Looming Security Challenges in the Indo-Pacific and India-US-Japan Trilateral Defense Exercises

Sweta Kumari
January 24, 2019


With the enhanced geopolitical significance of the Indo-Pacific region in recent years, the defense ties between India, US, and Japan have consequently deepened. The Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China seas has been the prime concerns of the United States and Japan. On the other hand, India is increasingly worried about a  surge in Chinese warships entering the Indian Ocean in the past few years. India’s neighbours like Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan are falling into the Chinese influence especially through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Sri Lanka has already lost the Hambantota portto the Chinese under the infrastructure debt trap and now the latter owns a 99 years lease for it. Pakistan seems to be openly shifting its allegiance towards China. All these developments have intensified the security challenges in the region.

In response to these activities, India, US, and Japan are now fervently engaging in cooperation across the Indo-Pacific region, with the trilateral Malabar Naval exercises having emerged at the helm. Its magnitude was first felt when the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) became a permanent partner of the Malabar exercises in 2015 which earlier used to be a bilateral affair between the Indian and the US Navies since 1992 (excluding 1998-2001). Since then, these three defense partners have been participating in the interoperability involving complex and highly advanced warfighting techniques, high-class warships, aircraft carriers, and submarines. In the latest 22nd edition of Malabar exercises that was held off the coast in Guam, the Indian Navy representedwith “the two indigenously designed and built ships, the multi-purpose stealth frigate INS Sahyadri and Anti-Submarine Warfare Corvette, INS Kamorta as also by Fleet Tanker INS Shakti and Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft P8I. The US Navy participated with the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan with its air wing; two Ticonderoga class cruisers, USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville; two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, USS Benfold and USS Mustin; a Los Angeles-class attack submarine and one Long Range Maritime Patrol Aircraft P8A. The JMSDF was represented by a Hyuga class helicopter carrier JS Ise with integral helicopters; Takanami class destroyer JS Suzunami; Akizuki class destroyer JS Fuyuzuki. Japanese Maritime Patrol Aircraft, P1, and a submarine.”
Besides, the three countries are trying to widen the scope of these exercises with increasing sophistication between their respective Air Forces and the Armies. The ‘
Cope India’ air exercise that began between US and India in 2004 is set to be happening in 2019, and Japan will be participating as an observer in it. India which engages with the US in a joint military exercise named ‘Yudh Abhyas’ since 2004, also concluded a bilateral military exercise ‘Dharma Guardian-2018’ with Japan for the first time.

The official releases by the governments of US, India, and Japan have refrained from explicitly stating the China factor as a cause for intensified cooperation between them. In order to avoid direct provocation of China, phrases reflecting common and broad interests of all the three countries like “promoting free, open, rules-based, and inclusive order in the Indo- Pacific” have been used. Being in discussions for a decade, finally, in November 2017, the ‘Quadrilateral Dialogue’ meeting between India, Japan, Australia, and the US was conducted in the Philippines which was certainly received in a bad taste by China. Many Chinese experts view it as a containment strategy against their country. China has always been very critical about the policies of Japan and the US in the region and now with India’s grouping with the duo, China is looking it at as “India’s assertive actions towards China”.

Although, Australia was only Quad member that was not a part of the Malabar exercises. PM Malcolm Turnbull has been trying to lobby India to include Australia but the latter has declined this request. The reason that is being cited is that India wants to improve its ties with China. Also, India does not want to send any political messageto China by making Malabar a Quad exercise. Another reason behind the exclusion of Australia has been its own internal political dynamics derived from its strong economic relations with China. Nevertheless, India and Australia have been bilaterally engaging in ‘AUSINDEX 15’ Naval exercises and ‘Pitch Black’ Air Force exercises.

In conclusion, these defense exercises by India, US, and Japan represent the new security arrangements that have started to take place in the Indo- Pacific. They intend to have the required preparedness towards the assertiveness of China without actually rocking the boat with same.

*** The author is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***