India, Singapore and Thailand recently concluded their trilateral naval exercise SITMEX-20. This is the second edition of SITMEX. Hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy from November 21-22, the exercise was held in the Andaman Sea. This represents a growing number of naval engagements that India has been holding with various navies, including those in Southeast Asia. But it also indicates the growing willingness of regional navies to look to India as a maritime partner, as well as the increasing comfort level in coming together at the regional level rather than look to just the U.S. in dealing with a rising China. That these exercises were held in spite the challenges imposed by COVID-19 pandemic suggests the importance attached by the three navies to these exercises and also the seriousness of the threats they mutually face.
This particular trilateral exercise is relatively new. The first edition was held in the Andaman Sea only last year, in September 2019. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the trilateral exercise at his keynote address at the 2018 Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore. At the inaugural edition of the exercise, the Indian Navy was represented by the guided missile destroyer INS Ranvir, missile corvette INS Kora, Offshore Patrol Vessel Sumedha and P8I long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft.
Indian Ministry of Defense said that the second edition of the exercise was being conducted “as a ‘non-contact, at sea only’ exercise in view of COVID-19 pandemic,” emphasizing this as being indicative of the “growing synergy, coordination and cooperation in the maritime domain between the three friendly navies and maritime neighbors.” The statement added that the three navies would engage in a series of “exercises including naval maneuvers, surface warfare exercises and weapon firings.” The stated goals of these exercises were to strengthen “mutual interoperability” and to understand and assimilate “best practices” between the three navies.
The Indian Navy ships participating in the exercise include the indigenously-built ASW (anti-submarine warfare) corvette Kamorta and missile corvette Karmuk. Singapore sent its Formidable-class frigates, Intrepid and the Endeavour, an Endurance-class LST (landing ship tank). Thailand was represented by a Chao Phraya-class frigate, the Kraburi.
Explaining the importance of the exercise, the commander of SITMEX 20 Task Force and commanding Officer of RSS Intrepid, Lieutenant Colonel Oh Zongbo said that the SITMEX “serves as a useful exercise for the three like-minded navies to enhance our inter-operability in maritime operations. The ability to execute and conduct these operations together is a testament to the long-standing ties and trust that we have established with one another.” After the SITMEX concluded, the Singapore Navy joined the Indian Navy for a bilateral naval exercise, SIMBEX 20, in the Bay of Bengal from November 25 to 27.
The military exercises with Singapore and Thailand also demonstrate the increasingly strategic nature of engagements that India has developed with the countries in Southeast Asia. From a “Look East” policy in the early 1990s (which itself was not very successful) that focused on economic issues to an “Act East” policy initiated by Modi in 2014, bilateral relations in the region as well as the regional context have been transformative. Even though these exercises have been shortened on account of the pandemic, the fact that the navies of the three countries decided to go ahead with the exercise is a clear reflection of the similarity of views between India, Singapore and Thailand. This could mean that the three navies may continue to strengthen these exercises in terms of scope of the maneuvers, expansion of the geographical areas of their exercise, and greater sophistication in terms of their overall objectives of SITMEX.
Singapore, of course, has been one of India’s stronger security partners in the region. Defense relations between the two began with the signing of their first Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2003. Since then, the two have signed several more agreements for greater military-to-military interactions. Given that Singapore is a small island nation, India has been a good partner, offering training to the Singapore Armed Forces at its military training facilities like the air force and artillery firing ranges. Their main naval interaction, SIMBEX, has continued now for more than 20 years. The importance of freedom of navigation and open seas, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as well as respect for international law, have been often-repeated themes in their bilateral discussions.
India-Thailand bilateral relations are not as deep, but they have also picked up pace over the last decade with a number of high-level political visits and institutional mechanisms. These include periodic Foreign Office Consultations, India-Thailand Joint Commission Meetings (which are held at the foreign ministers level) and defense cooperation mechanisms that have seen military exercises between the armies and the air force of the two countries. In addition to the annual army and air force exercises, the two countries also hold bi-annual coordinated maritime patrolling by the two navies. Given the slowly brewing tension between Thailand and China, it is likely that Thailand will reach out to countries such as India to hedge against possible longer-term trouble in relations with Beijing. Such moves are also backed by growing popular opposition to Chinese high-handedness across the region. The Milk Tea Alliance, which grew from online squabbles between Chinese and Thai netizens represents “deep-seated reservations about the relationship among Thai people.” The so-called Milk Tea Alliance also quickly expanded, with support pouring in from other countries such as Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.
China’s growing economic might and its aggressive military power have provided India, Singapore and Thailand strategic rationale to combine their efforts. Increasing concerns about American commitment to the region have spurred such efforts and they will likely continue.