The Incongruence of IBSAMAR

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

India, Brasil and South Africa (IBSA)

India, Brasil and South Africa (IBSA)

Among the gamut of multilateral naval exercises to take place this year, the Rim of the Pacific Exercises (RIMPAC) captured the most headlines. This is understandable, given its sheer size and scale, bringing together vessels and personnel from 22 countries. China’s participation also captured the imagination of the media, which marvelled at the potential to reduce tensions in the Asia-Pacific region through such joint exercises. But one exercise largely missed notice, despite its significant geopolitical implications: IBSAMAR IV (end of October 2014).

Originally established in 2008, IBSAMAR is held biannually and involves the naval forces of Brazil, India, and South Africa. Whereas the so-called “New Development Bank” was a BRICS initiative intended to challenge the perceived Euro-Atlantic dominance of the world financial system, IBSAMAR is intended to raise the profile of the Global South in maritime affairs. At first glance, this would seem no more significant than the joint exercises held by Russia and China in the East China Sea in May 2014. But it represents a shifting balance of power on the high seas.

Closer security cooperation between Brazil, India, and South Africa undermines interest in partnership with NATO. For example, given the lack of shared priorities between Brazil and NATO, officials from the former have regarded the latter with suspicion. In fact, entreaties from Colombia for a NATO partnership drew harsh condemnations from Brazil. It is in this context that NATO officials have hoped that cooperation with Brazil regarding counter-piracy and counter-trafficking operations in West Africa might help improve NATO’s image among Brazilian defence officials and inspire closer relations in the future.

Similarly, NATO’s offer to share ballistic missile defence technology with India in 2011 was intended to build a relationship with the South Asian power. Such an exchange would have allowed India to match China’s missile defence capabilities while also potentially securing greater involvement by India in Operation Ocean Shield, NATO’s substantial counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Although this ultimately did not come to fruition, the hope nonetheless was that NATO’s offer would open a channel of discussion with Indian policymakers.

The Brasilian Barroso-class corvette participating in ATLASUR IX and IBSAMAR III (2012).

The Brasilian Barroso-class corvette participating in ATLASUR IX and IBSAMAR III (2012).

The advent of IBSAMAR leaves some doubts as to whether NATO’s outreach can ultimately succeed. The success of this exercise may leave its participants with the impression that NATO assistance is superfluous. If South African, Indian, and Brazilian vessels can cooperate effectively in simulations, what value would American, French or British vessels add to future counter-piracy or counter-trafficking operations? This is particularly true of the Indian Ocean region, which India regards as part of its own exclusive sphere of influence and where any incursion is regarded with intense suspicion. For example, Indian officials regard China’s participation in the aforementioned Operation Active Endeavour merely as an excuse to justify a Chinese maritime presence west of the Strait of Malacca. IBSAMAR has allowed Indian officials to discount the importance of NATO’s maritime role, assuming that any external assistance that might be needed in securing the Indian Ocean can simply be obtained from South Africa and other Southern partners.

This is a faulty assumption, however. Although the South African Navy remains the most impressive African maritime force, it still consists solely of four Valour-class frigates, three Heroine-class submarines, and three Warrior-class offshore patrol vessels. This is a rather limited force, comparable perhaps to the Royal Canadian Navy in its capabilities but certainly unable to compete with the maritime forces of NATO’s larger member states. The Brazilian Navy is more impressive, boasting ten frigates, five corvettes, five submarines, an aircraft carrier, and an array of offshore patrol vessels. Given this, Brazil has an important role to play in the security of the South Atlantic but it is in no position to come to India’s aid.

Even so, IBSAMAR offers a convenient myth that Brazilian, Indian, and South African officials may be all too eager to embrace. Popular narratives speak of “the rise of the Global South” and an imminent shift in power to the countries of the Southern Hemisphere. Security cooperation with the old Euro-Atlantic structures is all too often regarded as perpetuating the dependence of the South on the West. Even if Brazil and India lack opportunities to engage directly, at least outside the auspices of IBSAMAR, the symbolic gesture of refusing assistance from NATO fits a narrative compelling to the electorates of both countries. After all, so the argument goes, should the Global South’s rising economic prominence not also be matched by a rising military prominence?

Countries that receive arms produced in Brazil (Credit: Emídio Pedro. Data from 2009).

Countries that receive arms produced in Brazil (Credit: Emídio Pedro. Data from 2009).

Brazil in particular seems determined to raise its profile in security affairs. While India continues to rely in large part on the procurement of Russian equipment in order to revamp its naval forces, Brazil is looking for customers. The Barroso-class corvette is a well-made vessel but has proven to be quite expensive to manufacture. As such, the Brazilian Navy has only operated one corvette of this class since 2008. But reports suggest Brazil is exporting another Barroso-class corvette for use by Equatorial Guinea. Between 2005 and 2010, the volume of Brazil’s small arms exports tripled from $109.6 million to $321.6 million.

With Brazil’s annual defence expenditures expected to reach $65.3 billion by 2018, securing a mutually beneficial relationship between NATO and Brazil might well be the lynchpin for international order in the 21st century. Such a level of expenditure would place Brazil in the top five military spenders, overtaking France and the United Kingdom. As Brazil’s defence establishment undergoes the reforms necessary to take on the role of a major military power, it is entirely possible and even likely that the IBSAMAR or BRICS-based model of security cooperation will be eschewed in favour of a more mature worldview. But that view might well be in line with proposals made by the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, who proposed replacing the Organization of American States (OAS) with a Latin American organization that would exclude the United States and Canada and which would adopt an antagonistic position to the existing Euro-Atlantic structures. Such an outcome would obviously be undesirable as well.

NATO must aggressively launch public diplomacy initiatives that will appeal to Brazilian policymakers. Accounting for how Brazil responded to the NATO-Colombia negotiations will maximize the chances of a breakthrough. For example, as there has been resistance to proposals for substantive cooperation on intercepting narcotics shipments, efforts could be better directed toward the establishment of a multilateral dialogue, similar in some respects to the Shangri-La Dialogue hosted in the Asia-Pacific region. Much as that event brings together policymakers from the United States, Japan, China, and other countries in the region, an Atlantic Dialogue, for lack of a better name, could bring together NATO officials and leaders from such Latin American countries as Colombia and Brazil to discuss the current state of security affairs and how to improve North-South security cooperation in the Western Hemisphere.

Diplomatic initiatives of this sort require minimal commitment from the actors involved. It would also demonstrate a level of interest in Brazil’s rise that India and South Africa would be unable to match. The greatest challenge would be avoiding unconstructive rhetoric from attendees. Illustrative of this, the 2014 edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue suffered some setbacks when remarks by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel were interpreted as critical of China, prompting a harsh rebuke from Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of China’s General Staff and head of China’s delegation to the conference. Incidents like these are difficult to anticipate and even harder to prevent, but if NATO fails to venture such an effort it can only fail to appeal to Brazil. The conversation must begin in earnest or NATO may find it difficult to find any footing in the Global South beyond 2018.

About Paul Pryce

Paul Pryce is Director of Social Media at the Centre for International Maritime Security and also serves as a Research Analyst with the NATO Council of Canada's Maritime Nation Program. Holding degrees from the University of Calgary and Tallinn University, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a diplomatic aide with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, India, International, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy, South Africa.

5 Responses to The Incongruence of IBSAMAR

  1. Felix says:

    Very interesting read. However, there is one fundamental flaw, because you didn’t get NATO’s operations right.

    Operation Active Endeavour was NATO’s naval response to 9/11 in the Mediterranena Sea. The operation is still running, but without permamently deployed forces. Since a couple of years OAE is a network-based operations with on-call forces. The only non-NATO countries who ever took part in OAE were Russia, Ukraine and Georgia.

    NATO’s Indian Ocean deployment is called Operation Ocean Shield. Neither China nor India have ever participated in this mission. China and NATO had some pracitical cooperation in the Gulf of Aden. However, China has not yet participated in any(sic!) NATO operation. The same applies for India, too.

  2. Paul Pryce says:

    I’m afraid you have been misinformed, Felix. China has in fact participated in Ocean Shield, as numerous sources indicate. For example, this press release on Ocean Shield activities highlights the cooperation with China:

    This article from The Diplomat describes China’s policy of “accompanying escorts” with Ocean Shield:

    Even the Wikipedia article on Ocean Shield touches on the participation of non-NATO countries, which includes China:

    • Paul Pryce says:

      Ah, never mind. I see what you’re getting at. But given the level of China’s cooperation with Ocean Shield, I wouldn’t discount the importance of that role or the seriousness with which the Indians regard it, especially as it justifies Chinese incursion into India’s traditional sphere of influence.

  3. Felix says:

    I said that there has been “some practical cooperation” between NATO and China.

    “Participation” in a NATO operation is something very different. “Participation” would mean that a Chinese warship operates during a longer period of time under NATO command, such as Australia is participating in ISAF or Ukraine has been participating in OAE.

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