Written by C Uday Bhaskar.

A spectacular image of three aircraft carriers steaming abreast with 12 other warships in formation marked the conclusion of Malabar 2017 on Monday (July 17). The week long, three-nation exercise that brought  together the navies of  India, the United States and Japan was conducted in the Bay of Bengal but its ramifications extended far beyond the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

the view from Beijing that this is a devious strategic initiative to constrain the Chinese at sea is misplaced and needs to be allayed.

A total of 16 ships, two submarines and 95 aircraft  participated, including three carriers, the USS Nimitz (CVN-69), the world’s largest aircraft carrier; the INS Vikramaditya, India’s newest flagship and the Japanese helicopter-destroyer Izumo, an aircraft carrier in all but name.

While inter-operability lies at the core of such exercises,  Malabar, which is in its 21st iteration,  has dramatically enhanced India’s  credibility in the Indian Ocean region.  In capitals across the region India is increasingly viewed as a nation that is committed to the collective effort to secure the traditional ‘global commons’ – the oceans of the world. This is in keeping with the vision outlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his advocacy of SAGAR (security and growth for all in the region) – which is also the Sanskrit word for oceans.

The China factor has repeatedly come up in the animated public discourse about Malabar 2017. Some have erroneously linked the exercise to the current India-China tensions in the Doklam plateau of Bhutan.

In May this year, a few months before the exercise began, the Global Times, a Chinese daily caustically observed that “Such a large-scale military exercise was obviously designed to target China’s submarine activities in the East and South China Seas in recent years, promote the US re-balance to the Asia-Pacific and cement the US presence in the region.”  It further added: “Washington brought New Delhi and Tokyo into the exercise to relieve its pressure due to overstretched military presence around the globe and tighten its grip on the Asia-Pacific region.”

However this is a case of misplaced anxiety on the part of Beijing for there is no such sinister design at play. Malabar is more modest in terms of its operational objectives.

It is instructive to note what Admiral Gary Roughead, a former U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) had shared with South Asia Monitor. He noted: “As the Pacific Fleet commander who shaped the 2007 enhancement of Malabar and subsequently as the CNO, I viewed Malabar as the premier opportunity for the very capable and extraordinarily competent Indian and U.S. navies to come together operationally and tactically.   As we have seen, Malabar also can include similar navies, particularly that of Japan.”  He added that such  exercises “contribute directly to the security of vital sea lanes, collective response, and stability in the region.”

The operative phrase is about like-minded navies coming together ‘operationally and tactically’ – and the view from Beijing that this is a devious strategic initiative to constrain the Chinese at sea is misplaced and needs to be allayed.

I would argue that if a U.S. carrier strike group, which included NATO, Japanese or South Korean partners, carried out a Freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP) through the South China Sea, this act would have strategic intent. Such a display of maritime capabilities whilst upholding the principle of freedom of navigation would be seen in Beijing as a visible challenge towards current Chinese claims to rights in waters deemed to be part of the open seas.

India and the U.S. however do not have a formal military alliance partnership. The current engagement is tentative and of relatively recent origin – late 2008 – when the two nations moved slowly from decades of estrangement to cautious engagement.  There are a number of issues and areas where deep dissonance still exists between the Beltway of Washington D.C. and the Raisina of New Delhi. If indeed India were to make the momentous choice to become a US military ally – the trigger would be a belligerent Beijing and thus a legitimate link to the Doklam dispute could be found.

As Admiral Arun Prakash, a former Indian naval Chief observes apropos the India-U.S. bilateral relationship: “Notwithstanding the ‘peaks’ and ‘plateaus’ in diplomatic relations, and amidst the hunt for ‘big ideas’ to re-invigorate the Indo-U.S. relationship, both navies have internalized the spirit of Malabar  and steered a remarkably steady course thereby ensuring  that their  professional affiliation remained on an even keel.”

There is a non-linear strategic  underpinning to what the Malabar nations are doing at sea and that is to create a robust collective effort to nurture the ‘common good’  in the first of the global commons – the maritime domain. The other two are cyber and space and all three are inter-woven in their 21st century salience.

Specific to the western Pacific, Beijing  is seeking to impose its version of sovereignty in both the East and South China Seas. China has also just moved troops to its first overseas military base in Djibouti strategically located in the Horn of Africa in early July, thereby acquiring an Indian Ocean status.

The Malabar exercise is a punctuation that frames the Indian Ocean Region in a certain manner. Will Beijing join this effort – or seek to defy it? On current evidence, it appears that the latter option is more likely and will roil the waters of the IOR in the months and years to come.

C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayBThis article was first published on South Asia Monitor and has been republished with the author’s permission. Image credit: CC by Pacific Command/Flickr.



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