Malabar 2017: With 16 warships, two submarines, and more than 95 aircraft, the trilateral maritime exercise in the Bay of Bengal between India-US-Japan has kicked off in the backdrop of ongoing tensions between India and China. Malabar an annual exercise – in its 21st edition this year – has always been a point of irritation for China. Originally, Malabar was a bilateral exercise between the Indian Navy and the US Navy, but in 2015, Japan became a permanent member, adding to China’s ire. Malabar for 2017 is significant for multiple reasons – for one, it comes at a time when China is escalating tensions at Doklam in Bhutan. For another, this year’s Malabar exercise focuses on submarine hunting and anti-submarine warfare – a fact that assumes importance after recent reports of Chinese submarine being spotted in the Indian Ocean.
Explains, Abhijit Singh, Head, Maritime Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation, “While the Malabar exercise takes place every year – and is, in that sense, a regular naval engagement – the 2017 iteration is significant for three reasons. First, the exercise between India-Japan-US comes against the backdrop of a tense face-off with China in Dokalam at the trijunction of India, Bhutan and China. There is a sense that New Delhi’s refusal to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in May this year upset Beijing, resulting in a Chinese incursion on the eastern border. The Malabar is being seen as an opportunity for India to strike a hard-posture in a place where it perceives a strategic advantage vis-a-vis China — maritime-South Asia.”
“Secondly, the trilateral naval drill is being held at a time when the PLA Navy has been increasing its presence in the Indian Ocean – Chinese warships have been regularly visiting Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, even as China’s anti-piracy deployments in the Gulf of Aden have have grown in scope and strength. Media reports of the presence of a Chinese submarine and an intelligence ship in India’s near-seas days before the start of Malabar are being seen as a sign of China’s growing confidence in operating in India’s sensitive littorals,” Singh tells FE Online. “Thirdly, there is a strengthening China-Pakistan maritime axis in South Asia, with a perceptible rise in Chinese warship and submarine deployments off the Makran coast, with the ostensible purpose of securing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor,” he adds.
India’s strong signal and what China may read into it
Sreeram Chaulia, the author of Modi Doctrine: The Foreign Policy of India’s Prime Minister believes that with Malabar exercise 2017, India is sending a strong signal to China. “…especially given the fact that India-US-Japan are focusing on submarine hunting expertise for this particular year’s exercise. US has a lot of expertise in this area, which would come in handy given China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean region. China doesn’t like multilateral exercises near the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal regions, and if in the future, Australia too participates, then the dragon would have reason to worry,” Chaulia tells FE Online.
Singh of ORF is of the view that one reasons why India, Japan and the US have deployed big contingents for the exercise – including aircraft carriers, guided missile destroyers and submarines – could be to warn Beijing to keep its regional maritime activities in check. “Japan’s growing security role in Asia is of equal importance. In the days leading up to the exercise, China objected to Japan’s new Helicopter carrier, Izumo being on a prolonged deployment in the South China Sea. That the same ship has now joined up at Malabar, is likely to be perceived by Beijing as act of political signalling,” he says. “Even so the message from India is clear: the Indian navy will actively collaborate with friendly nations in defending its near-seas. It will not escalate matters, unless the provocation comes from the Chinese navy,” he adds.
Need to be cautious
Chaulia feels that India, while making sure that it protects its territory, should be cautious of taking US and Australia support for granted. “Even as India looks to limit China’s aggression, at least in the maritime domain, we should be cautious about the extent to which US will support if the situation deteriorates. The joint statement between Modi and Trump referred to increased cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, but Trump is unpredictable. One year down the line, he may just decide that China is very important for America’s interests,” he says. “In that sense, all the submarine hunting knowledge that US has, may not be shared when required,” Chaulia adds. “Also, Australia is heavily dependent on China, so India cannot take its support for granted even as the former expresses interest in joining the Malabar exercise. So, even as India should continue to signal its strength to China, it should in my view not take the support of US and maybe even Australia in the future for granted. The only country that would support India militarily, and for its own interests, is Japan,” he concludes.
According to the Ministry of Defence, “Malabar 2017 is aimed at strengthening mutual confidence and inter-operability as well as sharing of best practices between the Indian, Japanese and US Navies. The exercise is a demonstration of the joint commitment of all three nations to address common maritime challenges across the spectrum of operations and will go a long way in enhancing maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region, for the benefit of the global maritime community.”
India and China have been involved in an almost month-long stand-off in Doklam plateau of Bhutan. The ongoing tensions relate to the construction of a road by China in Bhutan’s Doklam region. Bhutan had reportedly protested China’s action, and sought India’s help. Indian Army then moved to the area of construction, stopping Chinese activity. Experts are of the view that with the construction of this road, China hopes to spy on and isolate the Siliguri corridor, also known as the Chicken’s Neck. Amidst this ongoing war of words, China has also sent a submarine to the Indian Ocean.
Malabar 2017 is sure to add to China’s irritation – but India on its part should continue to assert its strength – both on the maritime and the LAC front. However, even as it conducts multilateral exercises with other countries, India should ramp up its defence preparedness to reduce need for external support, feel experts.