The meeting, on September 29, of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida in New York was hailed as the first trilateral meeting at the foreign ministerial level between New Delhi, Washington and Tokyo.
In his opening remarks, Kerry spoke of East Asia as “a place of challenge for some issues of security”, Swaraj spoke of the “sea lanes of communication in the region” as “the lifeline of India’s trade and commercial externalities”, and Kishida described the Pacific and Indian Oceans as “oceans of freedom and prosperity”.
The tone of the meeting, coming a month ahead of the Malabar 2015 exercise, put into perspective the convergence of India’s Look East policy, Japan’s repeated insistence on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and the Obama administration’s Asia-Pacific Rebalance.
The six-day Malabar 2015 exercise that concluded in the Bay of Bengal on Monday needs to be viewed in the light of these stated positions, which have been articulated by each of the participating nations for long now. The Indian Navy, host of the exercise, participated with its INS Shivalik and INS Betwa frigates, the INS Ranvijay guided missile destroyer, and fleet support ship INS Shakti. A Sindhughosh class submarine, the INS Sindhudhvaj, and P8I Long Range Maritime Recce aircraft and helicopters too were part of the Indian fleet in the exercise.
Malabar, initially an India-US bilateral naval exercise, began in 1992, and Japan became a permanent participant only in the current — 19th — edition in 2015. Japan’s participation as a non-permanent participant in 2007 had drawn a strong protest from China; Japan, nonetheless, participated in the 2009, 2011 and 2014 editions of the exercise, which were held off the Japanese coast.
The participation of Japan, which deployed missile destroyer J S Fuyuzuki and SH 60K helicopters on India’s invitation, is the first time since 2007 that the Japanese Navy has participated in the exercise being held off the coast of India. It also signals the importance that the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally have attached to strategic ties with Japan.
Despite the statement by a top US Navy officer over the weekend that Malabar was “not directly aimed at China”, there is very little doubt about Beijing’s shadow over the exercise.
During a visit to India in March, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the US Pacific fleet, had spelled out the significance of the region in the light of the US Asia Pacific Rebalance: “A China that recognises norms is in the interest of everyone,” he had said, adding that the US planned to station 60 per cent of its fleet and 55 per cent of its surface combatants in the Pacific region, with two ships stationed in Japan.
The US Navy was represented at Malabar 2015 by ships from the Carrier Task Force (CTF) 70 of the USN 7th Fleet based at Yokosuka, Japan. The CTF included the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Normandy and Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship USS Fort Worth, besides the Los Angeles class nuclear powered submarine USS City of Corpus Christi, and F18 Aircraft from the Carrier Air Wing and P8A Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft.
The exercise marked a continuation of the larger US project in the Asia-Pacific region, which includes sending out signals to China on issues of freedom of navigation in international waters. The US reportedly plans to sail warships within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-claimed features in the South China Sea, as part of Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations.
Japan has been aggressively voicing its concerns about the South China Sea in view of increased Chinese activities and the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. In June, the Japanese Ministry of Defence published a comprehensive report highlighting Chinese reclamation activities in the Sea.