Reenergising Malabar

Issue: 4 / 2014By Ranjeet KumarPhoto(s): By US Navy

After an interregnum of five years India’s most advanced and powerful warships engaged in war games with the nuclear powered warships of the US Navy along with the Japanese naval destroyers on the coast of Japan in the Western Pacific from July 24 to 30. The decision to invite Japan in the bilateral Indo-US Malabar annual exercises was taken by the previous UPA Government in the last days of its administration and the present NDA Government found it convenient to carry on with this move of reviving the trilateral maritime engagement, which is in fact in accordance with the Modi Government’s priority to deepen relations with Japan and US.

Describing the Malabar exercise as complex high-end operational one that has grown in scope and complexity over the years, Captain D.K. Sharma, spokesman of the Indian Navy, said that the “exercises were conducted to enhance multinational maritime security relationships and mutual security issues. The Indian, Japanese and the US Navies have a common understanding and knowledge of a shared working environment at sea. This would further help advance the level of understanding of the navies.”

If we decipher the very meaningful quote of the Navy spokesman, it would become very apparent that the three countries exercised together to advance together mutual security interests, which are very obvious. India has a stake in the maintenance of the right to freedom of navigation in the high seas of South and East China Sea, where China is trying to establish de-jure sovereignty, for which the Chinese military has already taken steps to control the skies over the area, by establishing the Air Defence Identification Zone. Japan also cannot leave the field unchallenged, whereas the Americans cannot let the Chinese dominate the Pacific sea. Hence the security interests of the three participating navies under the banner of Malabar converge in the Pacific sea. The invitation to Japan also shows that India wants to collectively protect its maritime interests in the area which is far away from its shores.

Apprehensive of Chinese reaction the US Pentagon officials tried to assuage their concerns, “It has absolutely no relations anything to do with China. If anything it is strengthening the US naval presence in the Pacific Ocean region...and maritime partnership with our allies. It is totally a routine exercise.” However one Canadian naval official Rear Admiral Gilles Couturier commented, “It’s good for Asian countries to take a greater role protecting security in the region. It’s a good thing if Japanese rise up and try to deal with some of those situations.”

Responding to the possible view in China the maritime security expert Captain Alok Bansal said that China had earlier objected to the multilateral Malabar exercise. It has symbolism They will feel that countries are ganging up against China. To assuage their feelings India may also engage in same bilateral naval exercise with China.

The Chinese did not refrain from officially reacting and advised the three naval powers, “We hope defence cooperation among relevant countries can be conducive to peace and stability in the region. China actively promotes the Asian Security Concept that is based on common, comprehensive and sustainable security. A harmonious and stable Asia-Pacific region built on the basis of mutual trust among all countries is in line with the common interests of all countries in this region.” The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei further advised,. “But at the same time it also requires all sides to put in an effort. We have noticed the relevant moves and hope that the actions by the relevant countries could follow this direction and should help in building mutual trust among the countries of the region and regional peace and stability.”

The exercise featured both ashore and at-sea training, whilst ashore at Japanese Port Sasebo, from July 24 to 26. During this phase the naval officials of the three navies interacted on issues relating to carrier group operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, anti-piracy operations and visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations.

The sea phase of the exercise was from July 27 to 30 and was conducted in Western Pacific Ocean. During this phase the three navies indulged in rescue exercises, helicopter cross-deck landings, underway replenishments, gunnery and anti-submarine warfare exercises, VBSS and Liason officer exchange and embarkation. According to the Indian Navy spokesman, these are designed to enhance maritime cooperation among the navies of the participating nations. These exercises further hone individual capacity to conduct operations in a multi-national environment.

More than 7,000 US naval personnel on board the nuclear powered carrier USS George Washington, Ticonderoga class destroyer USS Shiloh. Arleigh Burke class destroyer John S. McCain and nuclear powered submarine USS Columbus along with the P-3 Orion aircraft and MH-60R helicopters participated in this exercise. Indian navy was represented by three of its most advanced warships the INS Ranvijay and Shivalik aided by fleet supporter ship INS Shakti. Interestingly these very ships participated in a joint Indo-Russian naval exercise Indra only a week ago. Japanese were represented by two of its leading destroyers.

The Indian and US navies had staged a short of maritime coup in 1992 when for the first time they initiated the Malabar joint naval exercises, immediately after the end of the dissolution of Soviet Union and the end of Cold War. Since then the two naval powers has engaged in maritime engagement 17 times and it reached its peak in 2007 when the scope of Malabar was expanded to five nations and in September India and US invited three other nations — Australia, Singapore and Japan — for a massive get together of “like minded” navies. A year later four nations — India, Australia, Japan and US — naval officials met in Tokyo where the idea of a quadrilateral alliance was proposed but India developed a cold feet after a strong demarche from China. However, when the Malabar was organised again in the Western Pacific sea and Japan was invited to join, China once again reacted strongly and India finally decided to limit the exercise at the original bilateral level. But China’s continuing assertiveness and aggressiveness in the South China Sea has raised alarm bells in South Block, forcing the strategic planners to engage in deeper trilateral engagement with US and Japan to protect its national maritime interests. India, whose 55 per cent of the world trade is conducted via South China Sea and the country’s major military traffic also passes through this maritime area, cannot let the international maritime area under the full control of Chinese Navy. The three-nation strategic engagement has perhaps cautioned China. Hence, immediately after the commencement of this year’s edition of three-nation Malabar Exercise, China has limited its reaction only to advising the three powers to focus on developing mutual confidence. Probably, China has realised the limits of its assertiveness.