India’s Quiet Counter-China Strategy
Image Credit: US Navy

India’s Quiet Counter-China Strategy

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The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck north-eastern Japan last week may well delay a proposed naval exercise between India, the United States and Japan scheduled for early April. But irrespective of when it takes place, Exercise Malabar will see the Japanese Navy involved for the second year running in this joint India-US exercise.

At first glance, this may seem routine. But in the context of recent tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as last year’s intensifying rhetoric among countries with interests in the South China Sea, this annual exercise is assuming greater significance.

Exercise Malabar, originally envisaged as a bilateral US-India venture, had already assumed a higher profile in 2007 when Singapore, Japan and Australia joined the manoeuvres in the Bay of Bengal, prompting Beijing to issue demarches to all five participating countries. From China’s point of view, the coming together of these five countries marked the beginning of a loose anti-China naval barrier in the Indian Ocean region.

Following China’s protest, New Delhi and Washington refrained from inviting a third country for joint exercises held in 2008 and 2009. But last year, it quietly allowed Japan to participate in exercises off the coast of Okinawa. With Japanese participation failing to provoke a political storm, India decided it was happy for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force to join in again this April.

According to the US Navy, the aim of the exercises is to ‘strengthen the stability of the Pacific Region.’ India, though, officially dismisses this sweeping rhetoric, arguing that the exercises are simply a learning opportunity for the Indian Navy. Sources say the emphasis of this latest ‘learning exercise’ for the Indian Navy will be on anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, air defence, live-fire gunnery training, and visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) operations.

So what is Japan’s interest in taking part? For a start, while Japan’s relations with Moscow and Beijing are erratic, India is seen as a stable and reliable long-term partner, a point underscored by Japan’s recently released National Defence Programme Guidelines.

After touching on the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which provide the traditional parameters of Japanese interests, the guidelines state that Japan must increase its cooperation with India and other countries that share the common interest of enhancing the security of maritime navigation from Africa to the Middle East to East Asia.

India, for its part,hopes to secure access to defence platforms and technologies that Japan has made a priority, such as maritime patrol, air defences, ballistic missile responses, transportation and command communications.

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