Malabar 2016 - Ruffling Feathers in South China Sea
Commodore Gopal Suri, Senior Fellow, VIF

The Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet is ‘Acting East’ with four of its ships en route to the seas east of the Malacca Straits, an area of maritime interest to the Indian Navy. In a press release, the MoD has stated that the four ships, the INS Satpura, Sahayadri, Shakti and Kirch under the command of the Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet Rear Admiral SV Bhokare had sailed out on 18 May 16 on a 2½ month long operational deployment to the South China and North West Pacific1. During this overseas deployment, the ships of Eastern Fleet will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay (Vietnam), Subic Bay (Philippines), Sasebo (Japan), Busan (South Korea), Vladivostok (Russia) and Port Klang (Malaysia). In addition to showing the Flag in this region of vital strategic importance to India, these ships will also participate in MALABAR-16, a maritime exercise with the US Navy and JMSDF.

The ‘MALABAR’ series of annual exercises between the US and India date back to 1992, when Gen Kicklighter, Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) US Army Pacific Command, brought along a series of proposals to institutionalise cooperation among all wings of the two militaries2. The exercises are intended to promote maritime cooperation between the two nations by increasing interoperability between the two navies on issues like maritime security, HADR, etc. The exercises have progressed from basic drills to advanced levels involving not only ships but also aircrafts and submarines. On many occasions, the aircraft carriers of the two navies have also participated. Another feature of the exercises have been the area of operations which has alternated between the Areas of Responsibility (AOR) of the Indian Navy and the US Navy. Consequently these exercises have been alternately held in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, the AOR of the US Pacific Command. This has helped both the navies understand the operating environment in their areas of interest. The edition of 2007 saw participation from Japan, Australia and Singapore with the exercise being conducted in two phases, off Japan and in the Bay of Bengal. However, the MALABAR has largely remained a bilateral exercise between the USN and the IN till 2015 when the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) sent one ship to participate in the exercise off the East coast of India. The participation of the JMSDF, since then, has been institutionalized in MALABAR. There have been calls for Australia also to be included in the exercise but they have not gained much traction. The USN and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) as also the JMSDF and the RAN carry out regular exercises between themselves and are also participants in the multilateral RIMPAC exercises. India also held its first exercise with the RAN, AUSINDEX in September 2015 off the east coast of India.

The forthcoming MALABAR 2016 is likely to be conducted in the northern waters of the Philippine Sea, an area close to the East and South China Seas, according to U.S. Pacific Commander, Adm. Harry Harris3.This is in keeping with the traditional alternation of area between the AORs of the Indian Navy and the USN. Consequently the exercise is being held in the AOR of the US Pacific Command since the last was held in the Bay of Bengal. The deployment of the Eastern Fleet to this area and the various ports for showing the Flag has obviously been dovetailed into the program accordingly. The map below illustrates the area of operations of the exercise in the overall perspective of the Indo-Pacific.

Area of Operations – MALABAR 2016

Apprehensions about MALABAR 2016 have been expressed by the Chinese with an unnamed official being quoted as saying “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"4. The Chinese had expressed similar reservations after MALABAR 2015 when they stated that India-Japan defence cooperation was "dangerous for Asia"5. In the same breath, the Chinese also said that they were not ‘so fragile’ as to be affected by the trilateral drills. The Chinese had also raised concerns after MALABAR 2007, when both Australia and Japan had participated, which is quoted by some as having been the reason for subsequent withdrawal of the two nations from future editions of the exercise. This Chinese sensitivity is reciprocally echoed in some measure by India when it had expressed concerns about Chinese submarine deployments to the Indian Ocean in the recent past. The Chinese have justified these deployments, at least some of them, as having been part of their anti-piracy missions. Employment of submarines for anti-piracy missions, even for so-called intelligence gathering, will stretch a naval tactician’s imagination a fair bit. Submarines are offensive platforms meant to carry the battle to an enemy’s doorstep through their intrinsic stealth which by itself and their lack of speed inhibit any anti-piracy mission where ‘over water’ presence is a must. It therefore does not need rocket science to deduce the nature and aim of such deployments.

The Indo-US joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) affirms the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea (SCS) 6. It also calls on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This was re-affirmed by the Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter during the latter’s visit to India in April 2016. The joint statement on the ‘India Japan Vision 2025’ agreed by Prime Ministers Modi and Abe in December 2015 also underscores the importance of international law including the UNCLOS and peaceful resolution of disputes while recognizing the need for freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters7. The three countries recognize the need to work together in the Indo-Pacific and the Trilateral dialogue between them is intended to evolve an open, inclusive, stable and transparent economic, political and security architecture in the Indo-Pacific region. While recognizing the need for stability in the region and the necessity to resolve disputes in accordance with the tenets of international law, especially in the SCS, India has conspicuously kept away from actively intervening in the dispute. Hence, a suggestion by chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry B. Harris, to carry out joint patrolling in the SCS, albeit obliquely8, was rejected outrigh by the Defence Minister himself.

It is pertinent to mention that the Chinese protestations appear to highlight their fears of any multilateral alliance, especially military, taking form in this part of the world considering their current level of friction with the US and Japan. The US Freedom of Navigation (FoN) patrols in the SCS have raised their hackles like never before but they seem to be resigned to this fact till their maritime military strength reaches the critical mass required to deter the US. Japan has also embarked on a program to consolidate its position in the Indo-Pacific and containing China, is high on this agenda. The Japanese support to the Philippines, especially in provision of surveillance aircraft and patrol ships, has caused the Chinese much consternation. Recent Chinese island reclamation and construction activity in the South China Sea, involving building of military facilities and positioning of weapon systems, has further alienated their immediate neighbourhood, thereby strengthening the American and Japanese positions. Consequently, the Chinese appear to be very prickly to any extra-regional military presence in their neighbourhood, even at a distance from their areas of concern. Notwithstanding their concerns, the Chinese have embarked on a charm offensive in the SCS and have been engaging Vietnam as also Indonesia for mutually beneficial initiatives.

The MALABAR exercises present an invaluable opportunity to the Indian Navy for not only honing its operational skills but also provide the chance to consolidate its operational experience in the areas of its interest. It is such deployments and exercises with foreign navies that will prepare it to meet the challenges across the full spectrum of naval operations and for ‘out of area’ contingencies. Operations undertaken by the Indian Navy in Indonesia during the Tsunami of 2004 and in Yemen last year happened because of the past experience of ‘out of area’ deployments. Such deployments also serve to assure our friends in the region about India’s capabilities and ensure maintenance of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Ruffling a few feathers, especially of birds which want to settle down in our fields, comes with the turf and should not deter us from safeguarding our interests.


  1. Eastern Fleet Ships on Deployment to South China and North West Pacific’. Accessed on 19 May 16?
  2. ‘Why America, India and Japan are Playing War Games at Sea’, Suresh Bangara. Published: October 14, 2015. Accessed on 19 Oct 15.
  3. ‘U.S., India, Japan Plan Joint Naval Exercises near South China Sea’, Niharika Mandhana. March 3, 2016. Accessed on 10 May 16.
  4. ‘Indian Ships' Maritime Exercise with US in South China SeaMatter of Concern: China’. PTI. 19 May, 2016. Accessed on 20 May 16
  5. ‘Trilateral Naval Exercise, Malabar 2015, Not Targeted At Any Country: Japan’. PTI. Oct 15, 2015. Accessed on 20 May 16.
  6. U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. 25 Jan 2015. Accessed on 19 Aug 15
  7. Joint Statement on India and Japan Vision 2025. Accessed on 06 Jan 15.
  8. Raisina Dialogue Remarks - "Let's Be Ambitious Together", ADM Harry B. Harris, Jr., U.S. Pacific Command. March 02, 2016. New Delhi, India. Accessed on 15 Mar 16.

Published Date: 26th May 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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