Malabar naval exercise

The Malabar-2015 has created fresh ripples in the already rough sea of the Indian Ocean. After a gap of eight years, India will be hosting another multilateral naval exercise of three nations with USA and Japan. All the members of the original five nation multilateral naval engagement held in the Bay of Bengal in September 2007, developed cold feet after China issued diplomatic demarche to all the five nations asking them if they are ganging up against China. Eight years later India gathered enough courage to ignore Chinese sensitivities and organized the three nation multilateral joint exercise and separately along with bilateral maritime exercises with Australia and Singapore who were part of the 2007 multilateral exercise.

The strategic observers will now deliberate on the evolving construct in the Asia Pacific region. India initially hesitated to convert the Malabar exercise to be held in the Indian Ocean on the Eastern Seaboard, into a multilateral one. But with hardening attitude of the Chinese towards India, perhaps encouraged India to send a signal to the Chinese that if they are not ready to take note of India’s concern India will be free to march on the road on which the US led Western alliance waited for India to join.

The Malabar initially began in the aftermath of the end of Cold War after the dissolution of Soviet Union in the year 1992 and continued on bilateral basis till 1997. But the US unilaterally cancelled the Malabar exercise after the May 1998 Pokharan nuclear explosion. However, the US realized its folly and again offered India to engage in military field in a much comprehensive manner. The two countries revived the Defence Policy Group, set up in 1995 during the historic icebreaking visit of Defence Secretary William Cohen. In the following years the two countries developed greater confidence on each other and continued to do more complex and advanced exercises involving nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers from the US Navy.

Military engagement

This was later expanded into a multilateral exercise of US, Japan, Australia, Singapore and India. But China raised eyebrows over this and India decided to restrict it to the two nation exercise. However India consented to include Japan in the Malabar exercise in 2009 and 2014 on the pretext that the Malabar was not hosted by India and held far beyond Indian maritime area.

Besides the naval Malabar exercise India and US also engage with each other in the military domain. The ground forces from two nations also got engaged in the Indo-US Combined Military Training Exercise codenamed as Yudha Abhyas from September 9 to September 23 at the Joint Base Lewis McChord in the US which was aimed at strengthening and broadening interoperability and cooperation between the two armies.

The exercise brought together troops of infantry sub unit and a formation headquarter of Indian Army and similar participation from the US Army and for the Joint training. Yudh Abhyas 2015 witnessed a Formation Headquarter based Command Post Exercise, an Infantry sub unit carrying out Field Training Exercise, Expert Academic discussions on strategic issues of mutual concern by experts of both countries and Combined Training between detachments of Infantry of both armies. According to US Army statement, “The exercise provided an ideal platform for the personnel of the two countries to share their experiences on Military Operations in Urban Terrain, under the UN mandate.” Commanders and Staff Officers of both sides worked in close coordination to receive and collate intelligence and to issue suitable operational orders to the combined field training components, who in turn executed these orders on ground.

China had been very cautious this time on India’s move to host a trilateral maritime exercise in the Indian Ocean. Reacting to the move a Chinese strategic analyst Zhou Bo of the Academy of Military Science told the English language China Daily, “India alone cannot assure the security of the Indian Ocean, even if it regards (it) as its backyard and wishes no one to compete with it there. According to Zhou, “ If the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate China and the US, so is the Indian Ocean to accommodate India and China.

Strategic analysts have reacted over the Malabar-2015 as a tangible demonstration of regional maritime security cooperation. The 2015 exercise will see Japan’s participation in a naval maneuver in the Bay of Bengal after eight years but Australia will not be participating in the exercise. The US officials have already started advising India and US to consider the permanent expansion of the annual maritime exercise to include other likeminded partners as part of their joint cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. The Malabar 2007 exercise in the Bay of Bengal comprised of five nations-India, US, Australia, Singapore and Japan.

Delivering a talk at a think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the assistant Secretary of Defence for Office of Strategy, Plans and Capabilities, Robert Scher said, “Why can’t we look at regularizing multilateral Malabar all the time? We’ve done it occasionally and then we kind of fall back and then we go forward a little more.”

Making a strong pitch for expansion of Malabar, another senior official in the same department,  Vikram Singh said, “ we wanted to have Japan, Australia included all the time because we see value in that. The US Vice President Joseph Biden also welcomed the expansion of the exercise and said that much more could be done in the US-India defence relationship.

Expansion plan

After the visit of President Barack Obama in last January the Joint Statement had a paragraph on Malabar which had said that they will upgrade the Malabar. India indeed expanded the exercise but not according to the wishes of its US partner, which wanted Australia and Singapore as well.

The preparatory meeting for this exercise was held in Honolulu in late June this year, during which the senior officials of the three participating nations India, US and Japan had taken part. The US team at the trilateral dialogue was led by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel. From the Indian side three Joint secretaries in the MEA Vinay Kwatra, Pradeep Rawat and Amandeep Gill took part.

Interestingly, the Indian Navy went to attend the Malabar -2014 at the Sasebo naval base and Japan was a part of it, but Tokyo was kept outside of the initial planning phase for the Malabar- 2015. India is separately organizing the bilateral naval exercise with Australia later this month called AUSINDEX, India also holds separate bilateral naval exercise with Singapore annually.

Commenting on the AUSINDEX the Australian defence minister Kevin Andrews said “India is the emerging democratic super power of Asia. It is therefore sensible that the relationship between India and Australia be developed and strengthened.”

With Japan invited for the trilateral and Australia for the bilateral exercises the strategic observers believe that 2007 can again be repeated in coming years. With increasing aggressiveness of the Chinese military in the international waters, India, US, Japan along with Australia and Singapore may again join hands in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean as a joint show of maritime strength in the open seas to send a message to China that the international powers will no longer keep quiet over Chinese aggressiveness.