Malabar 2017 was held last July while Indian and Chinese troops were locked in a tense border stand-off in Doklam, at the India-China-Bhutan border tri-junction near Sikkim. This year’s reduced participation comes just six weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day “informal summit” meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China.
Naval sources dismiss the notion of a “reduced commitment to Malabar”. They said the Navy is not sending an aircraft carrier or submarine simply because Guam is too far away – almost 10,000 kilometres by sea. A senior officer said it would be undesirable to leave no aircraft carrier for India’s defence.
The admirals say this year’s exercise will involve unprecedented complexity, featuring enemy threats in all three dimensions, but especially underwater threats from submarines – a key Chinese strength.
They point out that, for the first time, officers from all three navies will function as “sea riders” – or posted on other navies’ warships. That means Indian Navy officers will obtain the unprecedented benefits of operating on the US Navy Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines and the highly regarded Soryu-class submarines of the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF). Also, for the first time, the world’s best three long-range maritime reconnaissance (LRMR) aircraft – the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I, the US Navy’s Boeing P-8A and the JMSDF’s Kawasaki P-1 – will operate together.
Beijing regards Exercise Malabar as the military manifestation of a trilateral alignment between Washington, Tokyo and New Delhi, directed at containing China. Beijing has also opposed Australia’s frequent requests to participate in Exercise Malabar, regarding that as amounting to a “Quadrilateral Alliance” of Asia-Pacific democracies.
Chinese apprehensions about India joining a US-led, anti-China grouping have been inflamed by growing US-India naval cooperation, and by measures like the recent re-naming of the Hawaii-based United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) as the US Indo-Pacific Command. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis explained that the renaming only took into account the actual geographical spread of USPACOM, “from Bollywood to Hollywood and from penguins to polar bears”. Beijing was not amused.
On Monday, the defence ministry stated that the US Navy will participate in Malabar 2018 with six major warships: “Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan with its air wing; two Ticonderoga class cruisers, USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville; two Arleigh Burke class destroyers, USS Benfold and USS Mustin; a Los Angeles-class attack submarine and one long range maritime patrol aircraft P-8A.”
It said the JMSDF would be represented by Hyuga class helicopter carrier JS Ise with its integral helicopters; Takanami-class destroyer JS Suzunami; Akizuki-class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki, a P-1 LRMR aircraft and a submarine.
The participating Indian warships will reach Guam on June 7, for the Harbour Phase of the exercise, where the three navies will coordinate operating techniques and drills. Sea Phase, from June 11-16, will feature live aircraft carrier operations, air defence, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS), joint manoeuvres and tactical procedures.