The 2017 edition of the Malabar Exercise, held in July, involving India, the U.S. and Japan, was characterised by the highest ever level of sophistication in its 25-year history. This was the first time that the Japanese ship, JS Izumo, a helicopter carrier and an effective platform for submarine warfare, joined the USS Nimitz and INS Vikramaditya: all three countries were fielding their aircraft carriers.
The exercise, conducted onshore and offshore in the Bay of Bengal over a 10-day period, had 17 ships participating, including a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine. There were professional exchanges and co-ordinated operations related to submarine (and anti-submarine) warfare, air defence, search and rescue, helicopter cross-deck evolutions, communications, carrier strike group operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance and surface warfare. Due to equipment incompatibility constraints, there was no landing and takeoff from each other’s aircraft carrier, but the latest aircraft fielded—the Mig-29k—from India and the U.S. carried out mock combat exercises. This edition of the exercise had a much longer offshore component that called for personnel to hone their respective skills and better understand those of their counterparts in actual operational conditions.
It was clear that this exercise went way beyond anti-piracy tasks. The U.S. commander of the participating fleet stated that the high degree of interoperability between the three forces gave him confidence that the U.S. naval force could operate “for real” should the situation warrant it.
The U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) holds this joint naval exercise within its area of responsibility, which covers the Pacific Ocean, across India up to the line, stretching from the India-Pakistan coastal border. These annual exercises take place alternately in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific area, closer to Japan and the South China Sea.
The historical evolution of the Malabar Exercise and the currently fraught relations between the participating countries and China created a much sharper context this time, with China evincing a heightened interest in it. The Chinese foreign office spokesperson stated that it was hoped that “this kind of relations and cooperation is not directed at any third party” (The Times of India, July 8). The Indian Navy recorded a “surge” in Chinese ships and submarines in the preceding two months on deployments unconnected to the exercise, but some vessels, such as the Haiwingxing, seemed to be tasked with carrying out close surveillance of the Malabar Exercise (The Times of India, July 5).
The event has an interesting history. The U.S. initiated it in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when it was exploring regional relationships as a global hegemon; these were held off India’s western coast. The bilateral exercises were suspended from 1998-2000 in the wake of India’s nuclear tests—and resumed, following U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan post-9/11 when the Indian Navy escorted U.S. commercial ships through the Straits of Malacca. In 2002, they began as small-scale passage manoeuvres and replenishments-at-sea. The increase in sophistication was rapid with large-scale anti-submarine exercises in 2003 and deployment of aircraft carriers by both sides in 2005. A new turn was evident when Indian, U.S., Japanese and Australian ships co-ordinated humanitarian assistance during the 2004 tsunami signalling their intent to shape the maritime order in the region. Another significant phase began in September 2007 when the exercise was held, for the first time, in the Bay of Bengal, and, in yet another first, the Japanese, Australian and Singapore navies joined them. Also in 2007, the exercise was held in the Western Pacific as well. The 2011 edition, between the Indian and U.S. Navies, took place off Luzon Strait. The 2015 Indo-U.S. summit statement formally invited Japan to join the exercise, which was then held in the Bay of Bengal.
Chinese sensitivity to the exercises was clearly evident in September 2007 when it issued diplomatic demarches in all the capital cities of the nations involved after Australia and Singapore joined the current participants in the Bay of Bengal. The two countries withdrew thereafter, considering also India’s desire not to irritate China. Similarly, in June that year, under pressure of Chinese protests, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) between India, U.S., Japan and Australia was discontinued when the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd decided to withdraw from it. Australia recently expressed interest in joining the Malabar Exercise once again. Currently, two sets of Indo-Pacific political and security dialogues involving India are taking place, namely, India-U.S.-Japan and India-Japan-Australia.
Naval cooperation among India, U.S. and Japan—in the wake of the recent bilateral summit-level statements—is scaling newer heights against the backdrop of escalating tensions with China. Although the India-China stand-off at Doklam Plateau remains non-violent in strict adherence to the agreed upon Confidence Building Measures, the Chinese official and media statements have taken an unprecedentedly shrill tone. Meanwhile, the Japan-China stand-off over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea takes the form of regular naval and air force confrontations; in 2015, Japan revised its military engagement rules to enable a more proactive role in both the East China Sea and South China Sea—in tandem with the U.S.
As for the U.S., after an initial thaw with China, following its assurances of help over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, President Trump’s frustration with this crisis is manifesting in greater U.S. pressure on China through its bomber flights and naval ‘freedom of navigation operations’. Both the Chinese air force and armed forces have been on high alert on the North Korean border while the U.S. has deployed THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea and two carrier task forces in the area.
Besides the East and South China Seas, tension levels appear to be increasing also in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) where the Chinese navy is seen to be making a ‘disruptive entry’: initially appearing as part of international operations against Somali pirates, it is becoming a regular presence, with its latest ‘logistics base’ having recently opened in Djibouti where 1,000 Chinese marines are reportedly deployed.
China is also building a series of ports in key littoral countries to expand its presence in the IOR besides carrying out naval exercises with various countries, including Iran and Pakistan.
There is no doubt that these exercises represent closer cooperation to ‘balance’ growing Chinese naval and military power; the participating countries, however, deny that they are aimed at any particular country. While the Chinese navy finds itself operating in a somewhat difficult strategic environment in the IOR, India’s growing naval relationship with the littoral countries of the South China Sea, and with the U.S. and Japan, puts it in a certain advantageous position, enabling it to gain access to the Chinese mainland akin to the position that the U.S. and Japan find themselves in in the Bay of Bengal: during the India-China 1962 conflict, the USS Enterprise sailed into the Bay of Bengal to send a strong message to China.
Such interoperability and coming together of the three countries indicate a certain convergence of strategic interest in the shaping of the geostrategic order in these regions, but it remains unclear how these relationships can be leveraged, or how, for example, India can put pressure on China in a situation of extreme volatility.
The three countries clearly recognise that the nature of the India-China relationship is a strategic factor in the overall balance of power in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ (in the U.S. meaning of the expression). In the post-Cold war period, military alliances are no longer the norm, but the growing military interoperability among the interested countries is—and can help shape the strategic environment. Such relationships, based on interoperability, do not rule out ‘hedging’–or unilateral overtures to the perceived adversary by the parties involved.
Also, these exercises do not include the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of operations, covering the Arabian Sea and the western Indian Ocean, where too India’s strategic interests lie.
Ambassador Yogendra Kumar is a former Indian Ambassador to several oceanic nations including Philippines, Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. He recently authored a book ‘Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century’.
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 Regular Press Conference, Spokesperson’s Remarks, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Regular Press Conference, July 7 2017, <http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/t1476340.shtml>
 Shim, Elizabeth, ‘Chinese ship in Indian Ocean ahead of U.S., India, Japan drill’, United Press International, 5 July 2017, <https://www.upi.com/Chinese-ship-in-Indian-Ocean-ahead-of-US-India-Japan-drill/3551499267776/>