Concerns about Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific are reflected in the proliferation of military maneuvers by potential opponents of Beijing, maneuvers that expand in terms of participation, size, become increasingly complex and take on particular political significance. Added to the military maneuvers are dynamics that reflect the growing concern of many states in the macro-region.
Firsta multilateral exercise edition 'Malabar' involving naval and air units from India, Australia, Japan and the United States was held off Sydney from August 11-21, as Australia hosts war games for the first time this year.
Australia has also invited India for the conference Sea power which he will host Nov. 7-9, and defense sources said the country was likely to attend.
The exercise takes place in a large designated area in eastern Australia which spans a couple of hundred miles off Sydney and includes a port and a sea phase. Exercise 'Malabar' will be followed by 'Ausindex', a bilateral naval exercise between theIndian navy and Royal Australian Navy. In the past, New Delhi officials and military have called the Malabars the most complex naval exercise in theIndian navy.
Australia also just hosted the multilateral exercise 'Talisman Saber', which involved more than 33.000 soldiers from 13 Countries, to which India had sent four observer officers.
Though not as massive as 'RIMPAC'(Rim of the Pacific Exercise, are the largest air-naval exercises in the world; begun in 1971, they take place every two years and units from almost all continents participate [on average about thirty participating nations]), the 'Malabar' remain significant; the Australian Navy has deployed two vessels, the destroyer HMAS Brisbane and the landing ship HMAS Choules, a submarine (name and class not disclosed), the Team 1 of the Clearance Diving Branch (the special forces of the RAN); Indian Navy has deployed destroyer INS Kolkata and the frigate INS Sahyadri (photo) for the tutorial. The United States was represented by one destroyer, the USS Raphael Peralta (DDG-115), the USNS squadron tanker Rappahannock (T-AO-204), an attack submarine (again name and class were not disclosed) and detachments of SEALs; the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) from a surface vessel, the fighter JS Shiranui (DD-120). In addition, air-sea patrol units from India, Australia and the United States (all equipped with the new P-8 Poseidon) took part in the exercise with a focus on anti-submarine warfare (ASW).
En route to Australia, the two Indian warships called at Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea within India's Pacific range last week (where they carried out a PASSEX with the small naval forces local) and it is useful to recall that on May 22, 2023, the United States and Papua New Guinea concluded a defense cooperation agreement (DCA) and an agreement relating to operations to counter illegal transnational maritime activities.
During a visit to India in March this year, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had announced that he would host the multilateral exercise for the first time this year, when he toured India's newest aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in mumbai. He also said that for Australia, India is a high-level security partner. He is the first foreign leader to board the indigenous aircraft carrier which was commissioned in September 2022. "My visit [to India] reflects my Government's commitment to place India at the heart of Australia's approach to the Indo-Pacific and beyond", he has declared.
Australia was included as a permanent member of 'Malabar' in 2020 during the standoff with China in eastern Ladakh where heavy clashes erupted.
Japan hosted the latest edition of 'Malabar' which was held in November 2022. It also marked 30 years of the exercise that started as a bilateral exercise between India and the United States in 1992, the scope of the exercise includes the increased interoperability between naval forces, along India's Malabar coast (hence the name) as a bilateral exercise between India and the United States.
It was expanded in 2007 with the participation of Japan, Singapore (only on that occasion) and Australia. Japan became a permanent partner in 2015.
Australia participated in the exercise again in 2020, marking the second time that all states participating in the Quad (a security arrangement bringing together the US, India, Japan and Australia, activated in 2007 and effectively reactivated in 2010) jointly participate in a military exercise.
The duration of the exercise varied from 1 to 11 days at sea. The complexity and sophistication of 'Malabar' planning and operation has increased over the years, including phases on land and at sea.
'Malabars' have grown in size, scope and complexity and ASW training has emerged as a major area of interest in recent years, especially against the backdrop of rapid expansion of the Chinese Navy's underwater force and its increasingly frequent incursions into the Indian Ocean. This increased presence of Beijing's navy, albeit slowly, is changing the Indian attitude. Indeed, so far India has remained cold to US pressure to transform the Quad into an openly anti-Chinese military understanding (in this perspective, India did not participate in the 2008 'Malabar' amphibious assault phase, held in Japan) and officials of New Delhi have repeatedly stated that 'Malabar' and Quad are different things.
The clash between India and China for influence in South Asia - from the Himalayas to islands off the subcontinent in the Indian Ocean - is likely to prove crucial to the fate of Washington's strategy to keep the region "free and open" from Chinese coercion.
The good news, at least for now, is that New Delhi, an increasingly close US partner, has mostly managed to fend off Beijing's growing influence in the region. But, in the context of the global challenge of Russia and China, New Delhi too adopts the multi-alignment, increasingly present on the international scene, and still appears tepid in relations with Moscow, where it has not come to openly condemn Putin for Ukraine, but contenting itself with declaring, on the occasion of the summit organized by Saudi Arabia (5 August in Jeddah), to respect the principle of territorial integrity of Kyiv (as also declared by the Chinese delegation) but not inviting Ukraine to the G20 Summit, to which this year he has the presidency.
As proof that India is looking with increasing interest (and concern) at what is happening in the Pacific and no longer just at the Indian Ocean, it is useful to mention the trip of three former chiefs of staff of the Indian armed forces (Manoj Mukund Naravane [ Indian Army], Karambir Singh [Indian Navy], Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria (Indian Air Force]) in Taipei, at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan attended the Ketagalan Forum - 2023 Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue, held in early August in Taipei and inaugurated by President Tsai Ing-wen.The three were accompanied by two other former military officers from the Army and Navy, one of whom has a history of working on simulation and scenario planning for the National Defense College el 'Army War College. The essential rather than formal value is evident.
India wants to strengthen ties with Taiwan, in an anti-Chinese function, but without needlessly irritating Beijing, with which, despite the serious problems in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, it has important trade exchanges, sending former chiefs of staff to the major political event of security and defense of the island. The visiting delegation held talks behind closed doors with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, the main one think tanks of the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense (the visiting delegation claimed that the visit was "private", but according to various sources, on condition of anonymity, they said otherwise).
According to confidential sources, India's Foreign Ministry is conducting a scenario mapping exercise for a future Taiwanese emergency in case Beijing decides to launch a full-scale attack on Taiwan and sources familiar with the scenario planning confirmed that several military entities, intelligence and more are assessing the impact of a potential Taiwan contingency.
The anxiety in New Delhi stems from the growing recognition of the need to prepare for a future Taiwanese emergency while trying not to anger China too much, but fears are also related to its 'soft power', how linguistic and cultural promotion by the Confucius Institute in a nation crossed by internal fractures of all kinds and infiltration can pose a threat, as well as a portal of intelligence activities.
But where the change in perception and attitude is even more visible in relations with China is with regard to the Philippines. Indeed, during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2020) there was a strong rapprochement between Manila and Beijing. The new president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (known as 'Bongbong'), son of the late president Marcos, after a moderate start, also thanks to the continuous Chinese pressure especially in the South China Sea, it swerved decisively, getting very close to the USA, kicking off an agreement (hotly requested by Washington and which Duterte had blocked ), signed last May, which allows access to US forces to four new bases in the Philippines (Camilo Osias naval base in S. Ana and the air of Lal-lo, both in the province of Cagayan, with Camp Melchor Dela Cruz, in Gamu, province of Isabela, and finally with Balabac, in Palawan, while Isabela and Cagayan are in fact located on the main island of Luzon, formerly the base Clark Air and Subic Naval Air used by the US until the 90s, look towards Taiwan, Palawan is close to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the subject of recent disputes between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards. Philippines participate in the 'Alon' exercise together with the Australian and US militaries, in the framework of the largest Indo-Pacific Endeavor (IPE) 2023, launched by Canberra last July and will involve 14 nations (Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Thailand and Vietnam) for a period of four months; all nations, except Cambodia and Laos, doubtful and hostile, albeit with an articulated gradation, towards Beijing.
It is precisely the Chinese pressures also impact on the dynamics of other organizations, which for reasons of their institutional framework such as ASEAN have refrained from entering into the subject of defense (the organization based in Singapore has so far limited itself to organizing civil protection maneuvers and natural disaster prevention). Other countries are considering providing diplomatic support to the Philippines such as Vietnam and the hypothesis of joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea is an increasingly realistic option and, alongside 'Alon', the RAN has sent a team to Manila to study possible cooperations.
After the incidents between Chinese and Philippine coast guardsIn early August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered a bilateral dialogue with the Philippines as a means to "resolve differences" in the South China Sea. But this option was coldly received in Manila, where confidence in direct talks with China has practically collapsed. Meanwhile, the Philippines will resort to legal options if China persists in harassing Philippine shipping within what it considers its EEZ.
Manila could initiate proceedings before ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, a United Nations court based in Hamburg, Germany) challenging China's interference in the freedom of navigation. An interim determination could theoretically be obtained within four to eight weeks if the court agrees to act urgently.
Fears about Chinese pressure ignite other activities, such as the mid-August deployment of Royal Canadian Navy HMC extension Ottawa and HMCS Vancouver, accompanied by the offshore supplier HCMS Asterix, left Naval Forces Base Esquimalt, for a five-month deployment. Of these units, the HMCS Vancouver it will also contribute to Operation 'Neon', Canada's contribution to the application of United Nations sanctions and to monitoring activities against North Korea (according to Ottawa's intentions, operational naval units will become three as soon as possible).
This deployment follows that of HMCS last March Montreal, normally based in Halifax, scoring the first time a Canadian warship has been deployed to the Indo-Pacific region from the Atlantic coast.
Photo: US Navy