By S M Hali
Malabar 2017, a massive tri-nation naval exercise held in the Bay of Bengal from July 10-17, 2017, involved the United States, Japan and India deploying their warships, submarines and aircraft carriers.
Prima facie. the war-game involved maritime training focusing on high-end war-fighting skill sets, combined carrier strike group operations, surface and anti-submarine warfare, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), helicopter operations, and visit-board-search-seizure (VBSS) operations.
The exercise also included medical operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, damage control exercises and subject matter expert and professional exchanges. The US State Department reiterated that through Malabar-2017, "Indian, Japanese and US maritime forces look forward to working together again to build upon and advance their working relationship to collectively provide security and stability in the Indo-Asia Pacific region. Each iteration of this exercise helps to increase the level of understanding between our sailors and interoperability between our three navies."
In reality, the Malabar naval exercises have been conducted annually since 1992, and have grown in size and complexity in recent years. Initially, the US and India were engaging in these Exercises. The US, India and Japan view China’s growing military might with suspicion and in the near past have become wary of a rising Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. This has prompted the largest tri-nation naval exercise the region has seen in 22 years.
It is unfortunate but true that some of the issues regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute have been fuelled by the US. The SCS disputes involve both island and maritime claims among China, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Taiwan, which is an integral part of China, presents itself as a sovereign state with the backing of the US and also tries to jump into the fray.
The disputes include the islands, reefs, banks, and other features of the SCS, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin. There are further disputes centred on the waters near the Indonesian Natuna Islands, which many do not regard as part of the SCS.
Japan’s claim of ownership over China’s Diaoyu Islands has also become a bone of contention between the two. Claimant states are interested in retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas, the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the SCS, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.
An estimated US$5 trillion worth of global trade passes through the SCS and many non-claimant states want the SCS to remain international waters.
To promote this, the US-which should have no concern with the issue-much to the chagrin of China, conducts "freedom of navigation" operations and goads other states to challenge China. Beijing on the other hand, seeks to settle all issues peacefully with each claimant and has already successfully resolved it with some nations.
The US is intent on keeping these issues alive and the Malabar exercises are part of this agenda.The week-long war games engaged a total of 16 ships-including the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, India’s INS Vikramanditya, a reconditioned Russian-built aircraft carrier, and Japan’s JS Izumo, a helicopter carrier with an emphasis on anti-submarine warfare-as well as two submarines and 95 aircrafts.
The buildup of naval power in the region comes at a time of increased tensions between India and China. The current stand-off in the Dokalam plateau is one strand of the troubled Sino-Indian relationship. For now, it is evident that Delhi is not seeking to play the Malabar card and stoke China’s apprehensions about a democratic naval/maritime coalition that will bring alive the Malacca dilemma first outlined by then Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003.
China has steadily increased its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean in recent years; part of an assertive blue-water strategy that aims to extend the country’s operating ability far beyond Chinese shores.
Delhi has long viewed the India Ocean as part of its immediate sphere of influence. The expansion of China’s naval power-and its submarine fleet in particular-has forced Indian leaders to re-evaluate the country’s coastal defence policy.
Indian warships have been prowling in the SCS while its submarines have been lurking in Chinese waters without any apparent peaceful purpose. For the first time, this year’s Malabar exercises included exchanges on anti-submarine warfare and patrol and reconnaissance, according to the US Navy.
The Indian Navy also sent its Sindhughosh class submarine and a P-81 long range maritime surveillance aircraft to participate in Malabar, further underscoring the exercise’s anti-submarine focus.
India has also recently begun to take a more active role in working with regional partners to contain China’s influence. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the US in June, along with the sale of American surveillance drones to the Indian Navy, also reaffirmed the two counties’ relationship and further emboldened India’s stance against China.
Daily Times, July 22, 2017