Time to expand Malabar platform

Time to expand Malabar platform

It is a coincidence that India-US-Japan Malabar naval exercise this year was held at a time when India and China are locked in a serious standoff in the Sikkim region. The timing of this annual feature is decided six months in advance and the Sikkim border bedlam could not have been anticipated while scheduling the drill. However, during the last several years, it has come to represent a joint resolve to counter increasing Chinese hegemony in the territorial waters of the region and a reminder to China to rein in its expansionist designs. Started in 1992 between the navies of the US and India, it became an annual feature since 2002. Initially pitched at the basic level, the exercises have increased in complexity. In 2007, India sought to expand the drills from bilateral format, triggering an outcry from China. However, in 2015, India included Japan as a permanent member of the exercises, ignoring China.

The 21st edition of the just concluded drill was one of the largest exercises in recent times. The three navies conducted exercises in all forms of warfare — from anti-submarine to anti-surface air operations. Their primary aim was to increase interoperability amongst them and develop a common understanding of procedures for maritime security operations. The Indo-Pacific region holds immense geo-political and geo-strategic significance for navies around the world. The challenges of piracy, maritime terrorism, organised crime like drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, trafficking of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have forced navies to conduct joint patrols and provide escort duties for shipping assets. In addition, the challenge to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, unrelenting firing of missiles by North Korea and apprehension of non-accessibility of crucial choke points cannot be ignored.

Given the changing security scenario in the Indo-Pacific region, the scope of the Malabar exercises needs to be expanded by including Australia and other like-minded countries. The operationalisation of the Gwadar port, deployment of troops in the Chinese base at Djibouti and the enhanced Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region cannot be ignored. Given China’s disdain for international norms in the South China Sea and its increasing influence in the littorals, the Indo-Pacific region can turn from a zone of peace into a zone of competition, confrontation and conflict. Based on the platform provided by the Malabar exercises, a perceptible beginning to a peaceful Indo-Pacific region can be made if India seizes this opportunity to take the lead in forming an overarching security squad of India, Australia, Japan and the US, thereby demonstrating a cooperative approach, greater coherence and a shared resolve to address maritime security issues.

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