As tensions with China remain unabated on the Sikkim border, India, Japan and the US began the annual maritime exercise, Malabar, in the Bay of Bengal on Monday. This is the Indian Navy’s biggest ever participation in the exercise: Nine warships, including aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and a Kilo-class submarine, along with Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft P8I. The US Navy has a matching participation — the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, USS Princeton, destroyers USS Kidd, Howard and Shoup, an attack submarine and one Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft P8A — while the Japanese brought in JS Izumo, a helicopter carrier, and the missile destroyer, JS Sazanami.
But it is not merely about the numbers. It is also about the naval platforms being fielded for the exercise. India has never fielded the P8I and INS Vikramaditya in any exercise; in fact, the US Navy had requested for the Russian-built aircraft carrier’s participation last year but it was declined by the Indian side. A handful of navies operate aircraft carriers globally — China is still learning the ropes of operating an aircraft carrier — and for India to do joint training with the US using its sole aircraft carrier signifies a greater degree of cooperation and confidence in the bilateral relationship. The P8I aircraft is a variation of the American P8A aircraft and the Indian side will only learn from the Americans. It will bring out that India is unable to optimally utilise the asset, which is bound to reopen the debate over India signing the two pending foundational agreements with the US.
As the three navies exercise in the Indian waters, the elephant in the room — or the dragon in the sea — is China. The Chinese have already issued a statement about their exercise and their intelligence gathering ship, Haiwingxing, had entered the area earlier this month, to keep track. It had responded very strongly in 2007 when five countries had participated in Malabar. This time, Australia was keen to be a participant but Indians vetoed the proposal because of its earlier acquiescence towards China. India, however, would be hoping that China will get the message, that its forays in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) won’t go uncontested. China has been flexing its muscle in the IOR and the Indian Navy has been stretched in trying to monitor the increased Chinese movement. A successful Malabar would further drive home the Indian commitment to safeguard its maritime interests.