The United States and India annually hold naval drills to sharpen skills, but this year the fleet of aircraft carriers, destroyers and frigates conducting war games near the port of Chennai included a warship from Japan.
India agreed to include Tokyo in the annual Malabar naval drill with the United States, eight years after New Delhi yielded to pressure from China and restricted the exercises to a bilateral format when they were held in the Indian Ocean. Japan took part on some occasions, but only when they were held in the Pacific.
Strategic analysts call Japan’s inclusion in this year’s exercises a significant turning point for the deepening security partnership among the three countries. They also see it as a signal that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is shedding old concerns about Chinese sensitivities in moving closer to Washington and its allies.
Jeff Smith, a South Asia specialist at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington feels New Delhi may have been prompted by the fact that “perhaps the Chinese respect strength and rather than cowing to them or making decisions simply to not provoke the Chinese we should instead focus on building our own strengths and our own partnerships.”
Japan’s participation in the Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean is not likely to be a one-off affair; an announcement is widely expected on Tokyo’s permanent inclusion, turning the naval drill into a trilateral show of strength. Analysts say this would be “very significant.”
The deepening military cooperation among India, the United States and Japan comes amid growing Chinese maritime assertiveness, worries over conflicts in South China Sea and New Delhi’s concerns about Beijing’s bid to expand its presence in the Indian Ocean.
Signal to China
“In trying to stretch China at the two ends, it is good to have the three exercise and generally work up their interoperability and so on. That is the important thing in crises and also to send a message to China, should push come to shove it might feel itself hugely stressed militarily at the two ends of Asia,” says Bharat Karnad, at New Delhi’s Center for Policy Research.
Analysts say New Delhi’s closer strategic embrace of Japan and the United states is prompted by new security realities in its maritime neighborhood. India has watched warily in recent years as China helped Sri Lanka and Pakistan build ports and made overtures to the island nation of Maldives. The docking of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka and Gwadar Port in Pakistan in the past year has raised Indian concern.
“Over the past year or two, China is increasingly proactive in terms of its own strategy. Its ties with Pakistan are constantly being upgraded. It is building a major military base in Gwadar. Its huge defense supplies to Pakistan is taking place. So this is the reality,” says Sujit Dutta, a professor of Chinese studies at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia University.
But the inclusion of Japan has not gone down well with Beijing. "We are not that fragile and we are having [a] sound relationship with both India and the U.S. We hope that relevant activities will contribute to the regional stability, they will contribute more positive energy for that," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, has said.
Analysts say the naval capability being deployed in this year’s Malabar edition is significant. The ships brought by the United States include the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, and a nuclear powered attack submarine. Japan is deploying a guided missile warship designed for anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.
The four Indian ships include a frigate and a destroyer. Sophisticated anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-aircraft drills will get underway when the ships reach deep waters on Friday.
Uday Bhaskar who heads the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi says that more than the numbers, it is the kind of ships involved in the exercises that merit attention.
“And the fact that there is going to be a nuclear submarine from the American side and a conventional submarine on the Indian side introduces a very complex three-dimensional kind of capability as far as the scope of the exercise is concerned.”
But India has not completely shed old inhibitions about turning the Malabar drill into a multilateral exercise.
Australia was not included in the war games this year despite its request to do so. Both Australia and Singapore, along with Japan had participated in the 2007 Malabar exercises that had riled China.