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Malabar 17 exercise: The China subtext

Malabar 17 comes as China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean is showing signs of a qualitative shift.

One of the Indian Navy's new P8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. (Flickr/Anderw W Sieber)
One of the Indian Navy's new P8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. (Flickr/Anderw W Sieber)
Published 14 Jul 2017 

The annual Malabar naval exercise series is underway in Chennai, with the at-sea phase in the Bay of Bengal running from 14-17 July. This year’s iteration is notable for a number of reasons. While Malabar 17 won’t be the largest-ever exercise in the series – Malabar 07-2, the second of the two rounds held in 2007, holds that record – India has provided its largest-ever contribution, nine ships. Moreover, each participating country has sent the largest ships in its arsenal. That means, for the first time, India, the US, and Japan have all sent an aircraft carrier (in Japan’s case, it is a helicopter carrier).

Malabar began life as a bilateral exercise between India and the US, with Canada taking part in 2006 and, more importantly, Japan in 2007. Japan’s involvement and the huge scale of the 2007 exercise provoked a Chinese outcry, and Japan took part only once in the next six years. Tokyo resumed participation in 2014, and the next year was invited as a permanent member. Malabar is now India’s first-ever permanent trilateral exercise series, in many ways prefiguring and leading the ongoing deepening of trilateral ties at the diplomatic and political level.

While India blocked Australian participation in this year’s Malabar for reasons that continue to be debated, India and Australia did hold a substantive bilateral naval exercise in June, and Canberra is present at Malabar as an observer. More importantly, Indian officials have hinted that Malabar 'is likely to become a quadrilateral exercise, with Australia’s inclusion, perhaps as early as next year'. If true, this would be a major development for the Indo-Pacific, resuscitating 2007’s Quad in more propitious circumstances: nationalist leaders in office in three of the four capitals, Australian anxiety over Chinese political influence, and a downward slide in Sino-Indian relations.

For Malabar 17 is occurring in the context of a high-altitude standoff between India and China over Chinese road building in territory claimed by Bhutan. While there have been several tense standoffs in recent years, this episode at the Doklam plateau is of particular note because of the military significance of the territory, the involvement of a third country, and uniquely aggressive rhetoric from a variety of state-controlled news outlets – including the People’s Daily front-page invocation of India’s defeat in the 1962 war. While the risk of violence remains low, the standoff both reflects and reinforces hardening attitudes in New Delhi and Beijing towards one another.

Malabar 17 also comes as China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean is showing signs of a qualitative shift. The growth of Chinese submarine patrols in the Indian Ocean, with seven deployments in four years, most recently a Yuan-class docking at Karachi in May, has been an Indian concern for several years. So too is expanding naval cooperation between China and Pakistan, in the form of submarine sales last year, naval exercises in the Arabian Sea in June, and – according to the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power – the prospect of a Chinese naval base in Pakistan. More recently, India’s reconnaissance satellites, maritime patrol aircraft, and warships detected a surge of Chinese naval units in the Indian Ocean, with 13-14 units in two months. That some of those ships were part of a 'friendship tour' for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) does little to soothe India’s concerns over that scheme.

On top of all this, China this week dispatched the first troops destined for its military base ('logistics facility') in the African nation of Djibouti, its first long-term foreign military deployment since withdrawal from North Korea in almost 60 years. The Chinese facility is not just a platform from which China can project initially modest power into the western Indian Ocean, but will also justify and support a greater volume and pace of submarine and other patrols through the eastern and central Indian Ocean. As the PLA Navy expands, this is likely to put severe pressure on India’s limited naval surveillance capabilities.

Part of India’s response involves an expansion of those capabilities. Last summer, India signed a $1 billion deal to buy four more P8I maritime patrol aircraft, adding to its current eight. These have sufficient range to patrol into the Malacca Strait, well into the Arabian Sea or, from deployments to the Seychelles, around the southern edge of the Horn of Africa. The US has also cleared the $2-3 billion sale of 22 Sea Guardian drones. These are variants of the MQ-9B Sky Guardian (or Certifiable Predator B), which appears to have double the operational endurance (40 hours) of the better-known MQ-9 Reaper (or Predator B), of obvious value in patrolling large stretches of the Indian Ocean. As well as these platforms, India is building an 'undersea wall' of hydrophones in collaboration with Japan, and a chain of radar stations in Mauritius, Seychelles, and other Indian Ocean islands.

In this regard, it’s notable that Malabar 17 – in the capabilities present, and in its stated intentions – has a focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW). Contrary to the views of some Chinese experts and others, this is not a new development. ASW has been an increasingly important, and publicly declared, part of the Malabar series for over a decade. For instance, Japan’s SH-60K helicopters, which have a major ASW role, have taken part in every Malabar since Tokyo resumed participation in 2014. But even so, there’s no confusion as to whose submarines are in mind. With every passing year, and particularly as India acquires American ASW platforms like the P8, the level of inter-operability grows. While that certainly doesn’t mean any one of these countries would automatically participate in a naval contingency involving the other, it almost certainly influences China’s expectations about the correlation of forces it might face in the event of a wider conflict.

The interesting question is whether this military convergence is also a basis for broader, more ambitious cooperation. The retired Admiral Arun Prakash, Indian Navy chief from 2004-06, wrote in the Indian Express this week: 'with the invaluable accession of Japan to this partnership, the India-Japan-US triad must, now, be elevated to strategic status. A proposal worthy of contemplation would be the creation of a “maritime-infrastructure and economic initiative” that reaches out to smaller Indian Ocean nations in an endeavor to wean them away from the Dragon’s maw'. India-Japan infrastructure collaboration is already taking shape and, with the India-US joint statement last month echoing Indian concerns around China’s BRI, this is certainly feasible.

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