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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Notes for the Paso Doble
An overview of past and present India-US maritime relationship
Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (retd)
By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (retd)

In the run-up to the forthcoming historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US in September, it seems particularly pertinent for this edition of ‘Maritime Meanders’ to amble through some of the past and present (and even discern some element of the future) of the maritime component of the India-US defence relationship.

Reviewing the development of maritime relationships between India and the US is amazingly like witnessing a particularly good performance of the Paso Doble (pronounced Pass-oh-dobe-lay). With its lively flurry of movements between the dancing couples being interspersed by utterly frozen moments and periods of apparent apathy and near-abandonment of the dance altogether, the Paso Doble (Spanish for ‘double-step’) is one of the more intriguing of dance forms. Its stirring music is drawn from the traditional bullfights of Spain and Portugal, and is often associated with the bullfighter’s entrance into the ring (paseo) or during the passes (faena) between the matador (the bullfighter) with his cape, and the bull. As in the Paso Doble, India and the US enter the maritime arena to huge anticipation of a watching world that awaits the realisation of the enormous potential of synergy being achieved between the oldest and the largest democracies. There is a wondrous complexity to the fevered military, economic, diplomatic and political energy and yet, just when the rush of events reaches a crescendo, there is a freezing of all movement. There are moments when it seems all too apparent that the intensity of the dance has exhausted both partners and that the show is over — and yet, time and again, the dancers take their global audience totally by surprise, renewing the whirls and swirls, the graceful passes, the headlong-rushes, the lithe agility and the sheer heart-stopping intensity of their activity. The India-US ‘dance’ is, indeed, a Paso Doble.

The military steps of this ‘dance of democracies’ were first given formal structure in 1991. (Readers wishing to get a feel of the geo-political context of the time would do well to glance through the Asian Security Studies 2007 publication entitled ‘US-Indian Strategic Cooperation Into the 21st Century: More Than Words’). The Cold War had just ended dramatically and, much to the discomfiture of India — still reeling from the shock of the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — the Soviet Union rapidly moved from geography into history! It was in this year that Lt General Claude M Kicklighter, (who was then the commander of the Western Army — the army component of the United States Pacific Command), formally mooted a comprehensive cooperation plan, which led to the formation of ‘Executive Steering Groups’ (ESG) — one for each of the three armed forces of India that would facilitate and oversee the India-US bilateral defence cooperation. Even though General Kicklighter’s proposal was focussed upon cooperation between the Indian and US armies, this was always going to be overtaken by maritime cooperation effected through a rapid series of ‘navy-to-navy’ interactions. Indeed, the first meeting of the Navy ESG took place in 1992 itself.

Initial activities concentrated upon annual naval exercises (these became known as the Malabar Series and were held in 1992, 1995 and 1996) and bilateral interactions involving Special Force operations (the first joint exercise between MARCOs of the Indian Navy and USN SEALS was held in Ratnagiri in September 1995). There are at least four fairly obvious reasons for this:

• Under the late Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao, India’s economy was liberalised and changed from an inward-leaning one to an outward leaning one. In this context, I have earlier quoted (see ‘Maritime Meanders’ in the February 2014 edition of FORCE magazine) the globally renowned Chinese analyst, Professor Lexiong Ni, who has stated with remarkable prescience, “when a nation embarks upon a process of shifting from an ‘inward-leaning economy’ to an ‘outward-leaning economy’, the arena of national security concerns begins to move to the oceans. This is a phenomenon in history that occurs so frequently that it has almost become a rule rather than an exception.”

• With their historical and well-established ability to discard the complex steps of diplomatic formalities and niceties, navies are able to interact on the international level with a degree of ease and mutual comfort that is difficult for armies or even air forces to emulate. This discomfort was especially marked in the case of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF), which had remained focussed solely upon national borders with little or no international exposure barring their participation in occasional UN missions. The Indian Navy, on the other hand, has been interacting professionally with regional and extra-regional navies ever since the country’s independence, participating in multilateral exercises such as the annual Joint Exercises Trincomalee (JET). Capitalising upon the camaraderie — that loose but enduring international brotherhood — inherent amongst naval personnel across the world, the Indian Navy has long been accustomed to its diplomatic role and has routinely operated in distant waters and carried the flag to distant lands.

• Naval exercises occur offshore and are generally far removed from the attentions of what are often termed ‘reflexive anti-American political constituencies’.

• Special Forces interaction — particularly that involving navies (Indian Navy MARCOs and US Navy SEALS, for instance) — is, by its very nature, conducted on a relatively small scale, with considerable care being taken to avoid all forms of publicity.

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