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Malabar: Modi Government misses an opportunity as annual exercise slumps

Malabar: Modi Government misses an opportunity as annual exercise slumps

US-India relations are in good shape. The personal relationship between Modi and Obama appears excellent, there are big, ambitious ideas in the pipeline – like US assistance to Indian carrier development – and the strategic dialogue is getting deeper in several ways.

But things are falling short in some ways. Next week, the US and Indian navies will meet in the Bay of Bengal for the Malabar exercise, a series that began 23 years ago and represents a powerful signal of convergence in the Indo-Pacific. Japan will join them, just weeks after a ministerial trilateral between the three countries included pointed reference to the South China Sea and regional stability. Malabar is not India’s only joint naval exercise, of course. The biennial Milan series brings together over a dozen small and middle powers, and smaller exercises – including the first ever Australia-India bilateral – are routine. The Indian Navy visited 40 countries in the past year, including Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia within two weeks of one another.

But Malabar is uniquely important: the US remains the most important naval power in the Indo-Pacific, and military-to-military cooperation has buttressed and driven broader strategic cooperation. A strong working relationship with the US Navy will give India more options in addressing (among other challenges) what is becoming a more persistent and intrusive Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean without tying New Delhi's hands in any way.

Yet if we take a broader perspective, we see that Malabar has lost some of the momentum it built up in the mid-2000s. I've compiled data from a variety of sources showing the rise and fall in the overall size of the exercise. The first chart below shows the number of ships and submarines by country while the second shows aircraft carriers.

The rise

The exercises have their origins in the early 1990s when, with the Cold War over, the US and India began to feel one another out tentatively. In 1991, Commander US Army Pacific, Lt General Claude Kicklighter, visited New Delhi. The relationship developed quickly. As Sunanda Datta-Ray wrote in the New York Times at the time, 'what seemed like a mild flirtation..may have blossomed into a full-fledged affair'. Army, navy, and air force 'steering groups' were established in 1992. [fold]

That same year, the US and Indian navies held exercises off the coast of Goa, on India's west coast. This was a modest affair. Two Indian ships, a destroyer and a frigate, each about half the displacement of one of India's modern Kolkata-class destroyers, practiced basic communications and manoeuvres with two American equivalents. Exercise Malabar, as it became known, was repeated twice more in the 1990s as the US-India relationship thawed further, despite tensions over issues like Indian missile testing. Although both sides avoided too much publicity, wary of Indian public opinion, by 1996 total ships participating in the exercise grew to six and the US even gave the Indians an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the P-3C maritime reconnaissance aircraft – to the chagrin of Pakistan, which took delivery of its own copies later that year, and then employed them during the Kargil War.

The peak

India's nuclear tests in 1998 cast a pall over this burgeoning defence engagement, and Malabar didn't resume until 2002. But in 2003, India brought a submarine for the first time, though not, as the US had hoped, the Kilo-class (also operated by Iran). In 2005, the year of major breakthroughs in the US-India relationship, each side bought carriers for the first time, and the exercises became more advanced, as former Indian naval officer Gurpreet Khurana sets out in an excellent paper

The real breakthrough, however, came in 2007, when Malabar was effectively held twice and – to China's great irritation – multilateralised, with the first part held off Okinawa with the participation of four Japanese ships (technically part of a separate exercise, but in practice enmeshed with the US-India effort), and the second part in the Bay of Bengal.

This latter phase included Japanese, Australian and Singaporean contributions, three carriers, US and Indian strike aircraft, and 26 ships in all, more than double those of any exercises in previous or subsequent years. This was part of a much broader deepening in the military-to-military relationship. 'More than half the military exercises the Indian Army has conducted since the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan,' noted one Indian publication in 2007, 'have been with the US Army'. A slew of major air force exercises had also taken place by then.

But 2007 also proved to be Malabar's high point, with the exercises dropping precipitously in size thereafter. 

In large part this was due to Indian concerns for Chinese sensitivities and a backlash by leftist parties in India. A 2009 cable from the US Embassy in New Delhi suggested that Defence Minister AK Antony had overruled the Indian Navy's preference for multilateral exercises. But the shift was also related to political changes in Tokyo and Canberra. 'After we stuck our neck out the Australians broke the contract', an Indian official is quoted as saying in Jeff Smith's book, Cold Peace. In February 2008, Australia announced it would be pulling out of the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (involving India, the US, and Japan), causing some concern about the direction of its foreign policy. 

The fall

Although US and Indian ships returned to the western Pacific in 2011, Japan was recovering from a devastating tsunami the previous month and so did not take part. It would not do so again until last year, when it sent just two ships, half the number that had participated seven years previously. Although the exercises have remained in many respects advanced, they have stagnated in size and scope.

In the eight years since 2007, India has not sent a single carrier, despite the US doing so four times. In the five exercises between 2002 and 2006, Malabar included an average total of eight ships; in the seven years between 2008 and 2014, it was just over nine – hardly a quantum leap, considering that US-India defence trade has been soaring. The average Indian contribution over those same periods actually fell. In 2013, the number of ships at Malabar fell to a paltry three – the lowest ever total, smaller even than the very first exercise over two decades earlier, when the US and India were basically estranged nations. And last year, Indian participation was even smaller than in 1996. The only good news was that Japan was allowed back in after a four-year absence, despite reported opposition from India's defence ministry.

These numbers only tell part of the story – the nature of ships and the sophistication of the exercises are more important – but they suggest a loss of momentum.

The future

There were hopes that all this might change. In September 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington, the joint statement noted that the two countries had 'agreed to upgrade their existing bilateral exercise Malabar', a promise reiterated during President Obama's visit to New Delhi in January 2015. This suggested that the Modi Government, clearly more positive about the US-India relationship as a whole and more comfortable with its military aspects than some of its predecessors, would be committed to restoring the exercises to their former strength. This hasn't quite happened.

The Indian Express' Sushant Singh reports that India had planned on sending the same number of ships to Malabar 2015 (three) as it did the previous year, prompting the US to complain, rightly, that India was 'trying to do the bare minimum'. India added a single vessel in response, hardly dispelling these concerns. Nor could India meet the US request to send a carrier because INS Vikramaditya is in maintenance and INS Viraat is on the cusp of being turned into a museum. Japan, too, is sending just one ship, its lowest-ever contribution.

On the plus side, as Singh notes, both the US and India will bring their long-range P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft (India bought eight in 2009, and plans to buy four more) which will bring a valuable new dimension to the exercise for all three countries, with the US increasingly rotating P-8s to the Seventh Fleet in Japan. But the P-8 is also a reminder of some of the remaining obstacles to US-India engagement. As Iskander Rehman explained last year, New Delhi's refusal to sign so-called 'foundational' agreements with Washington – including the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) – means that the US stripped the P-8s of secure communications and navigation equipment, forcing India to rely on an inferior indigenous system and limiting inter-operability. These agreements are being debated in India and are regularly pushed by US officials, but there's no indication that India is about to take the plunge. 

Looking at the broad arc of the Malabar exercises – the steady rise to 2007, and the slump thereafter – one sees a missed opportunity. At a time when US officials are proposing to institutionalise a multilateral format for Malabar (former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Vikram Singh: 'Malabar is very frustrating because...we wanted to have Japan, Australia all the time') and Australia is keen to resume participation, India seems content to let things tick over.

Yet it would be a powerful boost for Modi's Act East policy if his Government were to take a series of bold steps: bring Canberra back into the fold, commit to sending INS Vikramaditya for next year's Malabar, raise the Indian contribution to at least five vessels and look seriously at a return to the Western Pacific within the next two years – all of which could be tempered by inviting China as an observer (to which the US has had no objection). This would be an excellent way to build on the ambitious language of September's inaugural US-India-Japan Trilateral Ministerial Dialogue.

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