India and US were involved in a joint naval exercise, along with navies of Japan, France and Australia in the eastern Indian Ocean region, in the La Pérouse exercise between April 5 and April 7. (Source: Twitter/@USNavy)
On April 7, the US Navy put out a rather quixotic announcement on the official website of its Seventh Naval Fleet stating that one of its ships, USS John Paul Jones, had asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands inside India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), without requesting Delhi’s prior consent. It went on to declare that the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) are not about one country, nor are they about making political statements.
Several elements of the Seventh Fleet entering Indian waters without permission touch on emotive issues for India with attendant overtones of patriotism. The fact that these FONOPs have happened earlier does not, in any manner, normalise what happened on April 7 — or, for that matter, why the Seventh Fleet courted ignominy half a century ago.
Herein hangs a tale. As the Indo-Pakistan conflict over the genocide in the then East Pakistan looked inevitable, US President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser (NSA) Henry Kissinger decided that if push came to shove, they would weigh in on West Pakistan’s side. This was notwithstanding the fact that the US administration was fully cognizant of the grave human rights violations being perpetrated by the Pakistani army in the east of the country.
Consistent with the plan in November 1971, Henry Kissinger advised his Deputy NSA General Alexander Haig to direct the US Navy to keep an aircraft-carrier-led task force ready for deployment in the Indian Ocean.
As the tide of war turned against Pakistan, US Navy’s Task Force-74 of the Seventh Fleet led by the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise was ordered to sail at battle speed into the Bay of Bengal from the Gulf of Tonkin where it was then deployed for operations in the Vietnam war. Concurrently, the British Navy also dispatched a naval group led by the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle towards the west coast of India.
An audacious and coordinated “grand bluff” to intimidate India was thus operationalised. British ships in the Arabian Sea would engage Indian naval assets, thereby providing a distraction for the US Task Force-74 to make a dash for the coast of East Pakistan to reinforce the pulverised Pakistani positions. The objective being to force an immediate ceasefire and stop Dhaka from falling into Indian hands.
Obviously, this caused great consternation in India. Articulating India’s position, Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram thundered: “Even if the US were to send the 70th fleet, we would still not be deterred”.
However, on the ground, the situation was grim. Facing the British and the American Armada was Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet commanded by its aircraft carrier Vikrant with barely 20 light fighter aircrafts. The Indian Air Force would provide the rest of the muscle.
Invoking the Indo-Soviet Treaty signed on August 9, 1971, India requested the Soviet Union for help to call out the Nixon-Kissinger chicanery. The Soviets responded with alacrity. The 10th Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet) commanded by Admiral Vladimir Kruglyakov slipped anchor at Vladivostok and in double quick time reached the Bay of Bengal. The Soviets stared down the Anglo-American flotilla and the rest is history. However, the American perfidy at that critical moment is indelibly imprinted in the collective Indian psyche.
Since then, India and the US have become friends if not allies. The Quad between US, Japan, Australia and India is plugged as the fulcrum of a future Asian NATO. India and US have signed foundational agreements for better interoperability between their respective militaries. Since the Indian nuclear tests of 1998, there has been better appreciation of each other’s strategic imperatives. The US, by its own admission, has supported India logistically in eastern Ladakh.
However, it seems the understanding has not permeated deep enough to understand each other’s psyche, if not sensibilities. In the fiftieth year of the creation of Bangladesh, to sail a Seventh Fleet vessel in defiance of Indian law through our EEZ, and then advertise it is downright obtuse, if not intended to send out a message to India and the larger Indo-Pacific region. For the manoeuvre is not as innocent as it is being made to look.
The Joe Biden administration’s appreciation of the Indo-Pacific and India’s place in it is very different from that of its predecessor. While Trump saw India as an important instrument to counter the growing Chinese influence in the region, President Biden has a more nuanced, if not a softer, approach towards Beijing. The manner in which FONOP was broadcast is obviously to smoothen ruffled Chinese feathers over similar operations in the South China Sea that the US has been regularly undertaking.
Given that India and China are still locked in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in eastern Ladakh, such posturing by the US does not augur well for India. Even our “time-tested ally” Russia wants to balance its position in South Asia given our “closeness” to the US, as evidenced by the Quad and our approach to Afghanistan that is more aligned to the US position than what Moscow is proposing. India will do well to weigh its options far more carefully. A stitch in time saves nine.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 14, 2021 under the title ‘American fleet and Indian waters’. The writer is a Congress leader, lawyer, MP and former Union Information and Broadcasting Minister