As the US and India try to move forward with a deal to supply the Indian navy with 22 Sea Guardian drone aircraft, experts believe New Delhi wants to monitor activities in the region much better with the unmanned aerial vehicle, including the increased presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy.
US President Donald Trump’s administration authorised the sale in June, with the price tag estimated at $3 billion. The US approval was the first such clearance to a friendly, non-NATO nation, but the transaction has yet to be finalised and was a key topic of discussion during General James Mattis’ visit to India this week.
“Unmanned vehicles, like those whose sale has been proposed by the United States, would allow India to monitor activities in the region much better … Clearly, there are concerns about the militarisation of the Indian Ocean, including the increased presence of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy,” explained Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India, in a CNBC report.
Manufactured by American defence contractor General Atomics, the unmanned devices— called Guardians — are “the world’s most advanced maritime reconnaissance drones and can help India track the movement of Chinese warships with its multi-mode maritime radar,” said Harsh Pant, head of the strategic studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation (a New Delhi-based think tank).
China was the main factor behind Washington’s approval of the Guardian drone sale, Pant also noted.
The world’s second-largest economy has ratcheted up maritime patrols around the Indian Ocean, which is home to seaborne routes crucial to global trade as well as a major US military base. The mainland has also built up a presence in other countries around the region.
July saw Beijing establish its first overseas naval base in Djibouti. The state-owned China Merchant Port Holdings acquired Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port in a move expected to facilitate Chinese naval deployments. In Bangladesh, a state-owned enterprise China Harbour Engineering Company bought a majority stake in Payra Port. The mainland is also looking to take an 85 per cent stake in Myanmar’s deep-sea port of Kyauk Pyu on the Bay of Bengal, according to reports.
Occurring right in India’s backyard, these projects — part of China’s massive “Belt and Road” infrastructure programme — are a worrying development for New Delhi, which has long held sway as the region’s major power and comes just weeks following the end of a Sino-Indian border dispute in the Himalayas.
All that comes amid Beijing’s use of underwater drones in the South China Sea, a separate body of water where Chinese President Xi Jinping’s administration is trying to enforce a tremendous, 1.4-million square mile claim despite losing a legal case on that claim last year. Those worries are also shared by the White House, which remains wary of China’s intentions in Asia.
Speaking on Wednesday, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a security relationship with New Delhi was critical to ensuring freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean.
India’s air force has also requested for 90 armed Avenger Predator drones, also produced by General Atomics. “Armed drones can be used for a number of functions, including counter-terrorism activities,” said Jaishankar. “The US has used them quite effectively against groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
However, the sale of armed drones is subject to approval by US Congress members who retain concerns about intellectual property and the danger of misuse by third parties, the foreign policy fellow warned.
This story originally appeared on CNBC.