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Malabar 2017: Was China the elephant in the ocean?

There is a non-linear strategic  underpinning to what the Malabar nations are doing at sea and that is to render robust the collective effort to nurture the 'common good'  in the first of the global commons – the maritime domain, writes C Uday Bhaskar for South Asia Monitor

Jul 18, 2017
By C Uday Bhaskar
 
A spectacular image of three carriers  steaming abreast with 12 other naval ships following  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, USA and  Japan  was conducted in the Bay of Bengal extending into the  Indian Ocean region (IOR). 
 
A total of 16 ships, two submarines and 95 aircraft  participated  and this included three carriers – the USS Nimitz, the world’s largest  aircraft carrier ; the  INS  Vikramaditya – and a Japanese helicopter-carrier;  and a US  nuclear submarine.  
 
While inter-operability is at the core of such exercises,  Malabar, which is in its 21st iteration,  has enhanced   India’s  credibility in  the Indian Ocean region  as a nation that  is committed to a  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 and some invalid linkages have been made with the current India-China tension  in the Doklam plateau of Bhutan.  
 
In May this year, a few months before the exercise began, the Global Times, a Chinese daily caustically  noted about the intent of  Malabar 2017 :  "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," it said.
 
However this may be 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 US 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 U.S. Navy Chief of Naval Operations (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 naves coming together ‘operationally and tactically’ – and the view from Beijing that this is a devious strategic initiative to constrain China at sea is misplaced and needs to be allayed. I would argue that if a US led carrier task-force that included  American  military allies,  such as NATO partners and those in East Asia carried out a FON ( freedom of navigation) exercise  through the South China Sea to assert their capability and uphold the  FON principle   - this would have strategic intent and visibly challenge the current Chinese claim to territorial rights in certain water bodies deemed to be part of the open seas.
 
India and the US do not have a formal military alliance partnership. The current engagement is tentative and of 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 and  Raisina. If indeed  Delhi makes such a choice,  to become a US military ally  – the trigger would be  a belligerent Beijing and this is the Doklam linkage.
 
As Admiral Arun Prakash, a former Indian naval Chief observes apropos the India-US bilateral :   “Notwithstanding the ‘peaks’ and ‘plateaus’ in diplomatic relations, and amidst the hunt for ‘big ideas’ to re-invigorate the Indo-US 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 render robust the 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 seaboard, Beijing  is seeking to impose its version of sovereignty at sea. China has  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 IOR  in a certain manner. Will Beijing join this effort – or seek to defy it? On current evidence, it appears that the latter option is likely to be the exigency that will roil the waters of the Indian Ocean region.
 
(The author is Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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