This week, Indian naval officials provided more details regarding the 2018 iteration of the MILAN naval exercises, which the Indian Navy will host at Port Blair from March 6 to 13. Though the engagement has been predictably overshadowed by wider geopolitical readings before it even gets underway, it is worth keeping in mind its significance on its own terms as well.
India’s contributions with respect to the Indian Ocean and the maritime realm more generally has long been evident in a whole range of initiatives, from its involvement in wider multilateral groupings such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) to a series of exercises it carries out with other countries, with the Malabar Exercises being a case in point (See: “The Malabar Exercises: An Emerging Platform for Indo-Pacific Cooperation?”).
In recent years, there has been an even greater focus on the region with the combination of new strategic dynamics, including China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean and the revival of Asia’s Quad, as well as new mechanisms or New Delhi has advanced such as the Goa Maritime Conclave (GMC) and its Act East Policy with Southeast Asian states that includes a maritime security focus as well (See: “Modi Reveals Act East Policy to ASEAN in Myanmar”).
The MILAN Exercises is an older example of New Delhi’s regional contributions on the exercises front that continues to advance. The first iteration was held in 1995 with just four other countries – Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand – and was intended to promote greater cooperation on areas such as maritime security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) for the wider region.
The MILAN Exercises still remain quite small, and they have only been held nine times so far – it was not held a few times including in 2016 when India hosted the International Fleet Review. Nonetheless, from a longer-term perspective, it has expanded over the years, gradually grown from just four littoral navies to comprise over 16 countries.
Beyond the numbers, geographically speaking, the hosting of the exercise by India’s Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), an area positioned right at the entrance of the Malacca Straits, is testament to MILAN’s role as part of New Delhi’s engagement with the wider region beyond its immediate neighborhood, particularly the regional states in Southeast Asia.
That leads to the next point: the exercises have also allowed New Delhi to improve interoperability and strengthen ties with individual countries as well, a synergy between multilateral and bilateral relationships often missed in the dichotomy often presented between them. As I have been noting in these pages, though challenges remain and the pacing has been much slower than initially intended, New Delhi has been steadily advancing maritime ties with key Southeast Asian players such as Indonesia and Singapore (See: “Why the New India-Singapore Naval Pact Matters”).
Beyond what it does for New Delhi, naval exercises such as MILAN also provide benefits for participant countries as well. For smaller countries in particular which lack capacity, like Myanmar, the opportunity to interact with a number of significant strategic actors, other than just China or the United States, is a welcome experience (See: “Where are India-Myanmar Naval Ties?”). The valuable experience gained for these actors in areas like HADR in a disaster-prone region ought not to be overstated – this is often something not appreciated until such disasters occur.
The fact that this year’s level of participation in MILAN 2018 is expected to be high as well is testament to its enduring significance, though the exact numbers are unclear. The initial official number was 23 countries participating, but Indian media outlets quoted Indian Navy spokesperson Captain D K Sharma as saying that 16 countries were confirmed to be participating in the exercise (Australia, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, New Zealand, Oman, Vietnam, Thailand, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Kenya and Cambodia).
Last year, Indian officials had also previewed some notable developments expected at MILAN 2018 as part of wider priorities for the Indian Navy this year, including a joint multilateral exercise at sea for the first time in addition to the usual mix of activities such as professional exercises and seminars, social events, and sporting fixtures.
Unsurprisingly, the announcement of the details of the exercise this week was predictably overshadowed by broader geopolitical readings. Headline-wise, the overwhelming focus was on the confirmation by Indian navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba that the Maldives had been invited to attend but had declined without giving a reason. That was testament to the growing narrative that India’s neighborhood is looking much more dire, in part due to growing Chinese influence that can affect the domestic politics and foreign policy of smaller states.
There was also the inevitable casting of the exercise in some media accounts as being targeted at China. Some media outlets stated that certain engagements were centered around China and the South China Sea and framed the MILAN Exercises around other developments such as the emerging Quad, without offering much in the way of specifics. Meanwhile, The Global Times, true to form, published an account picking up on some of those details and suggesting that the drills could “inflame tensions with China.”
Though this is all far from surprising, it is worth keeping in mind that these geopolitical readings around current events belie the broader strategic significance of a basic but growing exercise that is now over two decades in the making and precedes China’s rise. As we see more of these headlines in the coming weeks, it is worth acknowledging the MILAN exercise’s contributions on its own terms as well as from the prism of New Delhi’s contributions to the region.