Defence and Security

Next step after Malabar: Inter-operability and greater integration among navies

Jul 10, 2017
The naval exercise is nowadays geopolitics in miniature. This week, the annual Malabar exercise will play out in the Indian Ocean. As United States President Donald Trump promised, the exercise will be the biggest one since Malabar began in 1992. The highlight will be the presence of three carriers, one from each participating country: India, the US and Japan. Along with their respective escort ships, this could result in 20 or more ships participating. Malabar is probably today the most significant naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, militarily and politically. A true measure of its symbolism is that China, as it has done almost every year, has already wagged a finger and sent a spy ship to watch the proceedings. Australia, from a different perspective, has applied for observer status and signaled a desire to become a full-blown participant in the future.
 
When a government lends its flag to a naval exercise it is making a statement of intent. The present Malabar exercises reflects the common concerns India, the US and Japan have about the future of the maritime Indo-Pacific. A slow shrinkage of the US naval footprint in the region is merging with the growing military presence of China. These three countries share a view that Beijing’s idea of how the world should be run is largely incompatible with their own.
 
Naval exercises can be treated as a dating game but they fall short of a marriage. That has to come from a broad foreign and economic policy engagement on many different levels. Security cooperation in all its permutations, trade and investment on a large scale, preferably common political values and a convergence of worldviews are among the ways true alliances are forged. Trying to use all that to stitch that together a disparate bunch of countries and in the face of interference from the world’s number two power is not easy. When dealing with a country as wealthy and powerful as China maintaining discipline in the ranks is always an issue. The collapse of the Quad – which at one point included five navies – is a testament to the reluctance of governments to be on the wrong side of Beijing.
 
Malabar has weathered a number of episodes when New Delhi, Tokyo and Washington, individually, sought to unsuccessfully woo Beijing. But with this maturity must come progress. There is a need to take these naval exercises to a higher level. Inter-operability and much greater integration is what these navies – and their respective governments – need to be considering for the next generation of Malabar exercises.
 
Hindustan Times, July 10, 2017

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