By C Uday Bhaskar
China is seeking to bridge the naval gap with relation to the US with a heightened sense of urgency, and this is reflected in its reaction to the Malabar naval exercise. Malabar 2017, the trilateral joint naval exercise, which began on Monday and brings together the navies of India, Japan and the United States, was tentatively mooted in 1992 on Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s watch. The first exercise took place in 1994 as a bilateral with the US Navy. At the time it created political ripples for the two ‘estranged’ democracies were engaging in a joint military exercise, albeit at a modest scale.
Domestically, the political opposition to this move came because of the negative symbolism associated with the US, especially the US Navy. The coercive role played by US Navy’s Seventh fleet, led by anti-aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, in the Bay of Bengal , during the 1971 Bangladesh war was still fresh on India’s mind.
Since 1994, the Malabar exercise has been institutionalised in a progressively robust manner and both nations see a certain value addition in sustaining this engagement. In 2007, the scope of Malabar was enhanced and the high-point was a five-nation multilateral naval exercise that brought on board three other nations — Japan, Australia and Singapore.
However this display of multilateral naval cooperation off Okinawa heightened China’s anxiety index and more problems were created wherein Beijing issued demarches to the nations concerned. Both India and the US sought to assuage Chinese concerns and the Malabar exercise was cut short.
In January 2015, India and the US upgraded Malabar formally to include Japan.
The geopolitical subtext of the Malabar exercise is complex and multi-layered. At one level, it denotes the growing level of interoperability between the navies of the US and India, and this is distinctive for India has steadfastly refrained from joining any formal military alliance.
The Indian Navy – despite its diminutive Cinderella status (in relation to the other two services) - came onto the global radar in 1988 when its ships were the first to respond to an attempted coup in the Maldives. Anecdotal recall has it that then US President Ronald Reagan, when apprised of this development was supposed to have asked: “India has such a capable navy?” The subsequent ‘Cactus’ mop up by the Indian Army and Air Force drew accolades globally.
It took the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union for India to review and reset its relationship with the US. An astute Rao encouraged a hesitant bureaucracy that had been nurtured in an anti-American ecosystem to engage with Washington.
The naval component of the Kicklighter proposals, which suggested comprehensive military-to-military cooperation became the Malabar joint exercises and signalled an intent on both sides to sustain a professional level of interaction despite their asymmetry in capability.
One could make a case that the Malabar exercise represented the gradual security outlook liberalisation of the Indian octopus and that Rao in an unobtrusive manner provided the trigger pulse not just for economic liberalisation, but also for a strategic re-orientation of the insular Indian world view.
The resilience of the Malabar exercise is reflected in the fact that though India-US relations plummeted as far south as is possible after the May 1998 nuclear tests, the two sides picked up the naval thread after 9/11 and India provided escorts for US ships in the Indian Ocean at the time.
The deeper geopolitical salience of the exercise is about joint stewardship of the maritime domain – the traditional global commons. It is instructive to note that the concept of a ‘global common’ has now been extended to include the cyber and space domains and in many ways the Malabar exercise is a symbol of the depth of such collective endeavour.
The US with its qualitative technological profile is the lead global navy – and there is no other nation in the next 10 places. China is seeking to bridge the naval gap with relation to the US with a heightened sense of urgency and anxiety, and this is often reflected in its reaction to the Malabar exercise. Hence its irate response in 2007 and subsequently signals have been conveyed by China to both Australia and Singapore to desist from donning the Malabar hat.
The current stand-off in the Dokalam plateau is one strand of the troubled India-China relationship. But for now it is evident that Delhi is not seeking to play the Malabar card and stoke China’s imagined anxieties about a democratic naval/maritime coalition that will bring alive the Malacca dilemma first outlined by then Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003.
Malabar 2017 will have three carriers participating – the US Navy’s Nimitz (the world’s largest carrier), the INS Vikramaditya, and a Japanese helo-carrier and a nuclear submarine. While interoperability is at the core of such exercises, Malabar will burnish India’s credibility in the maritime domain and punctuate the Indian Ocean region in a manner that prioritises collective effort to secure the first of the three global commons.
Whether this can be extended to other maritime domains remains to be seen.
(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi)