American Aircraft Carrier with destroyers and a cruiser in the Pacific Ocean towards North Korea. 3d rendering. Photo: iStock

This Thursday will see the beginning of the 22nd edition of the Malabar exercises of the US, Japanese and Indian navies. The exercises began in 1992 and have since grown in scope and complexity as they seek to address the rise of China in what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific region.

Since 2007, close US allies such as Australia, Japan and Singapore have occasionally joined as non-permanent members. Japan became a permanent member of Malabar in 2015, and the increasing participation of its Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) has prompted China to voice its skepticism about the motivations behind Malabar.

The increasingly China-consciousness Malabar participants are evolving their strategic focus and tactical directions. For instance, this year’s exercises are the first to be held off Guam, and the operational tactics allude to an increasing awareness of China’s sustained naval presence in the South China Sea and Beijing’s assertive policies.

Accordingly, Malabar 2018 begins with a four-day closed-door brainstorming session in Guam followed by its six-day sea phase starting on June 11. The operational phase includes activities such as aircraft-carrier operations, air defense, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, search and seizure, joint maneuvers and tactical procedures.

China-consciousness seems especially evident in India’s extremely cautious calibrations for its participation in Malabar. Loudly expressed concerns from China and Russia – India’s two biggest strategic partners – have resulted in New Delhi sending a rather low-profile fleet this year: just one-fifth the tonnage and one-third the number of ships compared with last year when India hosted the exercises.

India’s fleet last year included bigger vessels, such as the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and Kilo-class submarines, which are not participating this year.

It is also pertinent to note that the last Malabar exercises occurred in July 2017, in the midst of the China-India military standoff at Doklam. Malabar 2018 comes barely six weeks after the two countries’ informal summit in Wuhan, where they agreed to provide “strategic direction” to their militaries to ensure peace and stability in their respective spheres.

India’s participation has been shrinking since 2015, while the US complement has doubled and the number of Japanese ships has increased fourfold

India’s participation has been shrinking since 2015, while the US complement has doubled and the number of Japanese ships has increased fourfold.

This year even saw India scuttling Australia’s attempt to join Malabar, fearing Beijing would see it as part of the recently revived US-Japan-Australia-India Quadrilateral or the kind of Indo-Pacific discourse that Chinese leaders see as anti-China.

India may be skeptical of Australia, which backed away from the Quad in 2007. New Delhi also remains conscious of Canberra’s occasional anti-China outbursts, such as its support for the July 2016 South China Sea arbitration, or allowing US marines to be stationed near Perth, or calling China a “strategic challenge” in its Defense White Papers of 2009, 2013 and 2016, attracting Beijing’s ire.

New Delhi is aware of Beijing having only this week declined a US invitation to participate in the world’s longest-running and largest military exercises, Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), which will begin on June 27 and will involve 47 surface ships, five submarines, 18 national land forces, more than 200 aircraft and more than 25,000 personnel.

India has already committed to joining the 26th edition of RIMPAC, which that US Pacific Command began in 1971. Of course, RIMPAC 2016 saw China participate in this biannual naval exercises along with 25 other nations. But US-China relations have changed drastically in the last two years. These two years have also seen New Delhi paying greater attention to cementing its ties with both Beijing and Moscow.

The US’s declining global leadership has seen India return to its policy of “multi-alignment,” trying to build partnerships with as many counties and in as many sectors as possible.

India’s China-consciousness has surely been visible in its recent engagements, but it is not likely to push New Delhi into giving up on its stake in Malabar. Indeed, finetuning its participation in Malabar 2018, India has sent some of its most advanced domestically designed and built ships such as its multipurpose stealth frigate INS Sahyadri and anti-submarine-warfare corvette INS Kamorta, fleet tanker INS Shakti and Poseidon-8I long-range maritime aircraft, which were procured from the US.

The exercises will provide all three navies with a great opportunity to increase mutual understanding and interoperability via sharing best practices.

Also, on the way to Guam, Indian ships last week held naval exercises with Vietnam, which reflects a commitment to partners that may have contentious relations with China. Those India-Vietnam naval exercises saw Chinese ships tailing them, of course, leading to allegations of snooping and collecting electronic signatures of Indian warships.

At the same time, India also remains open to holding military exercises with China, and the Wuhan summit revived hopes of it becoming a regular event.

So with China’s footprint across the region constantly expanding, this tightrope-walking is likely to continue to be the defining feature of India’s multilateral naval engagements and foreign-policy formulations in general.

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Swaran Singh

Dr Swaran Singh is professor of diplomacy and disarmament at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; adjunct senior fellow at The Charhar Institute, Beijing; senior fellow, Institute for National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Colombo; and visiting professor, Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming (China).