Page 1 of 2 NATO reaches into the Indian Ocean
By M K Bhadrakumar
The informal meeting of the defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) member countries in Budapest, Hungary, on October 9-10 was
notable for three reasons.
One, it was United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' last engagement
with his NATO counterparts. Unsurprisingly, there was curiosity whether Gates
would bring to bear on NATO's Afghan war any new thinking. But that was not to
be, as a strategy review is still underway in Washington.
Two, it emerged that the alliance sanctioned more muscle power for the war by
authorizing NATO to use force against Afghan poppy cultivators and drug
traffickers - a controversial decision
which troubles many member countries.
Three, the Budapest meet deliberated on issues regarding the transformation of
the alliance. Despite the global financial crisis, there was no loss of US
hegemony. The NATO-Georgia Commission, created at the US's insistence, met on
October 10 for the first time and the alliance reiterated its commitment to
continue the supervisory process set in hand at the Bucharest summit in April
"with a view to Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations". A somewhat vague
formulation short of Tbilisi's expectation, but a step forward nonetheless on
the path of the alliance's expansion as charted by the US.
A well-planned move
The most far-reaching decision at the Budapest meet was NATO's decision to
establish a naval presence in the Indian Ocean, ostensibly for protecting World
Food Program ships carrying relief for famine-stricken Somalia.
Announcing the decision on October 10, a NATO spokesman said, "The United
Nations asked for NATO's help to address this problem [piracy off Somalia's
coast]. Today, the ministers agreed that NATO should play a role. NATO will
have its Standing Naval Maritime Group, which is composed of seven ships, in
the region within two weeks." He added that NATO would work with "all allies
who have ships in the area now".
By October 15, seven ships from NATO navies had already transited the Suez
Canal on their way to the Indian Ocean. En route, they will conduct a series of
Persian Gulf port visits to countries neighboring Iran - Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar
and the United Arab Emirates, which are NATO's "partners" within the framework
of the so-called Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. The mission comprises ships
from the US, Britain, Germany, Italy, Greece and Turkey.
NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General John Craddock, acknowledged
that the mission furthers the alliance's ambition to become a global political
organization. He said, "The threat of piracy is real and growing in many parts
of the world today, and this response is a good illustration of NATO's ability
to adapt quickly to new security challenges."
Evidently, NATO has been carefully planning its Indian Ocean deployment. The
speed with which it dispatched the ships betrays an element of haste, likely
anticipating that some among the littoral states in the Indian Ocean region
might contest such deployment by a Western military alliance. By acting with
lightning speed and without publicity, NATO surely created a fait accompli.
String of coincidences
By any reckoning, NATO's naval deployment in the Indian Ocean region is a
historic move and a milestone in the alliance's transformation. Even at the
height of the Cold War, the alliance didn't have a presence in the Indian
Ocean. Such deployments almost always tend to be open-ended.
In retrospect, the first-ever visit by a NATO naval force in mid-September last
year to the Indian Ocean was a full-dress rehearsal to this end. Brussels said
at that time, "The aim of the mission is to demonstrate NATO's capability to
uphold security and international law on the high seas and build links with
regional navies." In 2007, a NATO naval force visited Seychelles in the Indian
Ocean and Somalia and conducted exercises in the Indian Ocean and then
re-entered the Mediterranean via the Red Sea in end-September.
The NATO deployment has already had some curious fallout. In an interesting
coincidence, on October 16, just as the NATO force was reaching the Persian
Gulf, an Indian Defense Ministry spokesman announced in New Delhi, "The
[Indian] government today approved deployment of an Indian naval warship in the
Gulf of Aden to patrol the normal route followed by Indian-flagged ships during
passage between Salalah in Oman and Aden in Yemen. "The patrolling is
The timing seems deliberate. Media reports indicated that the government had
been working on this decision for several months. Like NATO, Delhi also acted
fast when the time came, and an Indian ship has already set sail. Delhi
initially briefed the media that the deployment came in the wake of an incident
of Somali pirates hijacking a Japanese-owned merchant vessel on August 15,
which had 18 Indians on board. But later, it backtracked and gave a broader
connotation, saying, "However, the current decision to patrol African waters is
not directly related [to the incident in August]."
The Indian statement said, "The presence of an Indian navy warship in this area
will be significant as the Gulf of Aden is a major strategic choke point in the
Indian Ocean region and provides access to the Suez Canal through which a
sizeable portion of India's trade flows."
Indian officials said the warship would work in cooperation with the Western
navies deployed in the region and would be supplemented with a larger force if
need and that it would be well equipped. But Delhi obfuscated the fact that the
Western deployment will be under the NATO flag and any cooperation with the
Western navies will involve the Western alliance. Given the traditional Indian
policy to steer clear of military blocs, Delhi is understandably sensitive.
Clearly, the Indian warship will eventually have to work in tandem with the
NATO naval force. This will be the first time that the Indian armed forces will
be working shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO forces in actual operations in
territorial or international waters.
The operations hold the potential to shift India's ties with NATO to a
qualitatively new level. The US has been encouraging India to forge ties with
NATO as well as play a bigger role in maritime security affairs. The two
countries have a bilateral protocol relating to cooperation in maritime
security, which was signed in 2006. It says at the outset, "Consistent with
their global strategic partnership and the new framework for their defense
relationship, India and the United States committed themselves to comprehensive
cooperation in ensuring a secure maritime domain. In doing so, they pledged to
work together, and with other regional partners as necessary."
The Indian Navy command has been raring to go in the direction of close
partnership with the US Navy in undertaking security responsibilities far
beyond its territorial waters. The two navies have instituted an annual
large-scale annual exercise in the Indian Ocean - the Malabar exercises. This
year's exercises are currently under way along India's western coast.
Russia reviving base
To be sure, the littoral states would have taken note of the scrambling by NATO
and India to deploy naval forces on a sea route that is crucial for the
countries of the Asian region. Trade and imports of oil by China pass through
this sea lane. All the same, China has merely reported on the NATO deployment
without any comments. Russia, on the other hand, didn't bother to report but
preferred to swiftly respond.
Last Tuesday, even as the NATO naval force left for the Indian Ocean, it was
stated in Moscow that a missile frigate from Russia's Baltic fleet - aptly
named Neustrashimy [Fearless] - was already heading to the Indian Ocean
"to fight piracy off Somalia's coast". Moscow claimed that the Somali
government sought Russian assistance.
Two days later, on Thursday, as the Indian Defense Ministry was making its
announcement, it was revealed by the speaker of the Upper House of the Russian
parliament, Segei Mironov, an influential politician close to the Kremlin, that
Russia might resume its Soviet-era naval presence in Yemen. Interestingly,
Mironov made the announcement while on a visit to Sana, Yemen. He said Yemen
sought Russia's help to fight piracy and possible terrorist threats and that a
decision would be taken in Moscow to respond in accordance with the "new
direction" of Russia's foreign and defense policies.
"It is possible that the aspects of using Yemen ports not only for visits by
Russia warships but also for more strategic goals will be considered," Mironov
said. He further revealed that a visit by the president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah
Saleh, to Moscow is scheduled in the near future and the issue of
military-technical cooperation will be on the agenda. Significantly, Mironov
explained that Yemen had threat perception regarding groups affiliated to
al-Qaeda, which might be hiding in the Somalia region. (The Soviet Union had a
major naval base in the former South Yemen, which merged with North Yemen in
1990 to form the present-day Yemen.)