Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

The Malabar exercises and Maritime security

  • Amb (Retd) Yogendra Kumar

    By: Amb (Retd) Yogendra Kumar
    Venue: Central University of Kerala, Trivandrum
    Date: August 08, 2017

The ‘Malabar Exercise’ is currently being held between India, US and Japan and have drawn wider attention as a significant feature of current geopolitics as well as of India’s quest for maritime security.

The latest edition, that is, ‘Malabar Exercise 2017’ was conducted against a backdrop of generally higher level of international tension, especially in Asia. Of all the exercises so far, this exercise had the highest level of sophistication. All three countries, including Japan in a first, fielded their aircraft carriers, namely, USS Nimitz, INS Vikramaditya and JS Izumo – last one is a helicopter carrier tasked for anti-submarine warfare. Overall, 17 ships participated, including a US nuclear-powered submarine. It lasted 10 days in the Bay of Bengal; it had both onshore and at sea components. It covered different aspects of naval operations including submarine and anti-submarine warfare, air defence, search and rescue, helicopter cross-deck evolutions, communications, carrier strike group operations and patrol and reconnaissance. The level of interoperability between the three participating navies was such that the US commander of the participating fleet stated that this exercise gave him confidence that the US naval force could operate "for real” should the situation warrant.

US Pacific Command (PACOM) is the partner in this series of exercises which take place alternately between the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific area closer to Japan and the South China Sea. This region is also PACOM’s operational area covering the Pacific Ocean up to line stretching from India-Pakistan coastal border. Given its history and the current relations of the participating countries with China, the latter has been monitoring these closely. The Chinese foreign office spokesperson stated that it was hoped that "this kind of relations and cooperation is not directed at any third party”. According to Indian newspaper reports, the Indian Navy recorded a surge in Chinese ships and submarines in the preceding two months for unrelated Indian Ocean deployments but some vessels seemed to be tasked to carry out its close surveillance.

Although unconnected to the 2017 edition, all three countries are currently having quite volatile relations with China. India-China are having a tense, but peaceful, face-off at Doklam Plateau. Japan-China are in frequent naval and air encounters over the Senkaku islands’ issue which has witnessed joint US bomber and Japanese fighter planes’ patrols; in 2015, Japan revised its rules of military engagement to act in tandem with the US military in a wider area of operations beyond its military’s ‘self-defence’ mission. US is also increasing its pressure on China over the Korean crisis where, again, US and South Korean planes are carrying out patrols; as the Chinese air force is maintaining high alert, the US has deployed THAAD anti-missile batteries in South Korea and two carrier task forces in the region in addition to resuming the ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOP’s) in the South China Sea which were suspended after the assumption of office by President Trump.

Initiated in 1992 after the end of the Cold War, these were held between US and India off the Malabar Coast in the Indian Ocean whence it derived its name. Suspended in the wake of India’s nuclear tests, these were resumed soon after US intervention in Afghanistan post-‘9/11’ when Indian Navy escorted US commercial ships in the Straits of Malacca. Starting with simple PASSEX exercises, these became rapidly complex and, in 2005, both sides brought in their aircraft carriers. A coordinated humanitarian assistance (HADR) mission during the south-east and the south Asian tsunami, in 2004, was seen as a significant strategic development. 2007 was, yet, another significant year when the exercise was held for the first time in the Bay of Bengal and the two countries were joined by Japan, Australia and Singapore; a second part of this exercise was held in the Western Pacific. That year also saw the launch of the Quadrilateral Initiative involving India, US, Japan and Australia; following Chinese diplomatic demarches, Australia withdrew from the Quadrilateral Initiative and both Australia and Singapore withdrew from the Malabar Exercises. The 2015 India-US summit statement formally invited Japan to join these exercises which were then held in the Bay of Bengal.

Changing nature of geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region

The historical evolution of the Malabar exercise series could be seen, perhaps, as representing a barometer of the shifting geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region: the expression ‘Asia-Pacific’, in its different variations, embraces the area of responsibility of PACOM. What initially began as a tentative opening of maritime contacts between India and US off the Malabar Coast took the form of a serious effort to shape the maritime order in the larger region; driven by PACOM, tasked with the maintaining of the favourable balance-of-power in the larger Pacific region, it has turned out to be a reinforcement exercise in the context of the rising power of China. Its shifting from the Malabar Coast to the Bay of Bengal and alternating between the latter and Western Pacific region suggests a strategic convergence between India and US in the ‘Asia-Pacific’; this convergence extends to Japan, Singapore and Australia but also, in varying degrees, to the other South China Sea littorals. Although India’s relations with China improved - especially in regard to the border CBMs, boundary talks, economic as well as people-to-people relationships – during this period, the growth of these relations is widely perceived as a strategic factor in the overall balance-of-power in this region and that dynamic determines their future. The 2007 phase coincided with the conclusion of the India-US civil nuclear agreement; the same dynamic could explain the level of sophistication of ‘Malabar 2017’. At the same time, these exercises are more in the form of ‘interoperability’ skills development and can be seen as helping shape the strategic environment in the area of focus; yet these are not military alliances and do not rule out ‘hedging’ – or, unilateral overtures to the perceived adversary – by the involved parties.

India’s quest for maritime security

Post-cold war, India’s strategic objective has been to shape the maritime order in a manner that it can neutralise the external threats arising from the adjacent oceanic waters for its socio-economic and technological progress; it has been conscious of its critical role in shaping its history and civilisation. Moreover, as India’s economy grew so also did its larger maritime interests which grew beyond the proximate oceanic space. A favourable circumstance, unlike the Cold War period, has been that the predominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, namely, the US, did not consider India Navy as a disruptive force of the maritime order supported by it; rather, it encouraged its growth and the vision of being a ‘net provider of security’ in the Indian Ocean. Moreover, most countries in the region consider India a benign power with an interest in promoting regional security.

Globalisation, in the post-cold war era, has witnessed the phenomenon where the world trade is growing faster than world output and where maritime transport handles more than 78% of global trade by volume and over 70% by value. India’s growth imperatives, with high dependence on seaborne traffic, are no different from the rest of the world in the 21st century.

A conducive maritime order, therefore, requires to be underpinned by naval power projection capabilities. There is requirement for both sea-control (aircraft carriers/surface ships) and sea-denial (submarines, underwater drones et cetera) capabilities. Protection of navigation routes for seaborne commercial traffic as well as control/control-denial capabilities of navigational chokepoints is a critical element of the grand strategies of major powers.

‘Indian Maritime Security Strategy’ (2015), published by the Indian Navy, outlines the major maritime security objectives which include deterrence of conflict, operational capability for early termination of conflict, shaping a favourable and positive maritime environment, protection of coastal/offshore assets from threats from the sea and adequate force capability for maritime security requirements.

India’s peninsular configuration, coupled with the two island chains on both sides, provides it with the potential capability for projection of seapower over large parts of the Indian Ocean. Its location astride the main international shipping lanes (ISLs) in the Indian Ocean give it a certain advantage – but also makes it vulnerable to pressure by great powers with interests in their domination. It also has a natural interest in the chokepoints located at the Cape of Good Hope, Mozambique Channel, Bab El Mendeb, Suez Canal, Strait of Hormuz, Malacca Straits, Sunda Strait, Lombok Strait and Ombai and Weter Strait. Securing advantageous position in respect of all these geographical circumstances requires both acquisition of hard power capabilities and capability to conduct naval compellance diplomacy.

The Indian Navy, along with the Coast Guard and the coastal police of the relevant states and other Central agencies, provides security to the entire coastline, more than 1200 islands and a large EEZ, with the anticipated addition of continental shelf, would make it almost as large as the country’s land mass. The protection needs to be ensured against foreign hostile navies, seaborne terrorism, transnational crime, illegal fishing, environmental pollution et cetera.

The naval capacity building is being done through acquisition of new hardware and capability to fight in all mediums. Navy is also, now, the holder of India’s survivable nuclear deterrent. It is expending resources on developing infrastructure both in the Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep Island chains for power projection capabilities, including maritime surveillance, in both the eastern as well as the western regions of the Indian Ocean.

Naval diplomacy is being conducted in several ways. Maritime domain awareness as well as shaping of a favourable maritime order is sought to be achieved through joint operations with friendly naval forces - CORPATs (coordinated patrols) and intelligence sharing arrangements regarding the Malacca Straits, Bay of Bengal as well as in the area of the Indian Ocean islands (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles). The Indian Navy participates in anti-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean region under SHADE (‘Shared Awareness and Deconfliction’) arrangements although such cooperation is not under any other command system such as the US-sponsored Combined Task Forces (CTFs) in the Gulf and the Horn of Africa. Various types of naval exercises with friendly navies (such as Malabar and Milan exercises), port calls, equipment transfer and training are part of the extensive range of naval diplomacy which helps in shaping the maritime order.

The US Navy, essentially, underpins the maritime order in the Indian Ocean through its extensive bases, including Diego Garcia, CENTOM (Central Command) presence in Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman and AFRICOM (Africa Command) elements in Seychelles, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The Indian Ocean region is also witnessing the return of UK Navy and the presence of French Navy. EU (European Union) and NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) naval elements are also present. The nature of Indian Navy’s involvement with these commands is not as extensive in terms of the level of ‘interoperability’ as with PACOM; in that sense, the ‘Malabar Exercise’ series addresses only one part of India’s maritime security oncerns.

The expanding footprint of China in the Indian Ocean region is still considered as ‘disruptive’ of the existing maritime order which is seen as being favourable to India and the western countries. China’s OBOR (One-Belt-One-Road) land-based infrastructure projects are converging with MSR (Maritime Silk Route) which is, essentially, construction of ports along with surrounding SEZs in locations which have strategic significance for it. It has recently opened its ‘logistics base’ where, reportedly, 1000 Chinese marines are being deployed. Apart from port calls and supply of naval equipment, such as submarines, to Bangladesh, Thailand and, likely, to Myanmar, it is exercising with various countries, including Iran and Pakistan. It is planning supply of eight submarines to Pakistan which can potentially alter the balance of power in the Indian Ocean region. Another potential challenge to the maritime order is the possibility of (Pakistani) ‘loose nukes at sea’ given the nearly successful attempt by Al Qaeda to capture, in September 2014, the Pakistani naval ship Zulfikar and Pakistan’s declared policy for a sea-based nuclear deterrent.

‘SAGAR’ vision of India’s maritime security

On 12 March, 2015, at the ceremony of handover of an India-built vessel to the Mauritian Coast Guard at Port Louis, Prime Minister Modi made a landmark speech outlining his vision for the Indian Ocean. By weaving together the ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ threats to India’s maritime security, he went beyond the hard-core, military kinetic approach to ensuring it. His ‘SAGAR’ (‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’) vision posits, first and foremost, the requirement to safeguard our mainland and islands, and the ability to defend the national interests with the objective to ensure a safe, secure and stable region with a commitment to help others during natural disasters and through search and rescue capability at sea. In that, the role of the Indian Navy is critical for protection, fighting against piracy and terrorism as well as protection, along with other agencies, of our natural resources. Being the second most powerful navy in the Indian Ocean, it can provide a thought leadership as well as help, along with others, in ensuring respect for international maritime rules and norms by all countries, sensitivity to each other’s interests, peaceful resolution of maritime issues and a climate of trust and transparency.

The fragility of the Indian Ocean maritime order, despite the placidity of the waters presently, is not only due to the existing balance of power being under threat, due to lack of common ground rules, but also from the current hotspots, especially on its northern periphery, which are not likely to disappear in the near future but may, even, multiply; there is the disquieting potential for instability in the Gulf region and fragility of states located at oceanic chokepoints which are either witnessing internal collapse or conflict, as in Yemen. The state fragility has spawned piracy, terrorism and trans-national crime at sea.

The ‘non-traditional’ security challenges to the maritime order are even more complex not lending themselves to easy institutional structuring and require a system-wide thinking completely antithetical to the one underlining a balance-of-power approach; these challenges are inadequately internalised, in institutional terms, in the security doctrines of most countries. The system destabilising impact of climate change, which Prime Minister described as not an issue of debate "but a serious threat to existence” which manifests daily in the "tragedy of the tsunamis and cyclones” affecting large populations in coastal areas as well as numerous island countries and communities. Most countries on the Indian Ocean littoral have serious capacity issues in meeting this challenge which can potentially destabilise political systems, especially the fragile ones, disrupt coastal economies and community life, critically damage infrastructure leading to even more diminished capacity to respond in future. All have coastal areas which are major population and industrial centres presenting, in themselves, considerable governance challenges. Prime Minister’s speech addressed these challenges in terms of capacity building, with India pursuing a proactive diplomatic agenda, and also collaborating with the littoral and extra-littoral countries.

The naval cooperation among major powers in the Indian Ocean region has had limited success and the strategic distrust levels still remain quite high due to their competing interests. As India gets increasingly integrated globally, it has responsibility in advancing cooperation in the region where collective multilateral governance structures play a crucial role in building capacities and strategic trust. He singled out Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for building capacities and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) – latter, bringing together 35 navies of the region, will help deepen mutual understanding on maritime challenges and collective ability to address them.

Greater collaboration in trade, tourism and investment, infrastructure development, marine science and technology, sustainable fisheries, protection of marine environment and overall development of Ocean or blue economy – are all elements which will be the components of a secure maritime order able to meet our current challenges, including hard power, and provide stakes to all countries and communities, littoral and extra-littoral, in such a maritime security.

In developing such capabilities, the Prime Minister pointed at a grand vision for ‘Blue Economy’ for India and the region. The full exploitation of the oceanic resources in a manner that the oceanic degradation is reversed and a vast horizon is opened for India’s economic as well as technological growth, is a critical element without which India’s maritime security can never be achieved. It is his vision that Indians can only be prosperous, technologically advanced and members of equitable and just society, inclusive of the poorest sections, whilst living in harmony with the country’s immediate and extended neighbourhood.

Concluding remarks

The Prime Minister’s speech has timeliness. The placidity of the Indian Ocean provides a window of opportunity but the challenges are a reminder that this window may be closing. His vision is one of optimism and of self-confidence because it primarily rests on India’s internal strengths as also on its ability to involve the littoral communities due to the fact that India does not appear threatening to others. Rooted though it is in a hardheaded assessment of the realpolitik of maritime security in the Indian Ocean, the SAGAR vision has, yet, an enduring, civilisational quality.