When the Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera visited India in the first week of January, an invitation to partake in the Malabar Exercise 2014 was extended to the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force. The exercise would be held sometime after the general election in india. Although it is not the first instance of involving Japan, in the current regional geopolitical scenario, New Delhi’s decision to include Tokyo has raised questions about the significance of the Malabar Exercise – and the larger geopolitics around such a naval exercise in the region.
What is the Malabar Exercise?
Initiated in 1992, this India-US effort, titled the ‘Exercise Malabar’, (commonly referred to as Malabar Exercises) is a regular bilateral naval field training exercise in the Indian Ocean, and includes fighter combat operations from aircraft carriers, through the Maritime Interdiction Operations Exercise. Despite several complexities arising from various reasons, the exercise has matured over the years. They were suspended in 1998 after India tested its nuclear weapons, but were subsequently resumed after the September 2001 attacks on the US’ World Trade Centre.
However, although a bilateral event, the invitation to participate has been extended to few other countries in the past. In 2007, the ninth Exercise was held off the Japanese Island of Okinawa. This was the first of these Exercises to be held outside the Indian Ocean Region. It has been seen as India’s initial assertion towards marking its presence in the Northeast Asian waters.
However, India and the US have largely restricted the Exercises to a bilateral effort after China protested against the 2007 edition of the war games– which had included the Australian, Japanese and Singaporean navies – in the Bay of Bengal. Additionally, after the 2008 Indo-US civil nuclear deal was struck, these Exercises were restricted to India and the US alone.
Competing interests of India, Japan and China in the Region
Both India and China are competing for a similar strategic space in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the South China Sea. Given Beijing’s increased access to ports, airfields and gas pipelines; its modernised and ever-expanding navy; and its investments in infrastructure development in the countries of this Region, India is concerned about the increasing Chinese foothold in the IOR.
Japan too is concerned about the development of an interrelated system of Chinese naval development and commercial ports along the littorals of IOR. 90% of to the oil imported by Japan reaches its shores after passing through the SCS, and Tokyo views any undue Chinese influence in the region as a potential threat to its economic security. Moreover, Japan and China are already involved in a territorial dispute in the East China Sea over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. China’s recent declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone has further vexed the Beijing-Tokyo – infuriating Japan, who had long considered the region to be under its control.
In terms of Chinese naval expansion, early this year, China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning tested its combat system and conducted a formation practice during its sea trials in the SCS. Soon after the announcement of the inclusion of Japan in the Malabar Exercises, China started a naval exercise in the West Pacific Ocean. The three-ship flotilla consisted of the amphibious landing craft Changbaishan, and destroyers Wuhan and Haikou. The flotilla passed along several the strategic locations such as the Lombok Strait, the Makassar Strait and the Sulawesi Sea to enter the West Pacific Ocean.
This, however, was not the first drill conducted by China in the region. So far China’s People's Liberation Army Navy has conducted 16 drills, mostly in the western Indian Ocean near the Gulf of Aden. Perhaps, those exercises were meant to demonstrate the growing reach of the country's maritime reach and power.
Needless to mention, the larger geopolitics in the Malabar Exercise is the Indian, US and Japanese effort to balance China’s increasing naval assertiveness in the region. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reiterated that the India-Japan partnership was “essential for peace, prosperity and stability in the Asian, Pacific and Indian Ocean regions.” Naval exercises of this nature help build and maintain regional security in the IOR and have a vital role to play in the current strategic environment. Furthermore, at the track II level, it helps advance the levels of understanding between sailors. Additionally, from an Indian perspective, it gives the Indian navy exposure to superior carriers and nuclear submarines operated by the world’s biggest naval forces.
In the absence of any regional organisation dedicated to the security of the IOR, such naval exercises can help provide an opportunity to advance multinational maritime relationship on mutual security issues.