Since the government changed in Sri Lanka in January 2015, the US has “significantly” strengthened its military engagement with the island nation, particularly with the Sri Lankan Navy, says the latest US Department of Defence Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR).
The report, dated June 1, 2019,says that 2017 saw the first port visit in 30 years by a U.S. aircraft carrier – the USS NIMITZ Carrier Strike Group – and the first ever bilateral Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise.
“In 2019, we increased cooperation on mutual logistics arrangements in support of Indian Ocean security and disaster response,” the report said.
The report does not mention the Access and Cross Services Agreement (ACSA) renewed in 2017. Of course the on-going negotiations on the controversial Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) do not find a place.
India gets unique designation
The report, which details US Department of Defence’s relations with several countries in the Indo-Pacific Region, is effusive on India.
It says that the US and India maintain a “broad-based strategic partnership, underpinned by shared interests, democratic values, and strong people-to-people ties.”
“The U.S.-India strategic partnership has strengthened significantly during the past two decades, based on a convergence of strategic interests.”
“The United States and India continue to use their deepening relationship to build new partnerships within and beyond the Indo-Pacific,”the DoD report says.
In June 2016, the United States designated India a “Major Defence Partner, a status “unique to India”. The designation seeks to elevate the U.S. defence partnership with India “to a level commensurate with that of the United States’ closest allies and partners.”
“The establishment of the U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in September 2018 also serves as a tangible demonstration of our commitment to promoting the shared principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
“The United States continues to pursue a range of initiatives with India to enable cooperation, strengthen our inter-operability, and establish a strong foundation for defense trade, technology sharing, industrial collaboration, and broader cooperation on defence innovation,” the report says.
Indo-US Communications Pact
Hailing the Indo-US communication pact signed in 2018, the report said that the “Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement represents a significant development in our military-to-military relationship, facilitating greater inter-operability and real-time secure information-sharing.”
“The Department of Defence (DOD) and the Indian Ministry of Defence are increasing the scope, complexity, and frequency of our military exercises.Later this year, the United States and India will conduct our first tri-service exercise, and we continue to collaborate on maritime security and domain awareness, HA/DR, counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, and other transnational issues.”
US$ 16 billion Military Sales to India
Since 2008, the US had sold military equipment worth US$ 16 billion to India. But this is worded as “bilateral defence trade”.
“As the shared interests of the US and India and security cooperation have expanded, U.S.- India bilateral defence trade and technology cooperation have also grown, with approximately US$16 billion in defence trade since 2008.”
“Through the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, we are increasing cooperation in defence technology, building industry-to industry ties, and identifying opportunities for the co-development and co-production of defence systems for the sustainment and modernization of military forces,” the report said.
Military Aid For Maldives
The US expanded its military ties with the Maldives after the recent “democratic transition in the Maldives,” giving it US$ 7 million in aid for the modernization of its security forces and for increasing domain awareness, the report says.
“The United States has begun to explore avenues to expand security cooperation, with particular emphasis on providing capacity-building opportunities to the Maldives National Defense Forces and Maldivian Coast Guard. Key areas of focus include: maritime domain awareness (MDA), to enable Maldivian forces the ability to monitor and patrol its sovereign maritime area and contribute to regional efforts to protect sea lines of communication; HA/DR readiness; and counter-terrorism capability. “
“An additional $7 million in FY 2018 Foreign Military Financing (FMF) will support these efforts,” the report said.
Strong Relations With Bangladesh
The United States enjoys a “strong” defence relationship with Bangladesh, an “important partner” for regional stability and security, the report says.
Security cooperation focuses on key areas such as maritime security and domain awareness, counter terrorism, HA/DR, peacekeeping, and border security.
“The annual Bilateral Defence Dialogue between USINDOPACOM and the Bangladesh Armed Forces Division sets the strategic direction of our defence relationship. In addition, recent increases in FMF, International Military Education and Training (IMET), and the inclusion of Bangladesh in the Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) underscore not only the value the United States places on its defence partnership with Bangladesh, but also Dhaka’s contributions towards regional stability in support of upholding a rules-based international order in South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.”
Since 2008, the US had sold military equipment worth US$ 16 billion to India. But this is worded as “bilateral defence trade”
Room For Expansion in Nepal
The United States seeks to expand its defence relationship with Nepal. Cooperation is not focused on HA/DR, peace-keeping operations, defence professionalization, ground force capacity, and counter-terrorism.
“Our growing defense partnership can be seen in the establishment of the U.S. Army Pacific-led Land Forces Talks in June 2018, our senior-most military dialogue with Nepal. This year has already seen several senior-level visits to Nepal by the USINDOPACOM Commander and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for South and Southeast Asia to further advance our defense relationship,” the report said.
Expectedly, China has come in for very harsh criticism in the US report.
“Today, the Indo-Pacific increasingly is confronted with a more confident and assertive China that is willing to accept friction in the pursuit of a more expansive set of political, economic, and security interests,” the report says.
It pointed out that no country has benefited more from the free and open regional and international system than China, which has witnessed the rise of hundreds of millions from poverty to growing prosperity and security.
“But while the Chinese people aspire to free markets, justice, and the rule of law, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), undermines the international system from within by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously eroding the values and principles of the rules-based order,” the report charged.
It recalls that “Chinese nationals acting in association with the Chinese Ministry of State Security were recently indicted for conducting global campaigns of cyber theft that targeted intellectual property and confidential business and technological information at managed service providers.”
Militarization of Seas
The DoD said that China has continued to militarize the South China Sea by placing anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands and employing paramilitary forces in maritime disputes vis-à-vis other claimants.
“China additionally employs non-military tools coercively, including economic tools, during periods of political tensions with countries that China accuses of harming its national interests,” the report alleges.
“As China continues its economic and military ascendance, it seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and, ultimately global pre-eminence in the long-term.”
“China is investing in a broad range of military programs and weapons, including those designed to improve power projection; modernize its nuclear forces; and conduct increasingly complex operations in domains such as cyberspace, space, and electronic warfare operations. “
No country has benefited more from the free and open regional and international system than China
“China is also developing a wide array of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, which could be used to prevent countries from operating in areas near China’s periphery, including the maritime and air domains that are open to use by all countries,” the report says.
In the East China Sea, China patrols near the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands with maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft. These actions endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability.
“Such activities are inconsistent with the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the report asserts.
Low Level Coercion
Simultaneously, China is engaged in a campaign of “low-level coercion” to assert control of disputed spaces in the region, particularly in the maritime domain.
“China is using a steady progression of small, incremental steps in the ‘gray zone’ between peaceful relations and overt hostilities to secure its aims, while remaining below the threshold of armed conflict,”the report alleges.