In all the writings on the on-going conflict between China and India over the border between Bhutan and Tibet, no one has attempted to explain why China has revived the long-dormant border conflict with India at this point of time.
The answer to the question as to why China has revived the issue now appears to lie in the holding of an exceptionally big “Malabar Exercise” being held in the Bay of Bengal between July 10 and 17. The Malabar Exercise is the biggest naval exercise in the Indian Ocean to date, involving the largest ships of the Indian, US and Japanese navies.
The unstated but principal aim of the exercise is to dominate the Indian Ocean and thwart China’s attempt to gatecrash and become the new hegemon in the area in pursuance of its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) global interconnectivity cum strategic domination project. India, US and Japan are opposed to the OBOR in varying degrees with India being the most vociferous opponent.
For China, domination of the Indian Ocean is as vital for the success of the OBOR just as being the overlord of the South China Sea is.
While India and the US have been strategic partners for some time and the Malabar Exercises have been on since 1992, this is the first time Japan is participating as a permanent member, and that with its biggest warship JS Izumo, a helicopter carrier.
The Malabar exercise is the first naval exercise between the three countries to involve carriers of each navy. The Indian Navy has deployed INS Vikramaditya, a modified Russian-made Kiev-class carrier that was commissioned in 2013. The United States has sent the USS Nimitz super carrier. The Japanese Izumo is one of two Japanese warships that are among the largest the country has operated since the end of World War II. The Izumo is not equipped to launch fighter aircraft, but could be retrofitted for Short-Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variants of the F-35B. In all, the exercise involves 16 ships, two submarines, and more than 95 aircraft.
The Indian Navy has P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft in this exercise, underlining the anti-submarine warfare focus this year. The United States has also sent a P-8A Poseidon aircraft. India and the US “hunt submarines” will act together with their Poseidon-8 long-range maritime patrol aircraft. The Indian Navy has inducted eight of the 12 P-8I aircraft ordered from the US for $3.2 billion, which are packed with radars and armed with deadly Harpoon Block-II missiles, MK-54 lightweight torpedoes, rockets and depth charges, while the US Navy operates the P-8A variants, a report said.
Malabar 2017 consists of both ashore and at-sea activities. According to the US Navy statement, the shore activities held in Chennai, “include subject matter expert and professional exchanges on carrier strike group operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, surface and anti-submarine warfare, medical operations, damage control, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), helicopter operations, and Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) operations.”
Other aspects are: “Liaison officers professional exchanges and embarks; a photo exercise; submarine familiarization; high-value unit defense; air defense exercises; medical evacuation drills; surface warfare exercises; communications exercises; search and rescue exercises; helicopter cross-deck evolutions; underway replenishments; gunnery exercises; VBSS exercises; and anti-submarine warfare.”
The focus this year is clearly on anti-submarine warfare given the face that Chinese submarines are all over the Indian Ocean. According to The Diplomat, since 2015 at least, Chinese Shang-class and Song-class submarines have been deployed in the Indian Ocean, raising concerns in India. China has, recently, opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti.
“The exercise is all about inter-operability. The basic aim is to ensure inter-operability as navies come with different systems. They will have to device systems of working together if a need arises,” explained Adm (Rtd) Dr.Jayanath Colombage, former chief of the Sri Lankan navy.
While the exercise is aimed at containing China it is not meant to provoke it or increase its anxiety to the point where it will take retaliatory or counter steps.
In 2007, India’s involvement in the informal ‘quadrilateral security dialogue’ with Japan, Australia and the United States – with all four participating in that year’s iteration of the Malabar exercises – provoked a strong backlash from Beijing due to fears of encirclement, The Hindu noted.
The Commanders of the three naval units diplomatically refused to commit themselves on the question whether the exercise was about containing China in the Indian Ocean.
The Commander US Strike Group 11, Rear Admiral William D Byrne, only said that the strategic message that Malabar 2017 is sending to “all navies is that we are better together”, adding that the drill should “eliminate possibilities of miscalculations”.
Japan and Sri Lanka
Dr.Satoru Nagao,.Research Fellow at the Institute for Future Engineering (Strategy, Defence & Security) Japan, said that China is very apprehensive about the participation of JS Izumo because it believes that Japan is now independent of the US in defense matters with its own force participating in major international exercises.
“‘When Izumo visited Singapore, China warned Singapore. When Izumo visited Vietnam, China warned Vietnam. Now because Izumo entered India, China is warning India. China believes in Japan’s military potential. China is aware that even in World War II, it did not win any major campaign against the Japanese.” Dr.Nagao said.
Sri Lanka is not a participant in the Malabar Exercises, but according to Adm (Rtd) Jayanath Colombage, a former chief of the Sri Lankan navy, the unstated aim of the exercise is the containment of Chinese submarine activity.
However he was for Sri Lanka’s participation in Malabar Exercises, because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
“Sri Lanka is just north of the world’s main trade route and it is important that it plays a role in ensuring that the Indian Ocean is kept free for maritime commerce based on a rule-based system,” he said.
“Maritime Dominion Awareness (MDA) is key to the maintenance of peace and orderly shipping activity in the Indian Ocean. Given its location in the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka should be an MDA hub. And given the fact that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea has not been universally ratified (the US has not) there is a need for a Code of Conduct to which all might agree. I am drafting one,” Colombage said.
Australia, a former Malabar participant, is not participating in Malabar 2017, reportedly because India did not want to annoy China beyond a point. However, India and Australia held a separate bilateral naval exercise in June and the United States and Australia just concluded one.
Many commentators find it intriguing that a brazenly pro-US Indian government like Narendra Modi’s, should bar Australia from participating. India’s decision breaks a trend of accelerating strategic engagement with Australia. In 2014, a landmark nuclear cooperation pact was signed. Recently, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was welcomed in New Delhi during which visit he insisted that Australia was ready to begin uranium exports to India and reaffirmed Canberra’s support for India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It was also decided to hold joint army exercises in 2018 and enhance intelligence cooperation.
But there are irritants in the relationship. Turnbull failed to sign a Logistics Support Agreement comparable to the one signed by India and the US. A Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which has been discussed for the past six years is deadlocked. Australia has scrapped an employer-sponsored temporary work visa program which will affect Indians adversely.
However, the US would like Australia in, and also wants the Malabar Exercises to have a permanent membership and not a changing membership as is the case now.