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Malabar-2015 and Power Dynamics in the Asian Commons

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 23, 2015

    Earlier this week, India, the United States and Japan completed Exercise Malabar, a joint multilateral naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal. This year the exercises were an improvement over previous engagements - owing not only to the close-coordinated nature of combat drills, but also because of the presence of Japanese navy that is taking part in an Indian Ocean iteration of the Malabar for the first time in eight years. Importantly, the interaction has transitioned from being an India-US bilateral engagement into a formal structured trilateral exercise, signifying a strategic push, which maritime analysts say is aimed at countering growing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.

    A clear symbol of warming strategic relations between the US and India, Exercise Malabar is the most wide-ranging professional interaction the Indian navy has with any of its partner maritime forces. Even so, the decision to include Japan as a permanent member came as a surprise, considering that New Delhi had been resisting overtures from the US to broaden the scope of the interaction.

    Expectedly, China made its displeasure apparent, with the Global Times cautioning India against attempts at building an anti-China coalition in the Indo-Pacific region.1 Chinese analysts believe that India’s “multi-vectored diplomacy” which requires it to work constructively with all its partners does not allow it to be party to any moves to limit Chinese military power. Even so, India may have been compelled to raise the tempo of its participation in the Malabar at the behest of the United States, whose deployment of the aircraft carrier (USS Roosevelt) and a nuclear attack submarine (USS City of Corpus Christi) subtly pressured New Delhi to send the INS Sindhudhwaj (Kilo class submarine) and a P8 long-range patrol aircraft for the exercises.

    More worrying for China is the inclusion of Japan in an India-US naval exercise, a move that may eventually end up reviving the maritime quadrilateral. In its original avatar in 2008, the “quad” – consisting of the navies of the US, India, Japan and Australia - had drawn sharp protests from Beijing. China’s strident reaction had forced India and Australia to withdraw from the grouping, acknowledging it to be an error of strategic judgment. Almost a decade later, growing People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) aggressiveness in the South China Sea seems to have reversed the consensus on keeping the peace with Beijing.

    Last month, the Indian Navy (IN) embarked on a much publicised week-long maritime engagement with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the Bay of Bengal - the first time the two navies met for a bilateral operational exchange in the Indian Ocean. The composition of the participating contingents -- especially the presence of a Collins class submarine and a P8 maritime surveillance aircraft – suggested an anti-China focus. Significantly, the AUSINDEX was held within weeks of Australia’s trilateral engagement with Japan and the US in the Southwestern Pacific in July, raising the possibility of a potential alliance of democracies to counter Chinese military activity in the Indian Ocean Region.

    Speculation about an emerging ‘security quartet’ in the Asia-Pacific gained further momentum after the visit of the Australian defence minister, Kevin Andrews, to New Delhi in early-September. Addressing a public gathering, Andrews observed that the current Australian government was open to participating in a four-sided security initiative with the US, Japan and India, provided it were invited by New Delhi to do so.2 A few weeks later, Richard Verma, the US Ambassador, seemed to echo the same sentiment, when he urged New Delhi to assist the US in securing the global commons – affecting a transition from “balancing power” to “leading power”.3

    To be sure, neither statement made any mention of Chinese maritime presence in the IOR. Yet, their central message was clear: strong defence ties with India were the key to the preservation of the maritime balance in the Indo-Pacific region. While the US and its allies remain prepared to share the bulk of the burden of “securing the Asian commons” - as the US ambassador seemed to suggest - India was expected to protect the sub-continental littorals from growing Chinese influence.

    It is not as if New Delhi has not thought through the implications of formalising multilateral maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean. India has good reason to be wary of Chinese military presence in the IOR. Since May this year, when a Chinese Yuan class submarine visited Karachi, New Delhi has agonised over the possibility of Chinese takeover of its maritime neighbourhood. In the garb of anti-piracy operations, Indian observers believe, Chinese submarines have been performing specific stand-alone missions – a process meant to lay the groundwork for a rotating but permanent deployment in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). More importantly, Indian analysts say the deployment pattern of PLA-N submarines reveals an intent to secure access in contested spaces, facilitating greater ‘open-seas’ presence – an operational imperative outlined in Beijing’s 2015 defence white paper. That such a tactic is at work was corroborated by India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) recently, when it reported an alarming rise in attempts by Chinese naval ships to get close to Indian territorial waters.

    Equally significant for New Delhi is China’s growing amphibious warfare capability. After Beijing announced its defence white paper in May 2015, recent PLA-N exercises have had an amphibious component, including ground assault drills by marine forces. Chinese naval contingents have conducted a series of island defence exercises this year, deploying dedicated amphibious task-forces in the Western and Far-Eastern Pacific. Even PLA-N anti-piracy deployments in the Indian Ocean have included the Type-71 class amphibious vessels, suggesting an aspiration for greater littoral presence. Indian analysts point out that China’s growing expeditionary capability can only be counteracted by the United States’ substantial amphibious assets, which is why the Exercise Malabar this year is reported to have laid emphasis on littoral operations.

    India’s reliance on the United States to curtail China’s Indian Ocean ambitions, however, has a significant downside. With the US Navy announcing its intention to conduct maritime patrols within the 12-mile territorial zone around China’s recently reclaimed islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago, the ground is being prepared for a wider maritime confrontation. Washington’s Pivot to Asia has already led Beijing to harden its maritime posture in the Western Pacific; the endorsement of “freedom of navigation” patrols might leave China with little option but to expand its military maritime presence across the Indo-Pacific – if only to show the US and its allies that Chinese maritime power cannot be contained within the cramped confines of the South China Sea.

    As India reorients its maritime posture to cater to the new realities of Asia, there is a realisation that regional maritime stability is increasingly susceptible to growing power imbalances. India’s maritime managers remain acutely aware of the likelihood of future contingencies arising out of strategic imbalances in the Asian commons. The Malabar-2015 and AUSINDEX, therefore, need to be seen as part of a broader collective effort to preserve the balance of maritime power in the Indo-Pacific littorals.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.