The “Malabar CY 07-2” naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal held in the first week of September, 2007 undoubtedly represent a major shift in India’s strategic security perceptions. Only the US and Indian navies had been participating in the 12 Malabar series of naval exercises held usually off the west coast of India so far. But Malabar CY 07-2 is different in two ways. First, the size of it; with the participation of nearly 30 warships and nearly 200 aircraft from five nations- Australia, Japan, India, the U.S., and Singapore – makes it the largest ever naval exercise in this part of the world. Second, in a clear departure from the past, qualitatively the exercise is trying out entirely new set of war games in the Bay of Bengal off Andaman.
Actually, it signals India’s entry into the “quadrilateral initiative,” a new strategic security combine in which it joins as a key member the security triad of Australia, Japan and the U.S. Presumably, Singapore’s participation as an add-on in the Malabar CY 07-02 signifies the finer dimensions of this initiative.
Perhaps the Quad initiative has its roots in the Indian Navy’s real time operational capability demonstrated in the Indian Ocean during the tsunami relief operations in 2004. On that occasion the working of the navies of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia showed the value of enrolling India as an ally in the existing trilateral strategic security initiative of the U.S., Japan, and Australia. These three allies have a strategic alliance in the Asia-Pacific region, dominating the seas up to Malacca Strait. The induction of India into this grouping will extend its strategic arc of influence through the Indian Ocean, right up to the Gulf of Oman.
Undoubtedly, the dramatic improvements in the Indo-US defence relations for a decade now is a major factor in the Quad initiative. On June 28, 2005 India and the US signed the “New Framework for India-US Defence Relationship” formalising a decade long design for enhanced level of cooperation in military to military relations and in defence industrial and technological relationship. The two countries continued their strategic dialogue even as they implemented the defence framework. The historic Indo-US agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation signed by President Bush and Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in March 2006 paved the way for closer interaction at the policy making level. All along India had been resisting the U.S. soundings on joining the trilateral Asia-Pacific initiative. With the Indo-US nuclear deal nearing fruition, during his visit to Tokyo in December 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to India’s participation in a security dialogue on regional issues with the triad. India’s low key approach to the whole issue was perhaps for internal political reasons as well as not to annoy China.
The joint naval exercise of India, Japan, and the U.S off Japan’s eastern coast held in April 2007 was presumably a curtain raiser for the things to come. This was signalled in the statement issued on May 1, 2007 by the U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Defence Minister Fumio Kyuma. Its objective was to get India to play a major role in the strategic setting of the region. The statement spoke of continuing to build upon “partnerships with India to advance areas of common interests and increase cooperation, recognizing that India’s continued growth is inextricably tied to the prosperity, freedom, and security of the region.” This was followed by a first-ever official-level quadrilateral exploratory talks between India and the three nations held on the sidelines of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) security policy meeting in Manila on May 24-25, 2007. To cap it all, President Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe focussed on how to promote engagement with India when they met on the sidelines of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Sydney a few days back.
The whole exercise of involving India in the Quad initiative has increased the suspicion of China. Are the four nations ganging up against China? China has reasons to feel so because the Quad’s “Asian arc of freedom” (as Japan described it) covers not only the entire Chinese coast but also areas of strategic importance to China. In June 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao sought clarification on the issue from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the G8 summit in Germany. The Chinese issued demarches to the members of the Quad seeking more information on the initiative. All the four nations have been soft pedalling the strategic aspect of the alliance as they do not want to annoy China. They have tried to explain the initiative not as a military grouping but only “looking at issues of common interest.” But there is no doubt that with the entry of India as the fourth member in an existing strategic security arrangement of three close Western allies, the strategic setting in the Asia Pacific region has changed. And China would be the country most affected by the change.
Even otherwise, two developments involving India, Japan and the US should be of strategic concern to China. Japan wants India to join its security dialogue with Australia and the U.S. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to Delhi in August, offered substantial economic assistance if India agreed to anchor “an Asian arc of freedom” stretching across the Indian and Pacific Oceans and providing a democratic bulwark – presumably against non-democratic powers. A spokesman for Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura has said, “India shares common interests — liberalism and democracy — with us,” and that all four countries should now get together to discuss “regional situations” and cooperation.
Apart from the Indo-US nuclear deal in the offing, the US-India military relations are growing at a fast pace. Indian and the US armed forces have held around 50 combat exercises during the last six years — with another eight to be held in 2007. An Indian-US Special Forces 20-day exercise “Vajra Prahar” is underway now at the Army’s Counter-Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School in Vairengte in Mizoram. What is significant is the common thread of building “interoperability” running through all of them. Admiral Timothy J Keating, Commander of the US Pacific Command, during his well publicized visit to Delhi in August spoke of the “need to continue to build trust and confidence and become more inter-operable” between the armed forces of the two countries to “build shared doctrine and communications architectures”.
Even a cursory analysis of the Malabar 2-07 exercise, will show that this was no exercise to improve only interoperability between nations. Situations like dissimilar air combat, interception of shore-based aircraft and air defence of war ships have been planned for the mock battle during the exercise. The main exercise will revolve around smaller missions like assaulting shore-based targets, launching amphibious operations, and vessel searching and seizing.
The exercise involves three carrier groups; the size of representation of naval powers in the exercise is indicative of their relative dominance in strategic security arrangements in this part of the Indian Ocean. The U.S. as the biggest naval power in the Indian Ocean has the maximum representation. Its fleet of 13 ships included two aircraft carriers – the nuclear powered USS Nimitz, and the USS Kittyhawk, a nuclear submarine USS Chicago, two guided-missile cruisers, and six guided-missile destroyers. The participation of the Indian Navy, the second biggest navy in the region, includes the aircraft carrier INS Viraat, two destroyers, a submarine, a missile frigate, four corvettes, and a tanker. Indian naval maritime reconnaissance aircraft and shore based IAF fighters are also participating. The Japanese maritime self-defence forces have two naval craft. Australia is fielding a frigate and a tanker while Singapore is represented by one of the most modern frigates.
However, it would be wrong to construe the emerging strategic linkages of India in terms of a polarised world as in the past. The world has come a long way; the strategic situations can no more be read in black and white in terms of military security only as in the cold war days. There are innumerable shades of grey, overlapping the lines of national and global interests. Building cooperation, coordination and convergence are the key elements of current strategic linkages rather than establishing military bases. This is evident in the power play of China, India and the U.S. in South Asia.
China is on the move from the regional to global strategic scene. Its huge army is being modernised at a great cost. It boasts of a strong inter continental ballistic missile system and a well developed nuclear weapons capability. China’s defence spending has more than doubled since 2001 and is likely to more than treble by 2010 to $ 59 billion. As an economic giant, China is developing blue water navy to protect its global economic interests and energy resources. In association with Russia, it is building a Central Asian strategic network under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Only recently the SCO held a major military exercise with the largest-ever Chinese and Russian joint participation. At the same time China had been trying to build its relationship with both Japan and India. It has been holding strategic dialogues with India. In April 2007 Indian and Chinese navies had a joint exercise. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army is scheduled to hold an exercise with the Indian Army this month.
But these initiatives have not prevented China from strengthening bonds with strong military overtone in India’s neighbourhood. It has helped Pakistan develop a nuclear and missile capability. It has built Gwadar port, as an alternative to Karachi, beyond the easy reach of Indian Navy. Similarly, on India’s vulnerable northeast, China has a close ally in Myanmar, which will be providing China direct access to Indian Ocean by passing the Malacca Strait. China has also built strong economic relationship with the ASEAN taking advantage of the presence of large ethnic Chinese community controlling the trade and commerce in most of the member countries. China enjoys excellent relations with Bangladesh. And these could be turned into working relations between the armed forces of the two countries. In the south, Sri Lanka is receiving special attention from China, with liberal aid packages. China is developing Hambantota port in the southern tip of the island, which dominates the Indian Ocean shipping lanes. Thus it is well poised to influence the happenings in and around India.
However, China despite its desire for global domination has tried to assuage international fears of its emergence as a belligerent power. The Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao considers the first 20 years of this century as a period of important strategic opportunities for China. The Chinese leadership envisages the international environment will be reasonably peaceful over the next two decades. Thus, in Wen’s perception “Peace and development remain the general trend of the times and no major war is likely to break out. It is fully possible for us to have a fairly long-term peaceful international environment and a favourable neighbourhood environment. —- We must seize the favourable international opportunities to speed up our development. Achieving development is the overriding principle. It is the basis for solving all problems in China and for China to conduct effective diplomacy.” But the general lack of transparency in China’s dealings always clouds its international credibility. It will have to work very hard to create a better climate of international confidence to improve this.
Brahma Chellaney, strategic analyst, put it eloquently when he said “There is a new Great Game in Asia where major players are trying to create alliances and partnerships. India has to be a layer and there is a need to pursue initiatives. China’s rise signals an unbridled desire to dominate Asia. This is a strategic challenge for India and the need for a multi-polar Asia.” India has not been unaware of these developments, and its agenda is also becoming global. It has no option but to plan for securing its own interests, particularly when South Asia could become a nuclear battlefield in the future. At the same time, India has been trying to mend relations with both Pakistan and China and build closer economic and trade links with both of them. But in this journey Indian national interests could run headlong into China’s own ambitions. Thus India has to evolve its own mechanisms to defend its interests. Probably India’s move to join the quadrilateral initiative and anchor it in this part of Asia is part of this effort. It will be up to the people and leaders of India how productively they use the opportunities offered solely for national interest, rather than becoming handmaiden of big powers.
(The writer, Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, is an intelligence analyst. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)