India has ruled out the possibility of undertaking any joint naval patrolling or hopping on board a quadrilateral security dialogue in the Asia Pacific region, which has been proposed by the US as a counter to China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and elsewhere. “Till now, India has never participated in joint patrolling. We do participate in joint exercises. So, the question of joint patrolling at this stage does not arise”, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said in New Delhi on March 4 when asked on being asked about a statement by US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris.

His opinion is in line with New Delhi’s policy of keeping away from any such grouping that may anger China which is locked in a territorial dispute with six other nations. India will, however, take part in Malabar naval exercise with the US and Japan off the Japanese coast in the Pacific in June-July. However, Parrikar refused to comment on reports that India was close to signing the “foundational agreements”: Logistics Support Agreement, Communications and Information Security Memorandum and Agreement and Basic Exchange and Cooperation for geospatial intelligence with the US.

Speaking at a function in New Delhi on March 2, Admiral Harris invited India to join in a four-nation grouping to jointly patrol seas and air space over contested waters. Speaking at Raisina Dialogue, he said, ‘India, Japan, Australia, the US, and so many other like-minded nations can aspire to a patrol together anywhere as international law allows”. He said the idea of safeguarding freedom of access to international waters and air space is not something new to ponder.

US may not stand up-to India

Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary examines India’s options in the disputed South China Sea where China is in conflict with its neighbours.

While India has demonstrated its concerns about freedom of navigation and has called for observance of the international conventions on the law of the sea, in a significant advance in its strategic thinking, India has also “recognized the link between the security of the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific and has endorsed Japan’s Indo-Pacific concept. In Asia’s geopolitical chessboard, the increasing convergence of Indian and US thinking on Asia-Pacific issues is important. During Modi’s visit to the US in September 2014, India showed strategic boldness in accepting a commitment to work more closely with other Asia-Pacific countries, including through joint exercises, which pointed implicitly to Japan and Australia, and even Vietnam. During Barack Obama’s India visit in January 2015, the U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region that was signed affirmed the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea. It foresaw that over the next five years, the two countries would strengthen their regional dialogues, invest in making trilateral consultations with third countries in the region more robust and deepen regional integration. Noting India’s “Act-East” policy and the US’s rebalance to Asia, the leaders committed to work more closely with other Asia Pacific countries through consultations, dialogues, and joint exercises”.

Sibal however cautions that “the underlying reality of the US pivot towards Asia can, however, be doubted. The intensive trade and finance relationship that the US has with China impairs its willingness and capacity to circumscribe the latter’s rise. China can take advantage of its rising strength vis-à-vis the US by challenging it strategically in the western Pacific incrementally, staying always below the level of open confrontation and avoiding crossing a threshold that would oblige the US to react. The US will always counsel restraint and moderation to China and recall its defence obligations to countries in the region, in the hope that the Chinese will listen and limit their geo-strategic ambitions. But if in the future the US finds its power in the region being effectively challenged, will the US settle for a G-2, which is the underlying sense of President Xi’s concept of a new great power relationship between the two countries? India and others would have problems with that eventuality”.

He says “China’s land threat to India and the strengthening of the China-Pakistan axis are much more serious for us than its maritime claims that impinge on the US and Asean interests. Unlike in the case of these countries that can collectively counter China’s expansive claims under US wings, India is alone in dealing with the Chinese threat. The US is not geo-politically involved in India’s territorial differences with China. India also notes that the US wants to rope India into its rebalancing policy focused on the western Pacific, ignoring security threats to India from Tibet and through Pakistan, not to mention China’s maritime Silk Road strategy in the Indian Ocean involving Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan”.

He concludes that although India has a major interest in freedom of navigation and unimpeded trade flows in the South China Sea, “any talk of the US and India doing joint patrolling in the South China Sea would be excessive. We may have a joint strategic vision with the US on the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions, but that can be pursued without India seeking to intervene in this area way beyond what the Asean and Japan are ready to do militarily”.

Joint patrolling with US not without dangers

The Tribune also disagrees with the idea of India conducting joint patrols with the US, Australia and Japan. “The prime reason is this concept militates against India’s approach to foreign policy. It is just not in India’s interest to explore a quasi military alliance with the US when it is in the process of building bridges with China whom Pentagon wants to intimidate with outside help. Second, it is not even America’s priority to furthering this type of relationship with India, at least not at this moment. The US is busy ensuring easier access of its military hardware to the Indian market and refueling facilities. Third, India is still building its naval strength and such forays to meet US national interest will spike antagonism from other countries and would also result in needless wear and tear of its assets.

“It is for these very reasons that an earlier initiative during the Bush era had collapsed after a single airing……. The West’s enormous economic linkages with China still endure and there is the risk that India will be left in the lurch if the two protagonists elect to settle their differences through dialogue. Moreover, China can respond in kind through very low-cost provocations, as in the past, by simply dispatching a submarine to dock in neighbouring ports. Greater clarity about US-India intentions in regional security will be forthcoming when US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visits India next month though the proposal for now seems to have been nipped in the bud”.