Malabar exercise

The Manmohan Singh government has presented it as a fait accompli for the next Indian government to go ahead with the decision of inviting Japan in the revived multilateral Malabar naval exercise, a decision of far reaching strategic significance.

If the coming Indian leadership shows guts, the trilateral Malabar may prove to be a game changer in India’s maritime military engagement.  

On the sea bed of the trilateral maritime exercise the three nations can build a foundation of deeper maritime alliance to jointly protect each other’s maritime security interests and ensure the free movements of the military and trade cargo over the Indo-Pacific region.

During the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to New Delhi the Indian government gave the go ahead for transforming the Malabar bilateral exercise into a trilateral one. Abe’s visit was on the eve of the Indian Republic Day celebration parade, which he attended as the Chief Guest, an annual honor India bestows on the Heads of States whom India considers worth wooing.

The decision to again invite Japan to join the Malabar exercise was taken after long years of strategic hedging among the Indian leadership, which probably was propelled by the continued Chinese intransigence on the Sino Indian borders.   

In fact it was Manmohan government which had developed cold feet in 2007 to drop Japan and Australia from future maritime engagements, after China handed over demarche to all the participating nations.  

Expansion proposal

In 2007 the scope of the India-US Malabar exercise was expanded to include Japan, Australia and Singapore. Probably what triggered the Chinese demarche was the statement of the then Australian foreign minister in Tokyo to develop a quadrilateral alliance between India, Japan, US and Australia.

Such an alliance had the potentials of checkmating the Chinese moves in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. In the absence of any counter moves, the Chinese have certainly ventured to establish its monopoly over the Pacific Ocean challenging the might of the US Pacific command which has failed to give effect to the US Administration Rebalancing Asia policy earlier declared as Pivot to Asia.

The US strategists had in fact declared a move to redeploy 60 percent of its naval assets in the Pacific Ocean.  But the Chinese preempted this move with the establishment of the ADIZ over the major portion of East China Sea which the Chinese watchers fears will be extended to the South China Sea.

The Senkaku island dispute gave the excuse to China to expand its air territory over the East China Sea. India is among the major nations to be affected by this Chinese move, but the Japanese are said to be the principal receiving nation of the enforcement of the Chinese suzerainty over the maritime areas near Japan. These are the major maritime trade routes for India, as more than half of the Indian merchandise pass through these sea lanes.

This is why the joint Manmohan- Abe statement released in January this year made special mention of the commitment of Japan and India to the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes based on the principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Without referring to the establishment of the ADIZ by the Chinese military the two leaders further emphasized on the importance of freedom of over flight and civil aviation safety in accordance with the recognized principles of international law and the relevant standards and recommended practices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

But these appear to be rhetorical statements, which the two countries lack the political will to enforce. The Americans definitely would like to draw India in its China containment strategy, the existence of which is denied by the US establishment.

But India looms large in the American grand design to contain China from expanding its wings in the entire Indo-Pacific geopolitical landscape. The US military might is gradually getting dwarfed under the rising Chinese defence modernization and hence the US would like to involve India in its grand design by instigating Japan to lure India in its strategic fold.  

China’s concern

The Indo-US joint Malabar naval exercises was initiated in 1992 after the formal end of Cold War and this exercise has gradually evolved to a very high level with the participation of destroyers and nuclear submarines in the Indian maritime area and the two countries have also interacted in the Pacific Ocean, where Indian Navy after the Malabar exercise conducted another bilateral with the Japanese Navy.

This attracted world attention as the three navies are considered antagonistic to the Chinese interests.  Since the three countries have also started engaging in trilateral dialogue, hackles have been raised in the Chinese strategic circles. The tone and tenor of these dialogues have apparently never been anti Chinese and no direct  reference has ever been made  to China but the Track-2 dialogue among the three nations have indirectly challenged Chinese designs in the Indo-Pacific region  along with East China Sea and the South China Sea.

A recent trilateral strategic dialogue held recently recommended that the three nations must address the challenges of Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to continued efforts to develop air sea battle concept, the maritime security coalition needs to work on the strategy of offshore control to defeat A2AD threats and its own A2AD as part of the strategy.

Undoubtedly this recommendation has evolved from the recent Chinese move to set up ADIZ over the East China Sea and fears that China may replicate this move in the South China Sea also.

Though the officials taking part in the trilateral dialogue never openly talk on these lines, what transpires in the closed doors is any body’s guess. If the Chinese continue to threaten the South China Sea coastal States and develop a kind of A2AD in the South China Sea, it will threaten the free movement of maritime traffic. Hence the three countries, in the joint statement never fails to call upon the States ( indirect reference to China)  to respect the maritime law codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ( UNCLOS) and always emphasize the importance of freedom of navigation and sea lane security in particular.

The strategic thinkers of the leading think tanks of three countries have already started talking in terms of building a trilateral maritime security coalition, which may evolve in due course of time.

If China continues to threaten the freedom of navigation in the maritime area and if the three nations continue to stick together in the maritime domain they may ultimately scale up the level of the trilateral exercise to some sort of an alliance. Since the maritime interests of three countries converge in the Indo-Pacific region, they will need to gang up to protect their strategic and economic interests.

The think tanks have been confabulating over last three years and recommending important inputs for the official level Track-1 dialogue among the three countries. In fact the decision to invite Japan in the Malabar exercises was recommended by the Track-2 dialogue.

The think tanks have concurred that Indo-Pacific region faces a variety of traditional and nontraditional security issues even as it rapidly develops economically. They also concurred that Japan, India and the US are the key players in security and defence in the Indo-Pacific region and that they share not only share mutual interests but also responsibility for ensuring the region’s security and prosperity.

 The three nations can jointly ensure the safeguarding of their interests only when the navies and the armed forces of the three nations develop interoperability and frequently indulge in show of strength together in the high seas and try to preempt the Chinese moves to set up their own military zones.