Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces (MSDF) will likely be a permanent participant in the U.S.-India-led Malabar naval exercise going forward, according to a report by the Yomiuri Shimbun. As Prashanth Parameswaran noted in these pages recently, the MSDF will return to the Malabar exercise this year in October, which will take place in the Bay of Bengal, off the Indian coast. This will be the first time the MSDF will have returned to participate in Malabar in the Bay of Bengal—it first did so in 2007 in a larger exercise which comprised the navies of Australia, Singapore in addition to the U.S. and Indian navies. Malabar began as an annual bilateral naval exercise in 1992 and usually alternates between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
In addition to Malabar 2007, Japan participated in the exercise’s 2009 and 2014 iterations. Its involvement in Malabar 2015 marks the first time Japan has participated in the exercises in two consecutive years. Japan’s increasing participation comes amid a general strategic convergence between India and Japan, and a reassessment of the U.S.-Japan defense guidelines spurred by reforms pursued by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan and India, while not allies, regard each other as strategic global partners. Starting in late 2013, the Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) formalized regular bilateral naval exercises between New Delhi and Tokyo; the first iteration of that exercise was held in the Bay of Bengal in December 2013.
According to the Yomiuri report, the MSDF will send destroyers and maritime surveillance aircraft to participate in mock anti-air and anti-submarine warfare drills with their U.S. and Indian counterparts. Malabar has historically also had a focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, anti-piracy, and search and rescue.
If Japan formally becomes a permanent, yearly participant in Malabar, it would be a significant development in U.S.-India-Japan trilateralism. Three-way cooperation between these like-minded democracies has been growing in recent years, but formal military cooperation has been limited. In fact, Malabar 2007 could have led to a broader formalization of a regular naval exercise incorporating the United States, India, Japan, and Australia (back then, this was Abe’s vision for a “quadrilateral” security dialogue among like-minded Asian states), but progress was stalled due to a perception that this would alienate China—Australia hasn’t returned to Malabar since 2007. With China’s assertive and revisionist moves in the East and South China Seas in recent years and Japan’s subsequent moves toward normalization under Abe, Tokyo’s regular participation in naval exercises across the region, including Malabar, will be less contentious.