The United States on Wednesday renamed its Pacific Command, a unified combatant entity that stretches from “Hollywood to Bollywood”, as Indo-Pacific Command in a move widely seen as an acknowledgment, even if largely symbolic, of growing defence ties with India, The Hindustan Times reports.
It was also seen to signal the increasing focus on a part of the world that is close to China, which has been described by the Trump administration as a “strategic competitor”.
“In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific oceans, today we rename the US Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command,” Secretary of Defence James Mattis said in Hawaii, the command’s headquarters, at a change of leadership ceremony.
“Over many decades, this command has repeatedly adapted to changing circumstance and today carries that legacy forward as America focuses west.”
At the start of his remarks, the secretary had described the command being renamed as “our primary combatant command, it’s standing watch and intimately engaged with over half of the earth’s surface and its diverse populations, from Hollywood to Bollywood, from polar bears to penguins”.
Significant, But Symbolic
The Indo-Pacific Command is one of the six US geographical combatant commands (there are three functional commands that include special forces and the strategic weapons) and its area of responsibility spans 38 countries including India, China, Australia, Japan, the ASEAN countries and the two Koreas.
Officials from both India and the US and experts described the rechristening as significant, but largely symbolic because nothing is going to change materially. Though an Indo-Pacific strategy is expected to be announced by the US at a later stage, it could put more meat on the bare-bones name-change.
“This demonstrates a recognition by America’s national security and defence leadership that Indian military power is essential to the stability of Asia,” said Benjamin Schwartz, a former US defence department official who oversaw ties with India and who is now with the US-India Business Council (USIBC).
“Transforming this recognition into a geopolitical reality will be more difficult than changing a name,” he added as a note of caution. “But this is an important step.”
India-US defence ties have grown rapidly in the last few years, especially after President Barack Obama in 2016 declared India a “Major Defence Partner”, a designation unique to the bilateral relationship as neither country has shared it with any of its other defence partners.
There is a move now to further amplify the relationship by according India the same status as some of America’s closest allies such as members of NATO and Israel for trade in ultra-sensitive defence purchases. A bill to this effect is winding its way around the corridors of US Congress currently.
These growing defence ties are never publicly acknowledged to have anything to do with China, a rival to both India and the United States, but there is no other issue or challenge that drives the world’s two largest democracies closer strategically, other than their shared concern about terrorism.
“Without focused involvement and engagement by the United States, and our allies and partners, China will realise its dream of hegemony in Asia,” admiral Harry B Harris, the outgoing chief of the command, said. “We should cooperate with Beijing where we can, but stand ready to confront them when we must.”
And there is Russia, a long-time trusted defence partner of India that has watched the growing India-US ties with some alarm despite Indian assurances of de-hyphenated relationships delivered most recently by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an “informal” summit with President Vladimir Putin recently.
But Moscow remains unconvinced apparently.
“American Raj,” said RT.com, a Russian state-funded media outlet, said in a headline on a report on the rechristening of the US command, in a cynical attempt to exploit Indians’ abhorrence of their colonial history, the British Raj. Desperate times require desperate measures.