19 January 2017
Admiral Harry Harris, the United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) chief, admits “there is probably nothing that could prevent China from sailing an aircraft carrier into the Indian Ocean today”.
The four-star admiral who, from his headquarters in Hawaii, heads the military component of America’s “rebalance to Asia”, dismisses China’s lone aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, as far less capable than an American carrier. He says even the Indian Navy, which operates INS Vikramaditya, is more capable and experienced than the Chinese at carrier deck aviation.
Yet, China’s growing strength and aggression are clearly driving the US and Indian navies together.
A key indicator is Harris’ admission --- the first time ever --- that the two navies are jointly tracking Chinese naval movements in the Indian Ocean. To build up Indian capability to track submarines, Washington had cleared the sale of Boeing P-8I Poseidon multi-mission maritime aircraft --- the world’s most fearsome submarine hunters.
“We work closely with India to improve India’s capability to do that kind of surveillance… I don’t want to say too much, but there is sharing of information regarding Chinese maritime movements in the Indian Ocean”, admits Harris, who refers to Chinese submarines in these waters as “clearly an issue”.
Anti-submarine operations are extensively practiced in the Malabar trilateral exercise, which the US, Indian and Japanese navies conduct every year. “That helps us hone our ability to do that physical tracking of submarines and ships and the likes”, explains Harris.
The American admiral says that India’s non-signature of a communications security agreement called COMCASA (Communications Compatibility And Security Agreement) is hampering joint surveillance of Chinese vessels. One of three pacts that Washington terms “foundational agreements” for defence cooperation, India’s signing of COMCASA would open the doors for Washington to transfer high-security communications equipment to the Indian military.
“For example with the P-8 aircraft, we’ll be able to do more interoperable activities. The P8 is the world’s most capable anti-submarine platform. India has the P8I, we have the P8A, but they’re not interoperable because they have different communications systems. In order to maximize the potential of these airplanes in the Indian Ocean against [Chinese] submarines, we need to move this agreement forward so that we can have communications interoperability and make it actually happen”, explained Harris.
In New Delhi to speak at the annual Raisina Dialogue, Harris was interacting with a small group of journalists.
Last year, the two countries signed a logistics agreement, called LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement) that allows both militaries to access each other’s facilities, with accounts to be settled later. Now COMCASA is being negotiated between Washington and New Delhi; as is a third agreement called BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Information and Services Cooperation), which facilitates mapping.
Hinting that long-running COMCASA negotiations could be nearing closure, Harris predicted: “I think COMCASA is likely to come first. I’m not giving a timeline… but [COMCASA] deals with interoperability and stuff that we really need.”
Harris downplayed concerns about whether the incoming Donald Trump administration might be less focused on US-India defence ties. He said: “In my meetings [last week] with the President elect teams, both in the OSD (office of secretary of defense) and the national security council… [they] underscored the seriousness with which they view India’s relationship with the US.”
Harris believes Trump is unlikely to tamper with the rebalance to Asia, beyond a token change of name. “I don’t
know if we’re going to change the name but the military component of the rebalance…that has already happened.
He said: “Sixty per cent of the US Navy is already in the Pacific now, and sixty per cent of US Air Force striking power is here. The army has increased the number of soldiers, and PACOM has already raised the rank of its senior army commander from three-star to a four-star general.”
Harris, ethnically a Japanese American and the first Asian American to become admiral, is particularly disliked by Beijing for his forthright confrontation of China. At last year’s Raisina Dialogue, Harris irritated Beijing by calling upon India to cooperate closely with the US Navy in the South China Sea; and to expand the ongoing trilateral defence cooperation (with the US and Japan) into a quadrilateral dialogue that included Australia.