Asia Defense

What’s Behind the New India-Myanmar Naval Exercise?

A recent interaction by the two countries should be understood as part of broader trends underway in the bilateral relationship and the wider region.

What’s Behind the New India-Myanmar Naval Exercise?
Credit: India Defense Ministry

On March 25, India and Myanmar kicked off what the Indian Navy characterized as a maiden navy exercise of its kind. Though the engagement itself was quite basic, its significance nonetheless bears emphasis given the active month for India-Myanmar naval ties more generally as well as the broader trends underway in the bilateral relationship and wider region.

As I have repeatedly noted in these pages, India and Myanmar have been continuing to strengthen their defense ties over the past few years. This is underpinned by the strategic logic of bilateral cooperation within their wider foreign policies, with New Delhi looking to further operationalize its “Act East” policy under Narendra Modi and Naypyidaw seeking better ties with a range of regional powers, including India.

But this is also occurring amid broader regional trends and strategic dynamics, including India’s unveiling of new mechanisms like the Goa Maritime Conclave, China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean, the revival of Asia’s Quad, and more chatter around the Indo-Pacific regional vision, with a term long talked about among regional observers now catching on in Washington (See: “Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Challenge”).

Though familiar challenges remain on various fronts, we have seen some notable advances made in the defense realm of India-Myanmar ties. This includes not only items that tend to dominate the headlines in terms of border management, but also training and capacity-building as well as new engagements and exercises. Last November, for instance, both sides kicked off the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise (IMBAX-2017) which was the first of its kind focused on addressing peacekeeping operations (See: “New Military Exercise Highlights India-Myanmar Defense Relations”).

This trend has continued on to 2018, and March was a good demonstration of an active month on this score between the two sides. In the first half of March, Myanmar participated in the MILAN naval exercises which India hosted at Port Blair, which is one of New Delhi’s older regional contributions on the exercise front having first been carried out in 1995 and then subsequently expanded (See: “The Real Significance of India’s MILAN Navy Exercise”). Then, subsequently, between March 15 and 18, both sides held the sixth iteration of the India-Myanmar Coordinated Patrol Exercise (CORPAT) as scheduled.

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But the development that got most of the media attention this month ended up being the naval exercise between the two sides. The Indian Navy characterized the India-Myanmar Naval Exercise 2018 (IMNEX-18), which kicked off on March 25 and lasts onto early April, as being the maiden exercise of this kind carried out by both countries.

IMNEX-18, which lasts nine days, is being held in the Bay of Bengal and is divided into two phases: a harbor phase at Visakhapatnam that lasts until March 30, which includes briefings, practical demonstrations, cross-deck visits, and sporting events among other things; and an at-sea phase featuring fleet maneuvers, gun firings, and coordinated anti-submarine exercises that will run up to April 3. On the Indian side, vessels included anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kamorta , Shivalik (Project 17)-class frigate INS Sahyadri, and a Type 877EKM ‘Kilo’-class submarine, along with one helicopter and two Hawk advance jet trainer aircraft, and on the Myanmar side, vessels included the frigate UMS King Sin Phyu Shin and offshore patrol vessel UMS Inlay.

To be sure, details of the exercise that were publicly disclosed suggest a rather basic engagement, and it ought to be understood as being just one of many interactions ongoing by both sides to increase familiarity between personnel as well as interoperability between the militaries. But IMNEX-18, and the other engagements between India and Myanmar this month more generally, are also testament to the activity ongoing in this respect.