The three-nation eight-day 2017 Malabar Naval Exercise involving India, Japan and the United States maritime forces began on 10 July in the Bay of Bengal off Chennai coast. A total of 95 aircraft, 16 ships and 2 submarines are taking part in this 21st edition of exercise. The exercise is aimed at “achieving deeper military ties between 3 nations” and is taking place amid on-going military Dokhlam stand-off between Indian and Chinese armies and when Beijing ramps up its naval presence in the South China Sea. The exercise is an opportunity to strengthen India’s position in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese media considers this annual trilateral naval exercise as a threat but the three nations say the exercise is setting a great example to the world.
What is Malabar naval exercise? This has taken place every year since 1992, except for a brief glitch in the late 1990s, post-Pokharan II period. The US renewed its ties with India post 9/11 attacks after India joined President George W. Bush’s campaign against global terrorism. The exercise is like a mock battle where naval ships, vessels, submarines, etc. hold practice combat sessions and manoeuvre positions. Malabar 2007 was the first time the naval exercise was held outside the Indian Ocean off the Japanese coast of Okinawa, closer to the Chinese territory. Malabar 2007 also saw the participation of naval vessels from Japan, Australia and Singapore along with India and the US. Around 25 vessels participated in the exercise.
In Malabar 2009 held off the coast of Okinawa, the three nations – India, Japan and the US – again extended their maritime partnership. In 2007, China had issued demarches to nations taking part in the Malabar exercise and therefore India was apprehensive to include other nations into the naval exercise in 2009 but no opposition was received as feared.
Therefore, in Malabar 2011 and 2014, Japan was invited to participate. In 2015, India and the US issued a joint statement and invited Japan to be a part of the Malabar exercise, thus officially making Malabar exercise a trilateral annual naval exercise.
The strategic dimension to this naval exercise cannot be overlooked. China is miffed and is suspicious about the purpose of the Malabar exercise as it feels that the annual war game is an effort to contain its influence in the strategically important Indo-Pacific region. Ahead of Malabar 2017, China sent a surveillance ship, HaiwangXiang, to monitor the exercise.
Without directly telling that the exercise is against China, Chinese government spokesperson said that the exercise should not be directed against a third country and that it should be conducive to the regional peace and security. The truism is that India cannot remain oblivious of the increasing activities of Chinese ships in the Indian Ocean in recent times and is building ports in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. There are reports that China deployed as many as 6 submarines in the Indian Ocean since 2013. It is a cause for worry for India that China is increasingly getting close with Pakistan and Sri Lanka. China has also built its first overseas naval base in Djibouti.
Earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo of Japan on the side-lines of the G-20 Summit at Hamburg reviewed progress in bilateral ties, as the two nations were gearing up for the Malabar naval exercise. The Malabar 2017, therefore, is a concrete step towards increasing India’s presence in the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal. The vessels, submarines and warships of the nations are working together for joint patrolling and naval missions in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
On-board INS Jalashwa, US Navy Commander Rear Admiral William D. Byrne observed that the naval war game is a clear strategic message to China, as also to Canada or to South Korea or to Australia or to any other maritime force. The war game is a good opportunity to learn from each other’s expertise and capability and therefore a good example for the world, he observed. Though the Malabar exercise is taking place amid the on-going military standoff between armies of India and China in the Sikkim section and Beijing ramping up its naval presence in South China Sea, no direct link can be made to the on-going exercise as the process of the exercise starts a year before and the initial planning takes place six months in advance. The exercise focuses on mutual learning, sharing of best practices and enhancing the inter-operability among the three nations.
While US ship Nimitz (CVN68), guided missile cruise USS Princeton (CG59), guided missile destroyers USS Howard (DDG83), USS Shoup (DDG86) and USS Kidd (DDG100), a Poseidon P-8A aircraft as well as a Los Angeles fast attack submarine are from the US, Japan has sent its Maritime Self Defence Force ships JS Izumo (DDH 183), JS Sazanami (DDI 13) while Indian Naval Ship Jalashwa and INS Vikramaditya are part of the joint naval exercise. The two Japanese warships are among the largest the country has operated since the end of World War II. Japan describes the Izumo-class vessels as “helicopter destroyers” and not aircraft carriers.
Besides conducting exercise ashore and at sea, exchanges on carrier strike operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, surface and anti-submarine warfare, other activities such as medical operations, damage control, explosive ordinance disposal, helicopter operations and anti-submarine warfare are also conducted. The at-sea exercise includes events such as submarine familiarisation, air defence exercises, medical evacuation drills, surface warfare exercises, communication exercise and search and rescue operations.
With such rich understanding and knowledge of shared working environment at sea, the exercise by the Navies of the three countries is a demonstration of their commitment to address common maritime challenges across the spectrum of operations. Each iteration of the exercise helps advance the level of understanding between the sailors. This shall surely go a long way in enhancing maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region and thus benefit the global maritime community. In view of the increasing threats to maritime security in the Indo-Asia-Pacific in recent times, the geopolitical subtext of the exercise has become complex and multi-layered so that they can effectively cope with the emerging challenges.
China has always remained sensitive to such cooperation by other nations. As an aspirational power, China’s long-term goal is to match, if not overtake, the US in overall defence capability and therefore sees the US as a rival as well as threat. That would be a long-term dream as the US leads the global navy with its qualitative technological profile. Therefore China objects to the Malabar and gets paranoid when countries such as Australia and Singapore are on board even at bilateral levels. It is also incorrect for China to perceive India’s participation in the Malabar exercise as a new card it is playing in the context of the current stand-off in the Dokalam plateau as the naval war game is planned much in advance.
*Professor (Dr.) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, JAPAN. Disclaimer: The views expressed are author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]