetings with President Obama in Washington from 6th to 8th June. The pre-meeting activities in the South Block and Capitol Hill found frequent mention in the press, both in the U.S and India. The joint agreement release, both from the White House and the Indian MEA, needs to be read carefully not just at the surface but also between the lines. The future direction of all the agreed points is of much significance although outcomes may not be visible immediately.
1. During the run up to MOBAMA 4 an agreement was signed in Delhi for an arrangement between Intelligence Bureau’s Multi-Agency Centre (MAC) and U.S’s Terrorist Screening Centre for the exchange of Terrorist Screening Information. The urgency of the agreement can be gauged by the fact that the US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma signed it with the Indian Home Secretary Rajiv Mehrishi on June 2, 2016, just a couple of days before the Ambassador was to leave for Washington. The MAC gathers terrorist-related data from Intelligence agencies and shares it in a joint forum to bring all government agencies on the same grid. In turn these are translated into effective operational mechanisms. This arrangement with the U.S could help in establishing linkages between terror attacks in India and terror activities elsewhere for which the U.S is actively involved in counter-mechanisms.
There is immense potential in this cooperative relationship. There are established linkages amongst Al Qaida, the Haqqani network, LeT, JeM, ETIM, D company, Afghan Taliban and others since terror financing heads use the same networks for different objectives. The immediate visible outcome of the agreement in Delhi was the MOU signed in Washington on International Expedited Traveler Initiative or the Global Entry Program, which would have been difficult for the U.S to agree to in the absence of the earlier information initiative.
2. The Technical Arrangement between the Indian Navy and the U.S Navy concerning unclassified Maritime Information Sharing on White Shipping was signed on May 26, 2016. This again is more important than what is evident in the first glance. The operative clause of the agreement is a “framework for mutually beneficial maritime information”. Maritime trade regulations in the world have been kept relatively relaxed to encourage sea trade. However, this same openness and a thriving sea-borne logistics chain have also allowed terror groups to easily travel and support to their operations worldwide. For instance, Al Qaida operatives have used a container onboard a ship for their own movement; the 2008 Mumbai attack was facilitated by boats; a merchant ship was used to carry North Korean equipment for nuclear reactor turbines to Pakistan (but was intercepted by Indian Maritime Forces) etc. The distinction between peaceful commercial passage and the use of this means for terror or illegal activities has become blurred. The Indo-U.S arrangement will strengthen the two countries’ data bases and facilitate implementation of spot security measures in the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). Strengthened Maritime Domain Awareness will be an essential ingredient for commencement of any offensive action at sea.
3. The final draft for Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) is ready and will be signed shortly. The original agreement had left many apprehensions un-addressed; therefore it had been in limbo since 2006. The fact that the U.S has accommodated those concerns and re-named the document is indicative of the growing political convergence between the oldest and largest democracies of the world. There has been much debate over whether LEMOA will give U.S leeway to base their troops in India and use it as a staging post between the Gulf and the Pacific. However, any such activity is subject to the discretion of the Indian Government. Though the text of the agreement is not in the public domain yet, the agreement would facilitate easier berthing, fueling, back-up to US ships and aircraft transiting (through the area or while being part of joint exercises). The provision of stocking equipment and repair facilities could be included which would support Make in India projects in the defense manufacturing sector.
4. There is an agreement on a U.S-India Cyber Relationship, the first such document that the U.S has signed with any foreign power. Though the details are yet to emerge, it will help the two countries to work together to shape, protect and advance cyber norms globally and it will help each country protect its own information and infrastructure from cyber attacks as well. Both countries, for instance, have been on the receiving end of China-based cyber attacks.
PM Modi’s address in the U.S Congress had its desired effect on the political front. Republican Senator Paul Ryan, speaker of the House of Representatives, said “I think the Indian government is going to be an ally of ours and we have better security cooperation with them. That is one thing we need to nurture and grow…India and U.S have a great potential for the future, particularly with the seas, in the Pacific and in the Indian Ocean… making sure that we help police the global commons and international order, namely China building runways on islands in contested waters “
There remain two issues which the U.S needs to address with regards to Maritime security in the Indian Ocean region-
Firstly, while the pivot to Asia and the rebalance adequately addresses the region on the eastern seaboard of Indian subcontinent, the policy ignores the Indian concerns on her western seaboard. Herein lies the terrorism-infested region in the adjoining hinterland: the countries on either side of the Gulf and north of the Arabian Sea. The world’s key energy waterways pass through this region and are constantly under threat. The Maritime Silk Route of China will also invariably result in increased presence of Chinese naval combatants. The port of Gwadar is under Chinese control, a port which sits astride one of the most important choke points in the world, the Straits of Hormuz. Chinese combatants will begin to use Gwadar port on a more permanent basis, putting the Fifth Fleet and the passage of US Naval combatants under constant surveillance. China is soon going to base her ships and submarines at Djibouti as well, another important choke point.
Second, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) falls under the responsibility of two different commands of the U.S, namely Pacific and Central whereas it is in the Western Seaboard of India where lies Indian Navy’s bigger operational role. The U.S, with respect to expected increase in Chinese presence, must shift to creating security mechanisms in this part of IOR. At present the Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain does not have any joint exercise mechanism with India’s Western Fleet because it is the Pacific command which operates with the Indian Navy on the eastern theatre towards Malacca straits in pursuance of the Asia pivot. The time has come to comprehensively address the emerging security scenario in the entire IOR and ensure security of global commons in the SLOCs and the at-risk Straits of Hormuz.