Malabar Exercise-2016 and China's Concern
Ahead of the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s four-day trip to China starting from May 24, China is seemingly uncomfortable with the proximity between India, Japan and the US to be exemplified by the Malabar Exercise-2016 and has, thus, upped the ante on its claims in the South China Sea. China has objected to the presence of Indian Navy ships in the region where it has significantly expanded its presence since 2009 through artificial islands and military presence.
Sailing on 18th May 2016 on a two-and-a-half month long operational deployment to the South China Sea and North West Pacific are the 6,200-ton Shivalik-class guided missile stealth frigates INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri armed with supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles; the 27,550-ton Deepak-class fleet tanker INS Shakti, one of the largest surface warships and a sophisticated fleet support ship in the Indian Navy; and the 1,350-ton Kora-class guided missile corvette INS Kirch armed with sub- and super-sonic anti-air and anti-ship missiles.[i]
The ships will also take part in the Malabar exercise near the South China Sea in the waters of Philippines. During this overseas deployment, the Indian ships will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia) and Port Klang (Malaysia). Indian Navy spokesperson Captain DK Sharma said that the visits to each port will last four days and are aimed at strengthening bilateral ties and enhancing inter-operability between the navies.[ii] The naval training is also set to focus on anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction, anti-piracy, as well as visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS) operations.[iii]
China claims sovereignty on almost the entire South China Sea region, a claim disputed by Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China’s stated position is very timely as it has upped the ante ahead of UN tribunal verdict in a case involving Philippines over entitlements in the region.
While India is not a direct stakeholder in the South China Sea territorial disputes, the country has over the past few years been asking for upholding freedom of navigation and over flight in the region and speaking against use of unilateral moves in the region that will impact stability in the area. The US also supports freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the recent exercises are an outcome of the same. In fact, the US President is under increasing pressure from some regional allies as well as his own military to push back harder against China, and he has begun to do so. A recent example is that a United States destroyer last week sailed near China’s largest man-made island, the third freedom-of-navigation operation in seven months challenging Beijing’s vast claims in the South China Sea.[iv] Even as China has reportedly expressed concern over this, the recent deployment also comes close on the heels of the US and India holding their first Maritime Security Dialogue on May 16 to discuss “Asia-Pacific maritime challenges, naval cooperation, and multilateral engagement”, according to the US embassy in New Delhi.[v]
China has expressed serious concerns over the deployment. Indian Navy ships taking part in maritime exercise in the South China Sea is “a matter of concern”, a senior Chinese official, who did not wish to be identified said in Delhi on 19th May, a day after four naval vessels set sail for participating in Malabar exercise with the United States and Japan.[vi]
China is alarmed by the growing presence of the US and India in the South China Sea under the garb of upholding the freedom of navigation. The Chinese official alleged that the Western powers are using the colonial tactics of “divide and rule”. He further said that, “when there is some trouble in the South China Sea, India is worried. When Indian ships participate in maritime exercises in the South China Sea, of course China will show concern”.[vii]
However, New Delhi has dismissed China’s concerns. Pradeep Kumar Rawat, Joint Secretary (East Asia) in the Ministry of External Affairs said that the move was not unprecedented. He said, “Indian ships’ visit (to South China Sea) is a normal thing which has been happening. It’s not something which happened only this time”.[viii]
In fact, the remarks are very timely as they come ahead of the President’s visit to China, where he is expected to raise all issues of political, regional and strategic significance including China’s efforts to block India’s bid at the United Nations to get Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar banned as well as India’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group, both ostensibly at the behest of Pakistan.
China’s concern becomes more obvious with the US recently saying that the Malabar exercise is an important element for assessing the maritime capabilities of all the three countries. The US has continuously been issuing warnings over what it calls China’s growing militarisation in the region. The American warships and aircraft undertaking a number of operations in the region are steps in that direction which challenges China’s moves even as the US hopes to bring Asian military powers into a closer cooperation.