The 2017 edition of the Malabar multilateral naval exercise has entered the sea phase. This edition is significant for the diversity and number of platforms involved. Amidst fluctuations in the global political order unleashed by the US elections and Brexit, the exercise affirms that concerned countries will ensure regional stability supporting economic growth. Malabar 2017 also highlights India’s responsibility towards maintaining good order at the sea by confronting traditional and non-traditional challenges.
In fact, the Malabar exercise was initiated in 1992 as the global political order went into a brief flux with the disintegration of the Soviet Union ending the Cold War. Then Indian government faced major challenges with regard to reorienting India’s foreign policy attitude and economic structure. The PV Narasimha Rao government initiated reforms liberalizing India’s economy. Today, it is the fastest growing major economy in the world with a positive forecast.
The economic affairs cannot be compartmentalized from strategic affairs. The disintegration of Soviet Union meant that India lost its major international partner, which provided political and military support in critical times such as the 1971 India-Pakistan war. However, the new reality is that the United States (US) remains the only superpower with greater diplomatic, economic and military potential. The Malabar exercise supported India’s efforts to institutionalize these changes by opening a diplomatic channel with the US via the navies.
The current edition is as significant as the first one in terms of profound changes in the global political order. There is widespread fear that the US is about to concede its primary position in maintaining global security by making deals with resurgent Russia and rising China. It could undo Obama administration’s rebalance strategy to defend status-quo in the Asia-Pacific. The Trump administration had already withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic leg of Asia-Pacific strategic affairs. This has given China much space to promote its version of regional economic integration named One Belt, One Road.
In this context, the Malabar 2017 multilateral naval exercise removes fear of the US abandoning its regional security responsibilities. It is joined by India and Japan, Asia’s two middle powers which are concerned with the overtures of Trump administration to China. Both India and Japan
have territorial disputes with China which are simmering in recent times. China contests Japan’s sovereign authority in East China Sea and India’s territorial integrity across the Himalayas.
Days before the commencement of Malabar 2017 exercises, Indian Army confronted China’s unilateral attempts to lay a road in the Doklam region. It is a tri-junction area between India, China and Bhutan disputed between the latter two. The geographical shape of this area gives China opportunity to spearhead into the ‘chicken-neck’ corridor connecting Indian mainland with its North East region. This face-off is worse in recent years given the involvement of a third country and reinforcements happening on both sides of the border. The Malabar exercise is happening at this key moment that allows India to gain solidarity and support of crucial powers such as Japan and the US.
Anti-submarine operations are a major part of this exercise. Concerned with unusual explanation of China for deploying its submarines in the Indian Ocean, India and the US have decided to share information regarding such movements. While India considers the Indian Ocean as a medium connecting the developing countries of Asia and Africa, China perceives it as a domain of strategic competition. The Gwadar port construction is an example of China’s strategic designs for the Indian Ocean. The anti-submarine exercises in the Bay of Bengal is critical for safeguarding key strategic installations on its coastline as well as promote the sea as connecting point between South and South East Asian countries.
Australia is another strategically located country in this region and is key to safeguarding the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Australia became part of the Malabar exercise in 2007 giving support to the idea of a quadrilateral or quad, a concert of Asia-Pacific democratic nations. China had made overt displeasure against this grouping which resulted in scaling back of the exercise next year. This year, Australia approached India to participate in Malabar 2017 as an observer but the request was declined. India’s approach is to gradually scale up the bilateral maritime exercise, AUSINDEX, before it can be invited to the Malabar.
Although comments were made that India is weary of provocating China, it is conceivable that India is trying to leverage Australia’s possible involvement in the Malabar exercise as a political instrument against China. Moreover, Australia’s ties with China are a source of concern to India and Japan. Australia has allowed China to construct projects in the country and has even leased
Another key issue that needs to be highlighted is the landing of American long range maritime surveillance aircraft, Poseidon P-8A, at INS Rajali in Tamil Nadu. Rajali is the base for India’s own Poseidon aircraft dubbed P-8I to conduct surveillance primarily in the Bay of Bengal and extending to Malacca Straits. The permission for landing an American military aircraft deep in the India’s territory demonstrates confluence of Indian and American political will to deepen cooperation on military and strategic affairs. India and the US have concluded Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) last year allowing refueling and replenishment at each other’s bases without requiring to transfer funds each time.
The Malabar 2017 multilateral exercise allows Indian Navy to improve interoperability and practice sophisticated military operations with advanced navies of the US and Japan. This is a critical requirement given India’s national security situation facing China’s ingresses and instability plaguing the international political order. The Malabar exercise demonstrates India’s responsibility to safeguard the global commons and grants diplomatic and military support from its close partners.