Malabar Naval Exercises: In Whose Interests?

THE Malabar joint naval exercises held off the Chennai coast has concluded. This 21st edition of the Malabar exercises saw the participation of the US, Indian and Japanese naval forces. This was one of the largest joint naval exercises in the region involving 16 ships, two submarines and 95 aircraft from the three countries.

The joint naval exercise between the United States and India began in 1992 and it marked the beginning of the military collaboration between the two countries. It became an annual feature since 2002 and is now alternatively held in India and the Pacific Ocean region since 2009.

Over the years the Malabar exercises have come to be seen as directed against the growing naval might of China and its increasing role in the India-Pacific region. This became more evident when India made Japan a permanent member in the Malabar exercises since 2015. The trilateral security alliance between the US, India and Japan is another dimension in the US’s geopolitical strategy in Asia.

The Indo-US defence collaboration has bourgeoned much more since the beginning of the Malabar exercises. India has signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) which will provide US air and naval forces repair, maintenance and servicing facilities in Indian bases. The US has accorded India a “major defence partner” status.

The emphasis is on promoting interoperability between the two armed forces. This means ensuring that the two armed forces and their equipment can operate jointly. The Malabar exercises have been an important forum achieving this interoperability. This is useful from the point of view of the United States as much of the warships and submarines of the Indian navy were supplied by the Soviet Union and later Russia.

The US contingent in the Malabar exercises was led by the USS Nimitz which is a nuclear powered aircraft carrier which has onboard nuclear weapons. In earlier days, India would have been opposed to the entry of nuclear weapon ships into its ports. But now Indian naval ships are exercising along with such nuclear weapon carriers.

The United States would like Australia to join the Malabar exercises. The Australian government had wanted to be part of the exercises this year. For the Modi government bringing in the Australians would be the next logical step; this would be the quadrilateral alliance which the United States is aiming for.

What the Malabar exercise symbolises is India’s becoming a full-fledged military partner of the US strategy in Asia which is directed towards containing China. How this will serve India’s national interests is for the Modi government to answer. The military alliance with the United States is detrimental to India’s sovereignty and strategic autonomy.

(July 19, 2017)

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