Earlier last week, India and the United States held the 19th edition of Exercise Malabar, a joint naval exercise, in the Bay of Bengal. This year, the interactions were an improvement over previous engagements, owing not only to the closely coordinated nature of combat drills, but also because of the presence of Japanese navy that took 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-U.S. bilateral engagement into a formal structured trilateral exercise, which maritime analysts say may be aimed at countering growing Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.
An abiding symbol of warming strategic relations between the U.S. 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 has for long resisted overtures from the U.S. to broaden the scope of the interaction.
As expected, China made its displeasure apparent, with the Global Times cautioning India against attempts at building an anti-China coalition in the Indo-Pacific region. Chinese analysts believe that India’s “multi-vectored diplomacy” does not allow New Delhi the option of confronting Chinese military power in the Indian Ocean. Even so, India did raise the tempo of its participation in the Malabar, perhaps 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 into sending the INS Sindhudhwaj (Kilo class submarine) and a P8 long-range patrol aircraft for the exercises.
More worrying for China was the inclusion of Japan in an India-U.S. naval exercise, a move some observers say revives the prospects of a “maritime quadrilateral.” In its original avatar in 2007, the “quad” – consisting of the navies of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia – had drawn strong criticism from Beijing. So strident, in fact, had China’s reaction been that to maintain cordial relations with Beijing India and Australia had been forced to clarify their position. Almost a decade later, however, growing PLA-N aggressiveness in the South China Sea seems to have reversed the consensus on keeping the peace with China.
Last month, the Indian Navy (IN) embarked on a much publicized week-long maritime engagement with the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the Bay of Bengal – the first meeting of the two navies 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 U.S. 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 U.S., Japan and India, provided it were invited by New Delhi to do so. A few weeks later, Richard Verma, the U.S. ambassador, seemed to echo that sentiment when he urged New Delhi to assist the U.S. in securing the global commons – affecting a transition from “balancing power” to “leading power.”
To be sure, neither statement made any mention of a Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Yet, their central message was clear: A strong maritime relationship with India is the key to the preserving the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. While the U.S. and its allies remain prepared to share the bulk of the burden of “securing the Asian commons” – as the U.S. ambassador seemed to suggest – India is expected to protect the sub-continental littorals from growing Chinese influence.
It isn’t as if New Delhi has not considered of the implications of formalizing 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 been worried over the possibility of a Chinese takeover of its maritime neighborhood. 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 IOR. More importantly, Indian observers say the deployment pattern of PLAN submarines reveals a plan to secure access in contested spaces, facilitating greater “open-seas” presence – an operational imperative outlined in Beijing’s 2015 defense 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 the China’s growing amphibious warfare capability. After Beijing announced its defense 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 defense 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 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 U.S. Navy now conducting maritime patrols within the 12-mile territorial zone around China’s recently reclaimed islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago, maritime tensions in the Pacific are at an all-time high. In response to Washington’s rebalance to Asia, Beijing has hardened its maritime posture in the Western Pacific. From an Indian perspective, the United States’ endorsement of “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea might leave China with little option but to expand its military maritime presence in the wider Indo-Pacific – if only to show the U.S. and its allies that Chinese maritime power cannot be contained within China’s near-seas.
As India reorients its maritime posture to cater to the new realities of Asia, there is a realization that maritime stability remains hostage to the growing overlap of the strategic ambitions of regional states. India’s maritime managers are acutely conscious of the likelihood of future contingencies arising out of greater 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.
Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.