Ex Malabar 2007: The Great Game in the Indian Ocean

Exercise Malabar 2007, the largest ever multinational exercise in the Indian Ocean, was conducted in the Bay of Bengal by the navies of Australia, Japan, India, Singapore and the United States last week. Over two dozen destroyers, corvettes, submarines and three aircraft carriers (USS Nimitz, USS Kitty Hawk and INS Viraat) and a large number of shore-based aircraft participated in the exercise.
The declared aims of this major naval exercise were to practice joint patrolling and anti-piracy measures and procedures for disaster relief, understand and learn from each other's tactics, techniques and procedures, augment levels of interoperability and show presence for enhancing maritime security in the Indian Ocean region.
Large naval exercises are not new to the Indian Ocean region and the Indian Navy has always participated in them with gusto. From 1949 up to the 1965 war, the Indian Navy joined other Commonwealth navies, including Australia, Britain and Pakistan, to participate in exercises called Joint Exercises Trincomalee.
Then the Royal Navy pulled out of the Indian Ocean and the US Sixth and Seventh Fleets sailed in to fill the vacuum. As Indo-US relations were estranged, especially after tough sanctions were imposed on India consequent to the Pokhran-I nuclear test in May 1974, the Indian Navy was isolated. 
The first joint exercises with the US Navy, part of the Malabar series, were held in 1994. The Pokhran-II nuclear explosions in May 1998 led to some knee-jerk international reactions as India was seen to have rocked the non-proliferation boat. A more rational appraisal of India's emergence as a Southern Asian military power followed soon after and many navies made it a point to come calling. The Indian Navy began to exercise with the navies of Britain, France, Indonesia, Oman, Russia, Thailand, Singapore and the US.
In addition to these bilateral exercises in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy availed the opportunity of port calls to Australia, China, Japan and New Zealand to carry out limited tactical manoeuvres at sea. From bilateral exercises to multilateral ones, which reduce sailing time and costs and multiply operational benefits, was but a short step. Early reports have indicated that the Indian Navy has gained valuable experience from Malabar 2007 even though it unfortunately lost a Sea Harrier aircraft due to the loss of power during recovery on INS Viraat.
However, there was clearly an underlying message in this naval exercise that has not gone unnoticed in the intended quarters. Much like the Great Game played out in Central Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the major Asian powers and the US are jostling for advantage to maintain the balance of power in Asia.
India is a reluctant newcomer to this new Great Game. China, Russia and the Central Asian Republics have come together to form the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to guard their interests and balance ASEAN and APEC. China is assiduously engaged in pursuing a "string of pearls" doctrine that is clearly aimed at the strategic encirclement of India. By creating client states around India that are dependent on it for their major arms purchases (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan), making inroads into Nepal and building ports at Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and in Myanmar and Maldives, China is not only safeguarding the sea lanes over which its oil and gas flow but also attempting to confine India to the backwaters of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.
When Japanese Prime Minister Abe suggested a "quadrilateral" meeting between Australia, Japan, India and the US some months ago, the move raised China's suspicions. China formally queried the Japanese about the underlying motives as it became apprehensive that the four countries were likely to gang up against it.
Chinese scholars and analysts have even dubbed this loose group of democracies as an Asian NATO. The quadrilateral is far from becoming a cooperative military venture as India does not join military alliances and prefers to maintain its strategic autonomy.
In fact, it is not so well known that the Chinese, Indian and Russian foreign ministers have met four times in the last three years. Hence, there is a clear attempt on India's part to cooperate with all the major Asian powers to maintain peace and stability in the southern Asian and northern Indian Ocean regions. At the same time, in keeping with its growing power and responsibilities, India has been steadily enhancing its expeditionary and military intervention capabilities for out of area contingencies.
Some of these growing capabilities have been amply demonstrated. During the 1991 Gulf War, India airlifted approximately 150,000 civilian personnel who had been forced to leave Iraq from the airfield at Amman, Jordan, over a period of 30 days. During the South East Asian tsunami in 2004, the Indian armed forces were in the forefront of rescue and relief operations. Over 70 Indian Navy ships had set sail with rescue teams and relief material in less than 72 hours of the disaster even though the Indian people on the eastern seaboard had themselves suffered horrendously. Indian naval ships on a goodwill visit to European countries during the Lebanon war in 2006 lifted and brought back 5,000 Indian civilian refugees.
With the arrival of INS Jalashwa (former USS Trenton), at Mumbai last week, India's strategic sea-lift capability has been upgraded to lifting one infantry battalion. The SU-30 MKI long-range fighter-bombers with air-to-air refuelling capability that India acquired from Russia, the C-130J Special Forces transport aircraft now in the pipeline and the AWACS and maritime surveillance capabilities that India intends to build over the next five to 10 years, will give India considerable strategic outreach.
However, India has consistently favoured military interventions under a UN umbrella. Though that position is unlikely to change quickly, India may join future coalitions of the willing when its vital national interests are threatened and need to be defended. As a key player in Asia and a large democracy with which India has commonality of interests, the US is fast becoming a major strategic partner.
Though there is a broad national consensus on the contours of the emerging relationship with the US, particularly enhanced defence cooperation and civil nuclear energy cooperation, the Left Parties are steadfastly opposed to these moves on the grounds that India will become a subaltern power and will be forced to compromise its strategic autonomy. Their opposition stems from a pathological hatred of the US as an imperial power rather than from genuine national security concerns and they are completely outnumbered, even though they can destabilise the government because of the seats they hold in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's Parliament.
Facing complex strategic scenarios and living in an increasingly unstable neighbourhood, India has no option but to encourage a cooperative model of regional security and is willing to work with all friendly countries towards that end. At the same time, India finds it pragmatic to hedge its bets just in case "worst case" scenarios begin to unfold and threaten its economic development or territorial integrity.
Finally, as far as India is concerned, Exercise Malabar 2007 is part of a long-standing initiative to engage with the littoral navies to enhance maritime cooperation for security and stability in the Indian Ocean region. As a present-day regional power and an aspiring global power of tomorrow, India is gearing up militarily to discharge its responsibilities in the service of peace. Malabar 2007 was an important naval exercise that was part of India's continuing efforts to achieve these goals. 
Gurmeet Kanwal is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, India.