Thirty-four ships and submarines from five nations- India, USA, Japan, Australia and Singapore had joined the six-day exercise, about 100 nautical miles off the Andaman archipelago even after vehement opposition from the Indian Communists. Some analysts say the war games are an attempt by these countries to contain China’s growing power in the Asia-Pacific world. The participants deny this, but Beijing has already expressed its concerns. This is the 13th Malabar Naval exercise involving India and the United States of America .The earlier 12th ones have taken place on the western coast of India in the Arabian Sea .This is the first time that five nations are involved in the eastern coast of India in the Bay of Bengal .What is important is the participation of Japan and Australia both of which are natural allies of the United states for decades now. This has caused concerns within the Chinese political circles for quite sometime now. Earlier too Beijing had issued demarche to India, USA, Australia and Japan when all of them had met on the sidelines of the ASEAN forum meeting at manila recently.
Concerns of China is not without any reasons if one looks into the nature of the naval exercise which is taking place this time and the kind of vassals which are taking part in this naval drill. The exercise includes 26 warships, including aircraft carriers, missile frigates and destroyer. The war games in the international waters between Vishakhapatnam and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands will involve two aircraft carriers from the US and one from India, hundreds of military aircraft, destroyers, frigates and submarines. “This will perhaps be the biggest ever peace-time joint naval exercise in Asia. The ships and submarines would take part in anti-piracy man oeuvres, reconnaissance and rescue missions and improve ways of working together” said the Indian Navy spokesman Captain Vinay Garg.
Supersonic carriers from the USA, USS Nimitz and USS Kitty Hawk of the Pacific fleet including a US nuclear submarine USS Chicago are a part of the naval drill. India’s aircraft carrier INS Viraat besides maritime Jaguar and Sea Harrier fighters, Tu-142 surveillance planes, Delhi and Kashin Class destroyers, Godavari and Brahmaputra Class guided missile frigates and a German origin submarine were also a part of the exercise.
The current naval exercise is taking place after hectic parleys and dialogue which has been going on between all these countries for quite sometime. Lately there has been talk for the formation of a four-cornered axis between India, Japan, Australia and the USA in relation to strategic and economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific for balancing the power equation in this part of the world. Though vehemently denied by India the effort to form the quadrilateral axis is also to contain the rise of China in relation to East Asia and the ASEAN. The ASEAN grouping has also given an indirect go ahead to it by welcoming such a formation, as they also fear the Chinese domination in the ASEAN sphere of influence.
If the Bush administration has spoken of an expanded APEC, which should include India, Japan has advocated the idea of the above axis. India has jumped into the whole proposal by welcoming both the ideas wholeheartedly. The Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has proposed for a new four-way framework for strategic dialogue between Japan, India, Australia and the United States which he calls “Wider Asia”. The Australian Premier John Howard has advocated of greater cooperation between India, Japan and Australia in future to keep a balance in this part of the world.
Ties between the five nations have been very robust in the last couple of years and has been expanding rapidly. Presently, Japan is the fifth major trading partner of India having a share of 3.1% in India’s total exports and imports in 2003-04. Two-way trade between India and Australia in goods totaled $ 7.3 billion in 2004-05, with India becoming Australia’s 12th largest merchandise trading partner. Merchandise exports from India to USA grew by +21.4% in 2002 compared to 2001, rising from $ 9.74 billion to $ 11.82 billion. This rose to further to $ 20.01 billion in 2005-06 .India has emerged as the 19th largest merchandise exporter to USA in 2002.
During the recent visit of the Japanese premier to New Delhi recently he once again advocated about the quadrilateral formation in very strong terms. India also hasn’t denied the whole idea though it has tried to be diplomatic because of Chinese concerns. The naval war games need to be seen in the context of the quadrilateral formation. In the last couple of days Asia has seen two huge international military exercises. Few weeks back the Shanghai cooperation went in for the world’s largest military and air force war games in the deserts of Gobi in central Asia with China, Russia, and Tajikistan and Kazakhstan being a part of it. Now the Bay of Bengal is seeing perhaps the largest naval exercise of the world.
What emerge from such exercises are the emerging contours of two power blocs in the post cold war era one led by Russia and China under the garb of Shanghai cooperation and the other one led by United States of America and India under the shadows of the Malabar waters. What needs to be seen is how the wavelength of such axis unfolds in future. With the stability of the UPA government already in doldrums due to pressure from the Indian Left because of the India-USA civilian nuclear deal one needs to see how well this axis unfolds in future. Whatever the nature of the government in Delhi in future, whether the UPA government completes its term or not India has to do a lot of tight rope in future under this emerging axis. India needs to keep in mind that she can’t go in for such an axis at the cost of her time tested friend Russia .At the same time she can’t afford to have hostile china like the way china cannot afford to have a hostile India. However what emerges from both the defense exercises if Gobi was the Chinese Green Tea Malabar is the strong India Coffee.
Dr Suvrokamal Dutta
(The writer is renowned Foreign Affairs and Economic Expert, Chairman Global Council for Peace and Convenor Debating India)