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Exercise Malabar: China Factor; By Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

C3S Article no: 0063/2017

Photo Courtesy: Business Standard

From the Staging Port Chennai

The gathering of the top brass along with the crew members from the participating ships which assembled in Chennai for Malabar 2017 exuded great warmth and synergy during all the events in the run up to the exercise. During a reception on July 11th evening on board INS Jalashwa in Chennai rare bonhomie, the spirit of camaraderie and friendship was evident in abundance. The Task Force Commander of the Nimitz group Rear Admiral William Byrne, Jr enthusiastically said that “There are tall ships that will sail, there are small ships that will sail and all those from the three nations will work together in a spirit of friendship during Malabar2017”. Admiral Byrne also had an interesting phrase about China when he said, “China is a potential friend”. It is significant that it was the same seventh fleet at that time led by Enterprise that manoeuvred in the Bay of Bengal in 1971 to bring pressure on the Indian Navy during the war to liberate Bangladesh. Recently, some of the units of that fleet were repaired in India. The changing nature of strategic alliances, geopolitics, the rise of China and India have all transformed the global strategic equations notably in the maritime domain. There has been a constant value added to the relations at the political, strategic, economic and military level notably between the USA, Japan and India. All the three fleet commanders emphasised the need for collaborative and collective efforts in the maritime domain to face the new challenges to effectively contribute to maritime stability and security.

Malabar Exercise

The bilateral initiative that started in 1992 has completed 25 years. It is evident that both the countries and also Japan since joining in 2007 have put the hesitations of history behind them. Japan which has freed itself from the shackles of self-imposed restriction is becoming a dominant Asian player and an important partner of India. This bilateral format was suspended after the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998 for a few years with sanctions imposed on India. Japan and Singapore joined the Malabar 2007 which was conducted in the Bay of Bengal. China at that time had issued a demarche to all the participating nations terming the quadrilateral exercise in the Bay of Bengal as an exercise aimed at containing a resurgent maritime China.  Surprisingly, that format was abandoned subsequently paying heed to the sensitivities of China; though, there was no such need particularly in the light of the lack of similar sensitivity on part of an aggressive neighbour who is expanding its footprints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and challenging the rise of India on many fronts.

The 21st edition of the Malabar exercise has taken off on 10th July and will go on for about a week including visits, shore exercises and intense sea exercises. This has been extensively reported in the media.The first-hand interaction with the visiting crew members by this author indicated that there was great interest in India and the Indian Navy. Sailors were busy with visits to various historical places and shopping malls in Chennai and returned with a very positive view of the city and the people.

The combined task force of USA, Japan and India will set sail on 14th in the Bay of Bengal. The exercise claimed to have the maximum number of surface, sub-surface and air units from the three navies will bring a new sense of coordination, collaboration and interoperability to work on security architectures and contingency plans to promote security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The range of exercises this time has been touted to be of greater complexity involving a larger number of different platforms in Bay of Bengal in comparison to the previous editions. India which now is a net-centric operations/warfare (NCO/NCW) capable navy would be exploring new frontiers to use space-based technology for meeting the ever-increasing needs of C4ISR by moving on to netcentric operations as opposed to platform-centric operations.

The composition of the combined units from the three nations this time is unprecedented as an aircraft carrier each from USA and India and a Helicopter carrier from Japan are participating to hone collective skills in multi spectrum maritime operations. These include anti-submarine exercises, Search and Rescue (SAR), surface operations, interdiction, Visit Board Search and Seize (VBSS), air operations and such like.

China Factor

China has remained the elephant in the room when it comes to its objections to such formats. While initially, it did not make any disparaging remarks on the trilateral exercise, subsequently it has through its media indirectly objected to such alliances in the maritime domain. The initial statements by the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ms Hua said “We are happy to see the parties in the military field carry out normal dialogue and exchange. It is also desirable that all parties concerned should take full account of the security concerns of the countries in the region and that the exchange and cooperation should be able to play a constructive role in maintaining peace and stability in the region,”

However, the Global Times sang a discordant note  about the nature of such exercises  by saying “Such a large-scale military exercise was obviously designed to target China’s submarine activities in the East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS) in recent years, promote the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and cement the US presence in the region,” Having branded the 2007 edition as the ganging up of the so-called democratic navies against China it indicated that the efforts to engage India and Japan by the USA is “to relieve its pressure due to overstretched military presence around the globe and tighten its grip on the Asia-Pacific region,” However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Trump has not abandoned Indo-Pacific as was feared, but continues with the slew to the Pacific  slowly but steadily.

The New Arena of Power Play- Indian Ocean

It is of importance to note that China in addition to surface combatants has deployed some half a dozen conventional and nuclear submarines in the Indian Ocean since 2013. Though Anti-Submarine exercises have been part of the Malabar editions in the past, it has special significance now due to the increased presence of the Chinese submarines, both nuclear and diesel propelled not just in SCS but also in India’s neighbourhood. The increased presence of PLA-N units in the IOR and the activation of Djibouti have transformed the maritime strategic contours of the Indian Ocean. The access to the Arabian Sea through Gwadar has brought about greater synergy between Pakistan Navy and the PLA Navy using ports of Pakistan for forward presence and power projection in the Arabian Sea. This challenges the advantage enjoyed hitherto by the Indian Navy in the Arabian Sea.   There is greater urgency therefore to have mechanisms to track the activities of PLA- Navy in IOR and work on effective counters. China has just sent its PLA personnel and essential military hardware to Djibouti on 11th July (coincidentally a day on which the Malabar was being launched from Chennai) from China and claims it is about anti-piracy, UN peacekeeping and other missions a reasonable excuse  to gain foothold in the Indian Ocean which would be the arena of power play in the coming decades.

The results from the past bilateral and multi-lateral editions have been encouraging and pathbreaking. The navies are exposed to the concept of operations (CONOPS) in mutually inclusive operations that will streamline standard operating procedures (SOPs) to meet the future spectrum of maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific area by presenting a common front. It also exposes the participating navies to assess tools, technology and trends on a regular basis to determine the preparedness of combat units to take on present and future day challenges. The detailed analysis of the Malabar exercise will aid in tweaking SOPs and work on induction of new technology systems for combat efficiency and future acquisition/indigenization processes. At another level, even if not admitted by the participating nations, it sends a clear message to China to say that there are options which would available in future scenarios wherein a belligerent China has to be reined in.

The Fourth, Fifth, or more options

Even in this edition, though Australia’s request for joining the exercise was supported by the USA, India did not accept the request again due to the sensitivities of China. China appeared happy with India’s  decision to keep Australia out of the exercise and welcomed the move. However, the action of India is indeed surprising as all the actions of China are aimed at thwarting India’s economic and strategic growth. India which has a huge trade deficit and is facing a range of multiple hostile actions by the northern neighbour hardly needs to worry about the sensitivities or so-called security concerns of China. Evidence of such reciprocity is conspicuous by the glaring absence of any hint that China is inclined to be sensitive to the concerns of its neighbours whether in the Pacific or in South Asia.  This has been amply demonstrated by the investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), the objection to the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG), the support to Pakistan to prevent proscription of Azhar Masood, the reluctance to admit India to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) despite support by other members and the most recent incursion in the Tri-junction of Bhutan, India and Tibet to alter the status quo of a disputed area.

Ground Situation on Land Borders

At a strategic level, at the tri-junction of Doklam, China has miscalculated the Indian responses. By all indications, it appears that India will not yield to the threats of China in the present impasse in Doklam. India is aware that it cannot let down Bhutan a close ally which is under the security umbrella of India by the friendship treaty which is binding on both sides. By a defensive mindset and not being proactive in its neighbourhood in the past, India lost out to China’s expansive strategy which spread both over land and in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka post the defeat of the LTTE is a classic example of how India allowed China to gain inroads through Hambantota and the Colombo port city.

At another level of competing nature of geopolitical strategy, China can blame itself for being the catalyst in promoting a vibrant India, USA and Japan relations.  China appears to be overworking itself on India not endorsing the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). The wonderful professional and personal equations between Modi and Trump appears to have upset China. The most recent avoidable standoff in Doklam is the last straw on the camel’s back which has allowed the bilateral relations to sink to a new low.


Returning to the theme of Malabar, there is confluence and synergy in the approach of the three nations participating in Malabar. The time-tested format has allowed the maritime nations to prepare for contingencies both for peacetime and hostile situations. It is both about tactics and also long term strategy. A resurgent India has to carve out new equations with all like-minded maritime nations. For long, India has been a reluctant regional maritime power despite a growing economy, the geographic advantage, a credible navy, a long coastline with access to the west and the east, the possession of strategic outposts in the form of outlying Islands in Andaman and Nicobar. This is slowly changing and Malabar is one such instrument that would provide options for India in being the net regional security provider. India needs to draw a line on how long it will remain passive and defensive in its mindset by pandering to the “sensitivity and concerns” of China. Both the long term and short term national interests should shape the actions of India at the political, economic, strategic and military level. India also needs to diversify its investments and reciprocal investments from China to ensure that the trade deficit and economic dependence on China do not become impediments in taking independent decisions for the future.

The next edition of Malabar should include Australia, Singapore and any other nation that is willing to join to promote maritime collaborative structures in the Indo-Pacific region. This author has argued in an article supporting the inclusion of Australia. The focus need not be necessarily on the spectrum of maritime warfare in all its totality for honing collective skills, but also on Maritime Operations Other Than War (MTOOW). By the nature of present day challenges at sea which encompass SAR, Environmental Protection, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), fisheries protection and maintenance of law and order at sea, it would be necessary to all the maritime security agencies of the region to come together on a 24×7 basis. The future Malabar editions could consider expanding the scope of the exercise by including the Coast Guards of the regional navies and have substantial focus in preparing for and exercising for peacetime missions.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is the Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi and Director, C3S The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, C3S, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at]

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