The United States, Japan and India have deployed front-line warships, submarines and aircraft as part of the tri-nation Malabar exercises in the Bay of Bengal.
Conducted annually since 1992, Malabar has grown in size and complexity in recent years to address what the US Navy describes as a “variety of shared threats to maritime security in the Indo-Asia Pacific.”
Formerly a bilateral exercise between India and the US, this year’s drill is only the second to include Japan — and the first to include aircraft carriers from all three navies.
The exercises, which officially began Monday, are intended to provide a “symbolic reassurance that the US is committed to working with India to continue shaping the Asian security environment,” said Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy specialist at Carnegie India.
The week-long series of war games will involve a total of 16 ships — including the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, India’s INS Vikramanditya, a reconditioned Russian-built aircraft carrier, and Japan’s JS Izumo, a helicopter carrier with an emphasis on anti-submarine warfare — as well as two submarines and more than 95 aircraft.
The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) anchors off the coast of India in preparation for Malabar 2017.
The buildup of naval power in the region comes at a time of increased tensions between India and China.
This year’s Malabar exercises will for the first time include exchanges on anti-submarine warfare, patrol and reconnaissance, according to the US Navy.
The Indian Navy has also sent its Sindhughosh class submarine and a P-81 long range maritime surveillance aircraft, underscoring the exercise’s anti-submarine focus.
Ten years ago many Indians believed in China’s pronouncement that it would be a different kind of world power, one whose power rests on economic development, said Xavier. “But today, the question in Delhi is not whether China is a threat, but rather, how do we best address this threat?”
Though not a part of Indian territory, the plateau holds immense strategic importance for Delhi and is vital to its geopolitical interests.
Elsewhere, China’s close ties with Pakistan — the two countries recently agreed a deal that gives China access to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port — as well as the construction of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti have added to Delhi’s military concerns.
In response to a question relating to Malabar Friday, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China had “no objection to the development of normal relations and cooperation between countries.”
Global maritime community
Jets take off from the deck of the USS Nimitz.
That sense of openness will likely strike a chord in Beijing. The Bay of Bengal, where the Malabar exercise is taking place, is a strategically important waterway for China, due to its proximity to the Strait of Malacca.
“The Chinese depend fundamentally on the Strait of Malacca (the main shipping channel connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea) for their commerce, trade, export and access to oil in the Middle East,” said Xavier.
The Indian administered Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, several hundred miles northwest of the Strait of Malacca, provides India with a degree of territorial and strategic leverage over China.
“If they (the Chinese) are choked, if they’re not allowed to use that sea line of communication, if the Indians and Japanese start pushing for control (of the Strait of Malacca), the Chinese will have to look at alternate routes, and that’s what they’re doing, with the whole belt and road initiative.”
Key events planned during the at-sea portions of the Malabar exercises include submarine familiarization, air defense exercises, surface warfare exercises and anti-submarine warfare, according to the US Navy.
While China will be watching carefully, the exercises are not likely to tip the balance of power in the region. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Bharat Karnad, a professor at the Centre for Policy Resesarch in Delhi. “It’s always ongoing.”