How the Malabar Exercises Balance a Rising China

This week, the navies of the United States, India, and Japan kicked off the Malabar naval exercise. The trilateral war games are one of the world’s largest gatherings of large combat vessels, and symbolize the evolving military cooperation between the U.S., India, and Japan. This year’s exercise sports each participating nation’s largest ships, and has been lauded as a sign of strong cooperation. This is significant, because the Malabar exercise has had a long and politically charged history. All three nations benefit immensely from security cooperation, and it is in their best interest to continue strengthening naval ties, while pushing back against Chinese expansionism.

The Malabar exercise started a ten-day series of events in the Bay of Bengal this Monday, and will include 16 ships and 95 aircraft participating in drills. The three navies are sending their most state-of-the-art vessels to the exercise, with the U.S. and India deploying aircraft carriers, and Japan committing several new battleships as well.

While the tactical benefits of naval cooperation and knowledge sharing are important, the Malabar games are more significant for their geopolitical-strategic role. Currently, the U.S., India and Japan are experiencing tense relations with China; the three Malabar participants have been wary of Beijing’s regional expansionism for years, and many experts view Malabar as a signal of strength directed at China to contain its aggression. Japan, the U.S. and China have faced off repeatedly over territorial disputes and other conflicts in the South China Sea. Likewise, tensions between India and China recently escalated in the Doklam border region in Bhutan. India has also become increasingly wary of growing Chinese ties with Pakistan, and has started looking for partners to counterbalance the rise of Beijing in South Asia.

The Malabar participants have good cause to be worried about China. India’s posture is guided by a fear of ‘encirclement’ by Chinese infrastructure projects in the region that can later be converted into military bases. China is expanding ports and naval projects in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Myanmar, and increasing its footprint in East Africa. This month, China opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, and continues aggressively provoking territorial disputes with its neighbors. In order to counterbalance Chinese expansionism, the Indian navy needs to work with regional partners to create a credible alternative to Chinese power.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is in the midst of a decades long modernization-expansion process, geared towards expanding Chinese control over the region. A recent report found that by 2020, China might field as many as 350 naval vessels in East Asia. In terms of the raw number of ships deployed, the Chinese fleet is larger than all of its East Asian peers combined. These claims make India and Japan understandably uneasy, and highlight the need for regional cooperation to ensure the maintenance of a stable status.

Formally, the member governments deny that the exercise is aimed at China, but privately military sources have claimed that the Malabar war games send an important message to an aggressive Beijing. The signaling is unmistakable, especially considering Indian Defense Minister Arun Jaitley’s recent statements supporting closer military cooperation with Tokyo. The deepening security cooperation between India and Japan provides both countries the ability to supplement their disadvantages against China and enhance regional stability.

Growing military cooperation between the US, India, and Japan has not fallen on deaf ears. Beijing has been consistently critical of the Malabar exercises, calling them aggressive and belligerent. China reacted harshly to the 2007 Malabar exercises – which included the US, India, Japan, Singapore, and Australia – and afterwards issued demarches to Japan, Singapore, and Australia, expressing its displeasure. Following China’s hostility, Malabar was reduced to a US-India bilateral exercise for the next seven years.

In 2015, Malabar took a major step forward, when Japan was offered full-time membership in the war games. Although initially limited to a small commitment of one destroyer in the 2015 exercise, since then Japan’s presence in Malabar has escalated dramatically. Tokyo now sends a strike force of its flagship vessels, and defense analysts report that the India-Japan strategic relationship has developed to span arms sales, transportation cooperation, and nuclear cooperation. Aside from Malabar, the Japanese and Indian navies have also conducted bilateral trainings, which signal  further commitment to their partnership. For Japan and India, the stakes of cooperation are high, as both countries benefit immensely from freely navigable waters and a stable East Asia.

The Malabar exercises are part of a bigger picture of the convergence of interests for India, Japan, and the United States. The three powers should thicken cooperation in an effort to reap mutual economic rewards and balance the rise of China. In September, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit India to break ground on a joint venture between the two countries regarding high-speed railways. Such efforts are important, because they establish norms of cooperation and trust between partners, and signal unity between the democracies of the Indo-Pacific.