Gunboat diplomacy: In ’71 the United States tried to threaten India, now it’s backing it

USA
(This story originally appeared in on Jul 20, 2020)

WASHINGTON: How times change. Nearly 50 years after then US President Richard Nixon ordered the Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India in the face of its imminent victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war, Washington has sent the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Nimitz to the same waters in a show of solidarity with New Delhi amid tensions both countries face with China.

Currently the world’s largest aircraft carrier, Nimitz sailed into the Bay of Bengal on Monday to be greeted by the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command for what was described as a “passex,” an incidental naval exercise during a warship’s passage (rather than an elaborate, planned exercise). It was a far cry from December 1971 when the Indian Navy was tasked with confronting the US Navy battlegroup, and the Soviet Union rushed its nuclear submarines to support New Delhi.

“The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is transiting through IOR. During the passage, #IndianNavy units undertook Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with #USNavy. Indian Navy had also conducted similar PASSEXs with (Japan’s) #JMSDF and #FrenchNavy in recent past,” an Indian Navy spokesperson said in a tweet on Monday, seeking to place the exercises, which will extend into Tuesday, in a broad context.

The US too made no reference to China, but its language preceding the exercise was unmistakably aimed at Beijing. “Don’t underestimate the strength of free democracies,” US defence secretary Mark Esper tweeted as the American formation sailed past the Malacca Straits toward Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where New Delhi has established its first tri-services command, supplementing a US Navy tweet that said “The strength of @USNavy aircraft carriers includes the friendships they help build.”

Photos and footage posted online showed Nimitz, at a little over 100,000 tons and packed with 90 fighter jets, sailing in formation with India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (45400 tons, 36 aircraft).

In Washington, US lawmakers left no doubt that they held China responsible for its recent predatory grab at Indian territory, introducing a resolution in the US House of Representatives urging Beijing to work towards de-escalating the situation at the border through existing diplomatic mechanisms rather than by force.

Expressing concern about the continued military aggression by China along its border with India and in other parts of the world, including with Bhutan, in the South China Sea, and with the Senkaku Islands, and its aggressive posture toward Hong Kong and Taiwan, the lawmakers accused Beijing of trying to redraw long-standing settled boundaries through the use of force.

Ironically, it was Nixon’s outreach to China through Islamabad in 1971 that caused him to erupt against India as it crushed Pakistan in what became Bangladesh, a defeat the US President felt could impair his China initiative if New Delhi decimated Pakistan in the western sector too. Spurred on by his then National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Nixon ordered the US Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 74, led by USS Enterprise, to proceed towards the Bay of Bengal.

“A broad plan of action emerged which included cutting off economic aid to India, and transfer of military equipment from other US regional allies to West Pakistan. These were to be supported by a possible naval deployment and a simultaneous move by the Chinese military along the border. The aim was to put pressure on the Soviet Union which, in turn, would prevail upon India from expanding the conflict (the western sector). Nixon directed Kissinger to explore the option of US naval deployment with Chinese representatives before taking a final decision,” a subsequent research paper on the US gunboat diplomacy by former Indian Navy Commander Raghavendra Mishra, noted.

The tide has now turned, although not everyone believes it has turned fully, given New Delhi’s long years of passivity in the face of Chinese depredations.

“The Nimitz meeting Indian naval ships in the Bay of Bengal shows how far the two countries have come from 1971. But this is Washington sending a signal to Beijing. New Delhi’s signal will be sent the day Indian ships go across the Malacca straits and rendezvous with the US Navy in the South China Sea,” noted Nitin Pai, Director of the Takshashila Institution, a public policy and strategic affairs think tank.

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