Initiated in 1992, as a bilateral exercise between the Indian and US Navies, the scope, complexity of operations and level of participation has increased steadily in successive editions of the India-US Malabar Naval Exercise. MALABAR-15, the 19th edition of the exercise, was conducted in the Bay of Bengal from 14 -19 October 2015. Alongwith the Indian Navy and the US Naval Forces, JMSDF also participated in the exercise.
The six-day Malabar 2015 exercise needs to be viewed in the light of these stated positions, which have been articulated by each of the participating nations for long now. The Indian Navy, host of the exercise, participated with its INS Shivalik and INS Betwa frigates, the INS Ranvijay guided missile destroyer, and fleet support ship INS Shakti. A Sindhughosh class submarine, the INS Sindhudhvaj, and P8I Long Range Maritime Recce aircraft and helicopters too were part of the Indian fleet in the exercise.
Malabar, initially an India-US bilateral naval exercise, began in 1992, and Japan became a permanent participant only in the current the 19th edition in 2015. Japan’s participation as a non-permanent participant in 2007 had drawn a strong protest from China; Japan, nonetheless, participated in the 2009, 2011 and 2014 editions of the exercise, which were held off the Japanese coast.
The participation of Japan, which deployed missile destroyer J S Fuyuzuki and SH 60K helicopters on India’s invitation, is the first time since 2007 that the Japanese Navy has participated in the exercise being held off the coast of India. It also signals the importance that the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally have attached to strategic ties with Japan.
Despite the statement by a top US Navy officer over the weekend that Malabar was “not directly aimed at China”, there is very little doubt about Beijing’s shadow over the exercise.
During a visit to India in March, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific fleet, had spelled out the significance of the region in the light of the US Asia Pacific Rebalance: “A China that recognises norms is in the interest of everyone,” he had said, adding that the US planned to station 60 per cent of its fleet and 55 per cent of its surface combatants in the Pacific region, with two ships stationed in Japan.
The US Navy was represented at Malabar 2015 by ships from the Carrier Task Force (CTF) 70 of the USN 7th Fleet based at Yokosuka, Japan. The CTF included the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Normandy and Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth, besides the Los Angeles class nuclear powered submarine USS City of Corpus Christi, and F18 Aircraft from the Carrier Air Wing and P8A Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
The exercise marked a continuation of the larger US project in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes sending out signals to China on issues of freedom of navigation in international waters. The US reportedly plans to sail warships within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed features in the South China Sea, as part of Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations.
Japan has been aggressively voicing its concerns about the South China Sea in view of increased Chinese activities and the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. In June, the Japanese Ministry of Defence published a comprehensive report highlighting Chinese reclamation activities in the Sea.
China has been carefully monitoring the upcoming Malabar naval exercises to gauge whether Japan will become a permanent participant in the Indo-U.S. manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean.
A write-up in the state-run Xinhua news agency observed that Washington is “pushing for making the ‘Malabar’ naval exercises between India and the U.S. into a trilateral framework to involve Japan as a permanent participant”.
China had objected to the participation of Japan, Australia and Singapore in Malabar-2007 exercise, which was hosted by India in the Bay of Bengal. Since then, these drills, when held in a trilateral format that included Japan, took place in the West Pacific.
The sharp deterioration in Sino-Japanese ties, following the controversy over the jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Island, also called Senkaku by Japan, and the security bills in its Parliament that are in play, which would free Japan to contribute forces in global hotspots, has heightened Beijing’s security concerns. Analysts say that alarm bells are likely to ring loud in China by perceptions that Japan’s out-of area reach was being enhanced in the Indo-Pacific zone through naval exercises such as Malabar 2015.
The Chinese also want to ensure that India, which is fast becoming an active player in the Indo-Pacific, does not join Japan, Australia and South Korea in bolstering the US led and China-centred containment policy under President Barack Obama’s “Asia Pivot” doctrine. A write-up in the China Daily newspaper has noted that Washington is stringing Japan, India and Australia within the ambit of its Pivot to Asia doctrinal formulation. “The US concept of Asia Pivot revolves around isolating China and creating a block of Regional and Extra Regional 2nd tier powers to strategically suffocate China in the 21 century. These 2nd tier powers include India, Australia and Japan,” the daily observed.
Observers point out that Chinese concerns have been heightened by the first trilateral meeting of foreign ministers from India, US and Japan that was held in New York in August 2015. In a veiled reference to China, a media note circulated by the State Department following the meeting, pointed to “the growing convergence” of the interests of three countries in the Indo-Pacific region, underscored by “the importance of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes; freedom of navigation and over flight; and unimpeded lawful commerce, including in the South China Sea”.
Indian officials, however, stress that notwithstanding the perception of its tilt towards Washington, New Delhi has been pursuing “multi-vectored diplomacy where IOUs are being parcelled to countries on either side of the political aisle”.
Observers say that the unimpeded access to the commercial sea lanes, which are central to countries on either side of the Malacca Straits, is at the heart of the growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Regarding Japan, China’s state run tabloid Global Times acknowledged that “Tokyo considers the maritime passage a critical lifeline for its energy security”. The write-up was referring to the Japan’s dependence on imported oil, especially from the Persian Gulf countries, which was transited through the Malacca straits.
On its part, China wants to avoid the Malacca Straits, which is fully covered by the U.S. military footprint. Consequently, it has been investing heavily in energy pipelines from Siberia. China has also has acquired access to an oil and gas terminal in Myanmar to transit part of its energy supplies from West Asia in order to avoid the Malacca trap.
During Malabar-2015, the United States is expected to field Theodore Roosevelt, a 100,000 tonne aircraft carrier. This is in tune with the exercises that were held earlier when aircraft carriers, including Ronald Reagan, George Washington and Carl Vinson participated in the manoeuvres.