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.
In keeping with the new focus, several high-level defence exchanges have taken place between India and Japan since the middle of 2010.
Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, chairman of India's Chiefs of Staff Committee and the country’s most senior military officer, led an Indian delegation to Japan last September to participate in the first military-to-military talks between the two countries.
Naik's visit came just weeks ahead of a trip by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Tokyo in late October and was a follow-up to discussions in Japan in 2009 involving Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony, in which the two sides expressed their commitment to contribute to bilateral and regional cooperation. Observers reading between the lines though, saw something else — an effort to build regional partnerships to counter the growing influence of China.
These high level visits aside, the Indian Navy has become increasingly active in the use of ‘friendly’ forays into the Pacific, including when a flotilla of Indian warships completed a month-long deployment to the Pacific that included visits to Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
Indeed, these visits underscored the fact that India is quietly reaching beyond major regional powers to put in place a more robust military-to-military partnership with key nations in South-east Asia – in the past eight months alone, India’s military leadership has made trips to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore.
Last July, Indian Army chief General V K Singh was in Vietnam in the hopes of furthering an already strong strategic relationship. His visit was followed by Antony's mid-October trip to Hanoi, when he participated in the first-ever regional meeting of political leaders in the defence arena. In addition, as the current chair of ASEAN, Vietnam invited India to the ASEAN+8 defence ministers meeting.
There are two main reasons for India’s courting of Vietnam. One is that both India and Vietnam have had experience bearing the brunt of Chinese aggression – India in 1962, and Vietnam in 1979. More recently, the collapse of the Soviet Union – long a security guarantor for both India and Vietnam in Asia – left New Delhi and Hanoi without their all-weather, all-powerful friend.
This shared experience, and the fact that they both have longstanding territorial disputes with China, has nudged them together to unite against their common adversary.
Located on the edge of South-east Asia, Vietnam is ideally placed to help counter China's expansion into the South China Sea. With this in mind, and for the past decade, India has been providing Vietnam with assistance in beefing up its naval and air capabilities in an attempt to deny China supremacy in the South China Sea.
But India also has an eye on bolstering ties in East Asia – and not just with Japan. Last September, Antony, who is fast emerging as a quiet but effective player in India's military diplomacy, became the first-ever Indian defence minister to visit South Korea.
The visit was a follow-up on the declaration issued by both countries during South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's state visit to New Delhi in January 2010, when it was decided that the bilateral relationship would be upgraded to a 'strategic partnership.’
Although currently nowhere near the level of Indo-Vietnam defence cooperation, the newly evolving India – South Korea partnership is being seen as a vital component of India's efforts to counter China's increasing footprint in the subcontinent.
Indeed, Seoul is seen as a perfect counterbalance to the China – North Korea -Burma – Pakistan axis that New Delhi and the United States regard as a major irritant to Asia-Pacific stability.
These moves – some subtle, some less so – underscore the fact that while Indian strategic thinkers have been busy sounding frequent alarms over China's increasing forays into the Indian Ocean (and have often overstated fears of Beijing's 'String of Pearls' strategy in the process) New Delhi's defence establishment has been quietly putting in place India's own counter measures to China.
Whatever the consequences of this strategy, one thing is sure: The Indian Ocean and its periphery are poised to become the new playground for the 21st century version of the Great Game.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7