The 21st edition of the Malabar naval exercise will kick off in the Bay of Bengal from 10 July, and the navies of India, Japan and the US are deploying their largest warships, much to the chagrin of China. The exercise, which began in 1992 as a bilateral exercise involving the US and Indian navies, now also involves the Japanese. It alternates between the Pacific and the Indian oceans, and after it took place off the Philippine Sea last year, is back to the Bay of Bengal for 2017. Washington describes the exercise as a "series of complex, high-end war-fighting exercises conducted to advance multi-national maritime relationships and mutual security issues".
Representational image. Reuters
However, having three major navies in its backyard has China worried. Beijing has sent a surveillance ship, the HaiwangXiang, to monitor the Malabar Exercise. India has also stepped up surveillance of the Doka La area via real-time satellite imagery to monitor any movement of Chinese troops and daily images from ISRO's CartoSat series are being shared with the government, defence sources were quoted as saying in the CNN-News18 report. Local troops are also videographing on-ground activities, they added.
Indian and Chinese troops have been involved in a standoff at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction. Given the fraught situation at the border, and the sensitive nature of ties Beijing currently enjoys with all three nations — India, Japan and the US — it is approaching the joint military exercise with abundant caution. Around 15 warships, two submarines and scores of fighter jets, surveillance aircraft and helicopters are expected to take part in the exercise.
A report on The Times of India wrote that the HaiwangXiang surveillance ship isn't the only one deployed by China to watch over the Malabar Exercise. The Indian Navy has also recorded an unusual surge in the number of Chinese warships and submarines entering the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) over the last two months, the report said, calling it "a clear indication of muscle-flexing by China after achieving what it believes is near-dominance in the contentious South China Sea".
Moreover, a Yuan-class diesel-electric submarine, the seventh underwater boat to be deployed by China in the Indian Ocean region since December 2013 is also currently in the region, after an operational turnaround at Karachi, The Times of India report added.
The Australian navy warship HMAS Newcastle is also currently in the waters off the Indian coast, weeks after India and Australia conducted a joint naval combat exercise. Washington has repeatedly urged India and Japan to let Australia become a permanent part of the Malabar exercise making it a quadrilateral security dialogue, but it's been a request India has turned down in the past as well. US and Japan have both been in favour of including Australia, seeing Canberra as a "natural partner" in the efforts to balance out China's growing might.
New Delhi on its part is also worried that China will step up activities in the Indian Ocean in response to the Malabar exercise. China is already building infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, feeding India's anxiety about being encircled, Indian military sources and diplomats said.
"India is being careful about China," said Abhijit Singh, a former Indian Navy officer who heads maritime studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. "India is aware they have upped their maritime engagement in this part of the world and they could just become more brazen with their submarine deployments. We don't want that to happen."
With inputs from Reuters