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India’s Reluctance on Multilateral Naval Exercises

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India’s Reluctance on Multilateral Naval Exercises

India needs to shed its concerns about Chinese sensitivities and embrace its Indian Ocean partners.

India’s Reluctance on Multilateral Naval Exercises
Credit: Official U.S. Navy Page

The scope of the upcoming Indo-U.S. Malabar naval exercise has expanded to a trilateral that includes Japan. This will be the first multilateral Malabar exercise to be held in waters near India since 2007.

However, the exclusion of Australia from the Malabar exercise reflects New Delhi’s penchant for hedging against the prospect of Chinese opposition. New Delhi’s cautious approach to the exercise also reflects an institutional aversion to multilateral exercises geographically close to India. Given the rapidly expanding presence of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), can New Delhi afford to hold on to these hesitancies while simultaneously pursuing its quest to be the dominant security player in the region?

China’s growing naval profile in the Indian Ocean creates a new geopolitical reality that India needs to manage. To adjust its policies to the rapidly changing complexion of the Indian Ocean, New Delhi needs to proactively engage its maritime partners by holding trilateral and quadrilateral naval exercises in the Indian Ocean. Yet while India has not shied away from conducting bilateral exercises, it has a maintained a strong reluctance to hold multilateral exercises in the Indian Ocean owing to Chinese sensitivities. Given that China shows little apparent concern about India’s vulnerabilities in the Indian Ocean in light of the growing China-Pakistan nexus, India should shed its inhibitions and engage in institutionalized multilateral military exercises and engagements in the region.

In May 2007, a proposal put forth by Shinzo Abe, then in his first tenure as prime minister of Japan, of an arc of freedom and democracy comprising the U.S., Japan, India and Australia, the informal quadrilateral was formed. Building on that idea, senior officials met on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Manila in May 2007 to discuss the possibility of expanding naval exercises. These discussions led to the decision to expand Indo-U.S. naval cooperation, which had begun in 1992, to include the naval fleets of Australia, Singapore and Japan. The Malabar exercise is an important symbol of India-U.S. naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean, and the decision to include likeminded countries in the exercise was the first of its kind, with strategic undertones for the region.

The week-long series of training and development exercises in the Bay of Bengal involved more than 20,000 personnel. It was significant for two reasons: First, it symbolized a transformational shift away from the traditional India-U.S. security policies during the Cold War period, such as the 1971 dispatch of Task Force 74 to the Bay of Bengal. Second, Malabar 2007 involved unprecedented air defense exercises, anti-submarine warfare training, and a host of professional exchanges between ships and aircraft. It was also the last multilateral version of Malabar to be held in the IOR.

Chinese Sensitivities

India’s military exercises with different countries over the years show one clear pattern, an aversion to certain types of multilateral exercises near its coast or on its territory. This policy is driven by a desire to avoid being drawn into military alliances. More recently, however, the tendency has been to avoid being drawn into alliances or networks that might threaten China.

Certainly, India has not been averse to multilateral and bilateral exercises in themselves. Indeed, over the years it has conducted and participated in many. IBSAMBAR (India, Brazil & South Africa), Varuna (India & France), Milan (16 countries from the Indian Ocean Region), Simbex (India & Singapore), KONKAN (India & U.K.) are just a few in a long list of naval exercises that have held in the three sea bodies surrounding India. These exercises have not drawn protests from China as most of the countries involved have not been claimants in the South China Sea.

In contrast, the 2007 Malabar exercise included Japan and Australia – two countries in military alliances with the United States. The fact that the area of operation was in the Bay of Bengal did little to assuage Chinese concerns and played straight into China’s Malacca Strait Dilemma.

Indian participation in exercises in the Pacific like RIMPAC or Air Force exercises on the U.S. mainland like Red Flag have drawn little criticism from China. However, a multilateral exercise like Malabar was seen as a putative maritime entente aimed at containing China. Unsurprisingly, in 2007 it drew a sharp reaction from China in spite of the then U.S. Navy’s Pacific Commander Timothy J. Keating observing that the maneuvers were not aimed at forming a quadrilateral front against China. He stated, “Let me emphasize, there is no effort on our part or any of these other countries (participating in the exercises) to isolate China or put Beijing in a closet.” In the wake of those exercises, the multinational component was shifted out of the Indian Ocean, and the Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean became a bilateral India-U.S. affair. There is considerable sensitivity in New Delhi regarding the scope and symbolism of the Malabar exercises. New Delhi has on several previous occasions rebuffed U.S. attempts to include Japan as another participant in the exercises. And during the India-Japan-Australia dialogue last month, when Australia expressed interest in participating in the exercises along with Japan, India was reluctant.

Yet if India is set to have a clear and cogent Indian Ocean strategy, this deep-rooted hesitance to host multilaterals in the Indian Ocean region will need to change. By excluding Australia from this year’s Malabar exercise, even as it prepares to hold its first bilateral with that country, India is doing little to scale down Beijing’s reaction. Does a three country entente really look less threatening than a four or five country one? Irrespective of Australia’s inclusion, Beijing would be uncomfortable with the Malabars and India may as well just shed its inhibitions and stop pandering to Chinese concerns.

Multilateral Military Links

Recently a Chinese Yuan-class 335 submarine docked at Pakistan’s Karachi port. The Indian Navy played down the revelation. The Navy’s Vice Chief Admiral P. Murugesan insisted that the “docking of a submarine belonging to some other country in a third country itself is not a big concern.” However India’s inability to detect not only the sub before it docked at Karachi but also the support ship accompanying it is alarming, given the fact that the vessels circumnavigated India.

New Delhi has over the last few years begun setting up a chain of costal surveillance radar (CSR) stations in the IOR. Apart from Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives, Madagascar and Muscat, there are six Coastal Surveillance Radar Stations based in Sri Lanka. These stations assist India in monitoring ships sailing past these regions, helping the Navy observe the movements of all ships operating in the Indian Ocean. The IOR surveillance project is widely seen as India’s response to China’s aggressive new operations in the region and reports that Beijing is pushing for the establishment of 18 deepwater posts with the African and Asian littoral. While the costal surveillance network is a step in the right direction, it will not help India’s woefully lacking anti-submarine assets detect underwater threats. Indeed, the inability to detect the submarine supply ship that docked at Karachi highlights the critical gaps in India’s capabilities.

Creating partnerships to plug these critical gaps is vital for India. And military exercises and interoperability will be hold the key in creating military-to-military linkages that can be leveraged for joint surveillance. This could simply be sharing information or it could be logistical cooperation to achieve more comprehensive coverage. The U.S. and France both have a number of bases in the IOR region and are equally concerned by China’s increasing footprint.

However several agreements that would enable greater cooperation between the Indian and U.S. armed forces face political opposition in India. Some of these agreements, like the Logistics Support Agreement, would facilitate increased use of shared logistical services. Similarly, agreements like the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) would provide logistical support and enable exchanges of communication and related equipment; Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) would require the supply of equipment to India that is compatible with American systems. Signing these “foundational agreements” is critical to enhancing interoperability in the Indian Ocean.

It is time for India to leverage existing and emerging multilateral platforms to engage deeply with partner countries and take on a greater leadership role in the IOR. Given the centrality of the Indian Ocean to its national security, New Delhi cannot afford to ignore any short or long term threats, and must begin to be proactive, rather than reactive.

Pushan Das and Sylvia Mishra are researchers at the Observer Research Foundation.