by Darshana M. Baruah. She is a Junior Fellow at the New Delhi based think tank, Observer Research Foundation, is working on the South China Sea and has completed her Masters in International Relations from Cardiff University in 2012.
The basis of increasing maritime collaborations in the Asian maritime domain has been the changing power dynamics, influenced by a rise of China and revised maritime strategies of nations such as India, Indonesia and Australia. The changing Asian security framework is also creating the space for countries to forge new relationships and renew old ones. If on the one hand we are witnessing warmer ties between Vietnam and the US, on the other hand we see a positive development in India’s maritime policy reflected through re-inviting Japan to join the Indo-US bilateral maritime exercise Malabar.
Japan’s participation in the 2015 edition of Exercise Malabar is a reflection of two crucial developments in Asia’s waters. One, it is clear that there is a shift in New Delhi’s maritime policy, however small it may be. Two, multilateral framework is emerging as the most preferred model for maritime engagement between the navies of the region.
Japan’s participation in Exercise Malabar for the second time in a row is indication of New Delhi’s willingness to move beyond concerns and intimidation from China if needed, to secure its own strategic interests. This is also somewhere reflective of growing importance of maritime security in Indian foreign policy. Following protests from China post the 2007 Malabar exercises; India had been conscious of keeping the Malabar exercises at a bilateral level. Washington however has remained consistently keen on expanding the scope of the Malabar exercises into a trilateral under a broader multilateral framework. If Japan’s participation in the 2014 edition of Exercise Malaba was a positive step from India, the decision to re-invite Tokyo for the 2015 edition was a bold one, marking the security developments in the Indo-Pacific.Exercise Malabar 2015 also suggests the appearance of a multilateral security framework in the Indo-Pacific. The developments in the Asian maritime domain can broadly be divided into the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean region. Where the South China Sea is already embroiled in conflicts and confrontations, the Indian Ocean region is gearing up to avoid tensions and to maintain the current security order. The rise of China plays a crucial role in both the theatres which combined forms the Indo-Pacific. Rapid developments in the Indo-Pacific are creating the space for navies of the region to come together on issues of common concern. At this point of time, the main security issue in the Indian Ocean region is to sustain the current security order. China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean is of a concern to India and New Delhi is choosing to enter into multilateral frameworks to secure its strategic interests in the region. India has and will continue to maintain a safe distance from alliances and containments policies. However, the changing geo-strategic landscape is working in India’s favour to strengthen its ties with the other regional actors. While India has always been a present security actor in the Indian Ocean region, the need to adopt a sharper and concrete Indian Ocean policy is on the cards. New Delhi is addressing this by engaging with the like-minded navies on both traditional and non traditional security issues.
From an Indian perspective, at the crux of New Delhi’s growing maritime linkages with the navies of the region is the expansion of Chinese ambitions into the Indian Ocean. While it may be unfair to underline China as the reason for India’s shifting maritime policy, it would be foolish to not acknowledge the changes brought about by China’s maritime ambitions. A lot of the changes that we are seeing now may have had its foundations laid over the years. However, a rapid change in the Asian maritime security framework is forcing the Modi government to materialise some of the old initiatives and create new ones. How effective these initiatives would be and if they would match regional expectations from India is another question altogether.
The participation of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force in Exercise Malabar 2015 is also a result of strengthening Indo-US ties. During the visit of US President Barack Obama both sides had committed to “upgrading their bilateral naval exercise Malabar”. According to reports, the US side pushed their Indian counterparts to increase the scope and size of the exercises when they felt that the Indian Navy was doing the “bare minimum” in their bid for Malabar. The Indian Navy was finally represented by “INS Shivalik an indigenous frigate, INS Ranvijay a guided missile destroyer, INS Betwa an indigenous frigate and INS Shakti a Fleet Support Ship. In addition, one Sindhugosh-class submarine, INS Sindhudhvaj, [one] Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft P8I and integral rotary wing helicopters” also participated in the trilateral exercise. The US Navy brought in their aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
The Malabar exercises are now expected to be elevated to a permanent trilateral format.
There is a definite change in Asia’s maritime security domain. How regional powers adapt and react to the changes will ultimately shape up the evolving security order. With increasing competition, the scope for cooperation is also high on the agenda for most nations in the Indian Ocean region. As the security architecture of the Indo-Pacific evolves, the best way forward is to continue engaging at a multilateral level to deter unilateral actions and sustain the current peace and order in the Indian Ocean region.
Read more about the growing maritime linkages in Indo-Pacific: India and Australia.