US links pact to tracking Chinese submarines

The US has linked India's ability to detect Chinese submarines in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea to the signing of an agreement that will permit sensors and equipment on US planes to talk and share data with those on Indian warships and planes.

  • Published 19.01.17

New Delhi, Jan. 18: The US has linked India's ability to detect Chinese submarines in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea to the signing of an agreement that will permit sensors and equipment on US planes to talk and share data with those on Indian warships and planes.

The chief of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, has also flagged concerns on China-Bangladesh military relations alongside worries over China-Pakistan military ties. Bangladesh took delivery of a refurbished Chinese Ming-class submarine last month.

The US Pacific Command includes India and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in its area of responsibility. Admiral Harris was talking to a select group of journalists after briefings he took and gave in Washington DC recently.

"My meetings with the President-elect's (Donald Trump) and the National Security Council team last week underscore the seriousness of the way they view the region with great importance. I am reassured over where the new teams are on the relationship with India".

The Indian and the US Navies operate the P8A and the P8i maritime surveillance aircraft, he pointed out.

"With COMCASA, the P8 aircraft would do more interoperable activity. P8A and P8i are not completely interoperable against the kind of subs (submarines) we were talking about," he said.

Admiral Harris was replying to a question on how the signing of the COMCASA would take India-US military-to-military relations forward tangibly. Earlier, responding to another question on reports of an increased deployment of Chinese submarines in waters around India, Admiral Harris said: "We work closely with India to improve India's capability. (There is the) Malabar (exercise) that now (also includes) Japan... we are getting better together with our ability to track Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean Region. There is sharing of information on Chinese maritime movements. I am not getting into specifics beyond that."

COMCASA stands for Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). It is currently a reworded draft of the CISMOA --- Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement - that was first proposed by the US in 2004 as one of four "foundational agreements" for increased military cooperation.

Two of the agreements have been signed: an End-User Verification and Monitoring Agreement, whose text was frozen in 2007, and a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), a renamed India-specific Logistics Support Agreement, that was signed in August last year. The COMCASA and a proposed Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement on Geo-Spatial information (BECA) are on the table.

Admiral Harris said he believed the COMCASA would be clinched before the BECA but he would not give a timeline.

India's hesitation so far in signing the agreements is a suspicion in the military and the bureaucracy that they might be too intrusive. Meaning, they want provisions that may allow US military personnel or US software that may intervene with Indian assets to be taken off.

In August, after signing the LEMOA, defence minister Manohar Parrikar himself alluded to this. "It has taken 12-13 years for this (the LEMOA); we will come to the next after we have explained this to the public and then take a decision", he had said.

The US Pacific Commander-in-Chief said a Chinese aircraft carrier battlegroup could operate in the Indian Ocean Region today. But "effectiveness may be a different issue (because) India has far more experience and expertise in operating aircraft carriers". The Chinese Peoples' Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has one carrier refurbished from a Russian vessel, the Liaoning. It is building a second.

Admiral Harris said that India should be concerned about increasing Chinese influence in the region.

"I am not a Centcom (US Central Command) guy; I am a Pacom (Pacific Command) guy. I believe the China-Pakistan relationship and also the China-Bangladesh relationship is of some concern. By that, I do believe that a strong and prosperous China is not a bad thing".

Pakistan is in the US Centcom's area of responsibility, unlike India which is in the Pacific Command area of responsibility.

Pakistan is understood to be in talks with China to procure between six and eight submarines. "We are not involved but we are watching it closely. Our relationship with Pakistan is like our relationship with India - they stand on their own merits," he said.

The Admiral explained that the US "rebalance" to Asia - part of the Obama doctrine that saw military deployments in the Asia-Pacific region increase - would not immediately fade away with the Trump Presidency. He said the military component of that policy has involved deploying 60 per cent of US naval assets in the region and a substantial increase in deployments of the US air force and the US army. "They might stop using the term 'rebalance'" he said.

Earlier, speaking at the Raisina Dialogue, a series of speeches on foreign and strategic policies hosted by the ministry of external affairs and think-tank Observer Research Foundation, Admiral Harris said "I do want to reassure you that the US values the Indo Pacific and the view that Secretary Carter (US defence secretary in the Obama administration) has will continue in the new administration."

Last year, at the same event, Admiral Harris had called for joint India-US patrols in the Asia-Pacific region. The public-airing of the proposal somewhat embarrassed the Indian government because it did not want to project that a military alliance was in the making.