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20 July 2017, Gateway House

Malabar 2017: strengthening the freedom of navigation

In a special podcast, Vice Admiral (retd.) Anil Chopra, Distinguished Fellow for International Security and Maritime Studies at Gateway House, shares his insights into this years recently concluded Malabar Exercise, examining the inclusion of Japan and potentially Australia, while detailing the geopolitical implications of these exercises.

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GH (Virpratap Vikram Singh): Today we have with us Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, Distinguished Fellow of the international security and maritime studies at Gateway House. Admiral Chopra has joined us for a special podcast on the recently concluded Malabar exercises which was held recently between the Indian, United States and Japanese Navies.

Admiral Chopra for the benefit of our audience who are not familiar with the Malabar exercises, what are the kind of activities that occur that are part of it?

Vice Admiral Anil Chopra: These exercises that began 25 years ago in 1992, between the Indian and the United States navy, and they have slowly gathered in complexity and the degree of operations which are being undertaken therein. These exercises have both a harbour phase and a sea phase. When the ships are in harbour, there are a lot of professional exchanges, lectures, sports activities and so on.  Then the ships go out to sea, and they carry out a number of things that are being elaborated on now.

Naval operations are complex exercises right from the time you leave the harbour till the time you get back. There are many detailed issues of communications, command and control, and of procedure, SOP doctrines and so on has come to operating by the forces. So the essential objective of these exercises is for intra-operability, that is for the ships of two different navy able to act together when so required. That is what is exercised and practiced in each of these Malabars. When the ships go out to sea, there are many things that are done including practical operational manoeuvres like live weapon firing, anti-submarine warfare drills, anti surface warfare drill, anti air warfare drills. Of course as you know, the Navy fights in three dimensions, and now there is a fourth which is space. So modern level warfare is all about network centric warfare and therefore ships are connected, communicate and even do targeting through optic systems including space based satellites. So clearly all this requires practice and exercise and that is what navies do, when they operate independently and that’s what they do when they operate together so as to be able to get intra-operability. Besides that the navies imbibe best practices from each other, there are things that each navy learns from the other. All that gives them the confidence to be able to operate together whenever required. I think that is the gist of it.

GH: Admiral Chopra, as you have mentioned this is the 25th Anniversary of the Malabar Exercises and with these extremely strong navies interacting with one another what are the geopolitical implications that stem from these exercises?

Admiral Chopra: I think the answer to that question is that the implication will depends on everyone’s individual point of view. I think observers of the exercise will carry home implications from their own perspective. But it suffices to say, a gathering of like-minded forces, anywhere in the world, multiplies strength, capabilities, operational reach and overall combat effectiveness of the component forces and therefore it has a geopolitical implication that can be dependent on the point of view of the observer. The U.S, India and now Japan are all champions of the freedom of the seas and of navigations through the oceans of the world which constitutes 70% of its surface and have always believed that the seas much remain the last great commons, the common heritage of mankind as a whole and not to any nation or grouping. These exercises lend weight to the determination of the global community to strengthen the freedom of navigation and safety of the sea lines of communications of the world.

Q: You have actually mentioned Japan in your previous answer but this is the second year that Japan has been part of these exercises, what do you make of their returning participation?

Admiral Chopra: Japan is a maritime nation, and has always been deeply conscious of its dependence on the seas. After all it is a collection of islands in the Pacific. As you are aware, after World War Two, the Japanese have maintained a maritime self-defence force which has now grown into a strong navy in all but in name, it has many large ships that are a blue water force that can operate in all three dimensions. As you can see they are participating with a large helicopter carrier in the ongoing Malabar. Most of the time after the Second World War they have been very restrained in deploying war ships at distances from the Japanese home islands but now they have overcome that particular restraint, and seem to be deploying their assets further away. They have their issues in the East China Sea and the fringes of the South China Sea and it has made the Japanese maritime self-defence force more interactive with other navies, including us.

Japan maritime self- defence force and the Indian navy also have bilateral naval exercises and of course, as you know they have strong linkage with the United States navy. So I think we are going to see more Japanese bi-lateral and multilateral cooperation at sea.

GH: There have been discussions of Australia joining these exercises in the future, do you feel that this could be a reality?

Admiral Chopra: Of course it could. It is always possible. Regional and global geopolitics are constantly changing and evolving, and therefore templates in a particular area of the world will continue to change with the nature of geopolitics. So I think Australian participation will be a mutual decision between the Government of India and the Government of Australia. It could certainly be a possibility.

GH: Given the context the current tensions between India and China in the recent weeks, has there been any change in this year’s Malabar Exercise?

Admiral Chopra: This Malabar as you can imagine was planned well before the current border tension and is not directly linked to it. However, it underlines the determination of the global community to prevent both aggression and cavalier violation of International law such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the part of any nation. That message would be clear to all observers and analysts.

Thank you.

Vice Admiral Anil Chopra is Distinguished Fellow, International Security and Maritime Studies, Gateway House. He was the former Commander- in-Chief of the Western Naval Command, the Eastern Naval Command, and former Chief of the Indian Coast Guard.

This feature was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.

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