This handout photo taken and released by the Indian Navy on November 18, 2020, shows Indian Army fighter jets on the deck on an aircraft carrier during the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise in the Arabian sea. Another multinational exercise led by the Indian Navy called Milan is scheduled for 2022. Photo: AFP / Indian Navy

Invitations have been sent to 46 countries in preparation for Milan 2022, which is scheduled to take place early next year off Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh.

Milan, which means “meeting” in Hindi, is a biennial, multilateral naval exercise, which had its origins in 1995. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Milan 2020 was canceled. Next year’s Milan will be its largest version yet, with participation from key like-minded partners of India, including the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad).

The exclusion of China is inevitable given India’s wariness toward its growing strategic presence in the Indian Ocean.

It is important to note that organizing such a large multinational exercise is more than just another ceremonial role for India. Rather, it is an opportunity to cement its position as a major Indo-Pacific power and a responsible net security provider, given that there is now a greater emphasis on the region as it is embroiled in several complex geopolitical developments, such as China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean and the solidification of the Quad.

Amid the attempts of certain countries to revise the status quo order in the region, India has demonstrated its commitment by playing a larger role in maintaining the stability of the Indo-Pacific. While Milan has traditionally been seen as framework for the Indian Ocean’s security alone, the advent of the Indo-Pacific construct has significantly enhanced the function of the India-led exercise.

Recognizing this importance, India has spearheaded proactive policies of engagement with strategic partners through the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. These reinvigorated partnerships will greatly benefit the potential of next year’s Milan exercise.

Understanding Milan

Milan’s first iteration took place with the participation of only four countries besides India, namely Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. However, despite such humble beginnings, Milan has come a long way. Now around 46 countries are expected to participate in Milan 2022 to spearhead cooperation in crucial and critical areas such as maritime security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) throughout the greater region.

In fact, the last iteration in 2018 only saw the participation of roughly 16 navies. Moreover, its exponential growth over the years reflects the growing strategic role of the Indian Navy beyond the Bay of Bengal.

The exercises that are conducted provide India with a significant opportunity to enhance interoperability and bolster ties with individual countries. Furthermore, Milan also serves as an important platform for smaller countries with limited capabilities to engage with other naval powers in the region other than constraining their options toward either the United States or China.

Milan has been an important avenue for like-minded partners to come together to maintain the order at sea. Moreover, the common understanding through the sharing of experience aids in crafting a potential roadmap for coordination and cooperation, particularly in addressing common and emerging security challenges in the region.

David Brewster, a renowned Australian scholar and analyst, highlights: “The [Milan] exercise series is not primarily intended for practicing technical skills, but rather is focused on building confidence and relationships among the military maritime community of participating states. The exercise is an expression of India’s success in demonstrating strategic leadership as it grows as a credible power.”

Challenges to maritime security

Milan has often been viewed as a framework for stability in the Indian Ocean to preserve the rules and peace of the maritime domain through the cooperation of like-minded partners. Moreover, India has established itself as the traditional security provider and major developmental partner in the region.

The Indian Ocean continuous to be an epicenter of various and emerging traditional and non-traditional security issues of these emerging issues involves the rise of China as an assertive great power.

Much is known about its provocative actions toward its smaller neighbors in the Pacific; however, since the mid-2000s, China has begun conducting far sears operations deep in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, it has engaged in policies to constrain India’s role and influence in the maritime domain through a variety of economic and political strategies with littoral countries.

Though China tries to play down the geopolitical dimension of its involvement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), experts have pointed out that its intentions are not so benign.

Moreover, a paper published in 2017 by the Vivekananda International Foundation notes: “The Indian Ocean will loom large in Chinese strategic thinking well into the future, considering their current interests and their continuing ingress into newer regions. While Chinese strategic analysts may profess the absence of an enunciated strategy for the IOR, the signs are there for everybody to see.”

In line with this, China has also been deepening its security partnership with Pakistan in the Indian Ocean. Mutually perceiving India as a strategic rival, both countries have been conducting military exercises that no longer appear to be merely symbolic given their complexity.

The steady buildup of Chinese and Pakistani naval ships in the Arabian Sea adds to the security concerns in the region, which may negatively impact the peace of the maritime domain and the energy interests of many in the region, particularly because of the proximity of the Strait of Hormuz.

It is important to note, however, that while the Indian Ocean was often seen as a separate theater for regional security, the current shifts in the global geopolitical landscape and the overall distribution of power have inevitably linked it to the Pacific Ocean through the “Indo-Pacific” concept. This illustrates that the evolution of objective circumstances has obligated a view that takes the confluence of both oceans into a single strategic construct.

This indicates that the changing dynamics of the Indian Ocean security architecture will also have adverse implications on the Pacific Ocean. This greatly adds to the importance of the Milan exercises as an agent of stability and coordination among like-minded partners in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Connecting the dots from 2018-2021

With the changing geopolitical contours throughout Asia, India has been spearheading active strategic engagements with countries in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans to maximize the utility of security frameworks such as Milan.

Milan 2022 comes at a very important time. The past few years witnessed noteworthy engagements between India and its neighbors. India has inked a number of military logistics pacts with Indo-Pacific partners and has spearheaded a series of trilateral arrangements in the region. Moreover, Australia’s return to the Malabar exercises in 2020 signals a more robust framework for cooperation among the Quad countries.

Furthermore, India has also recently intensified its cooperation with partners in Southeast Asia and has achieved significant progress, including the creation of an annual maritime exercise with Singapore and Thailand in 2019. Looking beyond the China factor, India endeavors to put itself on the strategic radar of these countries to expand areas of cooperation, build capacities, and improve maritime domain awareness.

India has also been relatively active in the western Indian Ocean. This year marks a number of new naval cooperative frameworks between India and its western neighbors.

In August, the maiden bilateral naval exercise between India and Saudi Arabia took place to improve interoperability in the maritime space, which also added a new dimension to India’s Look West policy. Additionally, in September, India and Sudan conducted a maritime partnership exercise, the first of its kind.

These recent developments also indicate India’s steadfast desire to take part and contribute to the security of the greater Indian Ocean.

This string of recent strategic engagements highlights India’s robust connectivity, which serves as an important element in taking the lead to maintain the security, peace and stability of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, with the development of the Indo-Pacific construct, India’s efforts in the Indian Ocean will also have significant implications for the future of the Pacific.

By effectively enhancing connections in the past few years with not only Indian Ocean littorals, but also Pacific littorals, India has demonstrated a mature and proactive policy of engagement that will greatly facilitate the success of next year’s India-led mega naval exercise.

Toward Milan 2022 and beyond

The evolving geopolitical dimensions throughout Asia’s maritime domain have significantly complicated the overall balance of peace. The importance of collective and coordinated partnerships among like-minded countries is crucial at a time when efforts are being made to revise the status quo. Milan serves as an important platform for countries to come together and engage proactively to maintain the stability of the seas.

Being not only a major Indian Ocean power, but also an Indo-Pacific power, India has taken the initiative to cement its role as a responsible and stabilizing force in the greater region. Milan is a clear illustration of India’s willingness to lead the campaign for a peaceful and a rules-based region. Moreover, Milan’s constant expansion further demonstrates India’s commitment and determination to enhance the level of interoperability among like-minded partners.

What makes Milan 2022 unique and important is the fact that India has maximized its time and efforts to reach out to partners in all directions and traverse new areas of cooperation geared toward the maintenance and security of the maritime domain in line with the rules-based order. These efforts will yield positive and more concrete results in time for the mega exercise.

Furthermore, the India-led exercise will greatly complement the existing bilateral and multilateral frameworks aimed at preserving the peace of this very order. The Milan 2022 exercise has all the makings to boost India’s status as a responsible stakeholder and net security provider in the greater region amid the uncertain shifts in the geopolitical landscape.

Moreover, if that momentum continues, this can be a very important stepping-stone for more collective endeavors with India as the fulcrum.

Don McLain Gill

Don McLain Gill is a resident fellow at the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC) and the director for South Asia and Southeast Asia at the Philippine-Middle East Studies Association (PMESA). He is also a geopolitical analyst and an author.