India-US-Japan Malabar exercise is an assertion of New Delhi's independence, foreign policy and self-confidence

It is a great coincidence that the 10-day annual India-US-Japan Malabar naval exercise began at a time (on 10 July) when India and China are locked in a serious standoff in the Sikkim region. India could not have timed it so well to send a maritime threat to China as a rebuff to the latter's threatening posture in the Himalayan region.

After all, the Malabar exercise is an annual event and its timings are decided and preparations are made, at least, six months in advance. The Sikkim border bedlam which is barely a month-old could not have been anticipated while scheduling the Malabar drill.

But there is no gainsaying that the India-US naval exercise has come to represent, in the last several years, a joint resolve to counter increasing Chinese hegemony in the territorial waters of the region. Both India and the US are coy in admitting it in so many words; naturally so, as both the countries do not want to openly antagonise a rising super-power like China. But everybody concerned knows it very well that the annual exercise is a constant reminder to China to rein in its expansionist designs.

After all, China has been flexing its muscles in its backyard, the South China Sea, for the last several years pushing countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines, which are mostly aligned with the USA, to come under its umbrella.

The Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte has somewhat drifted away from the US and has made common cause with China in the hope of larger economic aid. The US is certainly concerned that its hegemony in the territorial waters worldwide is being challenged by China. So it is looking for reliable partners to checkmate China everywhere.

This suits India as well because China is the only other country, apart from Pakistan, which has been engaged in an adversarial relationship for years. The bigger threat is that Pakistan has become a satellite country of China. China-Pakistan axis, both military and economic, is writ large.

China has helped Pakistan to develop its nuclear capability; it has provided military jets and submarines to Pakistan. It has helped develop the Gwadar port in Pakistan which would help China gain access to the Arabian Sea in the Indian Ocean. China has invested 46 billion dollars to build China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Naturally, India has to be wary of China which is rapidly emerging as a regional hegemony.

The United States and India have, therefore, a shared objective to contain China. The Malabar exercise is meant to precisely do that, though the diplomatic sophistry describes it as a routine maritime drill.

 India-US-Japan Malabar exercise is an assertion of New Delhis independence, foreign policy and self-confidence

The joint exercise began in 1992 in a modest way; it went on to acquire greater muscle in the succeeding years. Reuters

It was the foresight of P V Narasimha Rao, the prime minister in the early 1990s — when the Cold War came to an end with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the international relations underwent a massive churning — that India persuaded the USA to come together to protect their respective interests in the territorial waters.

The joint exercise began in 1992 in a modest way; it went on to acquire greater muscle in the succeeding years. The Manmohan Singh government took the exercise several notches higher; in 2007, India invited Japan, Australia and Singapore to be part of the drill. The five-nation joint exercise infuriated China to such an extent that it issued demarches against the manoeuvre. Australia then backed out from the subsequent strategic dialogue (Quadrilateral Security Initiative) fearing the Chinese backlash. The Australian action displeased India to no end.

Now, that Australia is facing the Chinese heat again and it wants to break free from the Chinese domination, it has been earnestly requesting India to re-admit it in the annual exercise. But India has stubbornly refused to accede to Australia's plea. Australia even pleaded to be given an observer status in the Malabar exercise; but, after dithering over it for a long time, India finally rejected the plea last month. There is a lingering view that India still looks upon Australia as an unreliable strategic ally.

Many in India view Australia's burgeoning economic and political ties with China with suspicion. As an analyst said: "A section of New Delhi's policy elite believes that China's associations in Australia are so vast and intricate that Beijing may even have infiltrated Canberra's political establishment."

While India has cast aside Australia's entreaties, it has had no hesitation in embracing Japan for two reasons: first, Japan has been also in an adversarial relationship with China and would be a strategic Asian ally of India in the eventuality of any maritime conflict in the region. Secondly, the USA has been pushing the case of Japan to build an India-Japan strategic relationship to counter the Chinese designs. Japan first joined the exercise in 2014. It has become a permanent fixture in the three-nation naval exercise since 2015.

By admitting Japan to be an institutional part of the trilateral naval exercise, India has upped the ante against China. There is, of course, no doubt that China is far ahead of India, both economically and militarily. But India today is in a position to demonstrate it is no more a pushover.

India's supreme confidence was manifest when the Narendra Modi government decided to boycott the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative of China; it also gave a miss to the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) showcased by Beijing in May this year in which almost 100 countries (including the USA, Japan and South Korea) and 29 heads of state (including the likes of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president) participated. India did not even send its ambassador in Beijing as a token representation as it wanted to bring home its objection to the creation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in the disputed territory occupied by Pakistan.

India's self-assuredness is again evident from its firm position in the Doklam border dispute; it has gone ahead and stopped Chinese construction of a road in the disputed territory and refused to back off despite serious threats from the Chinese authorities.

The Malabar exercise is another assertion of India's self-confidence to conduct its foreign policy on its own terms, undeterred by the dispositions by other powers. The independent foreign policy is a legacy that India has succeeded in carrying on despite the changes in governments as well as policy prescriptions.

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 13:08:35 IST