By Balaji Chandramohan
At the end of the 10-day joint naval exercise Malabar 10, conducted between India and the United States in the Arabian Sea, it became clear the two countries would further cooperate in the Indian Ocean to counter the rise of China in the years to come. The naval war games were held from April 23 to May 2, with these being the 14th in a series of exercises that began in 1992 after the end of the Cold War.
Unlike last year, this month's exercise was a bilateral rather than a multilateral affair. Countries that participated in the 2009 exercise were absent, including , Japan and Australia, leading to speculation these nations didn't want to antagonize Beijing. The absence of the Quadrilateral Initiative (known as "Quad" or the "axis of democracy") provides a glaring observation in the Malabar 10 exercise.
The Malabar 10 could be the start of a new great game between India and China in the Indian Ocean, with the United States acting as a leveler.
Nothing better illustrates the significance of this year's Malabar exercise than the visit of US Navy Chief Admiral Gary Roughead to India ahead of the event. Speaking at a round-table conference held on April 12 organized by the National Maritime Foundation, a naval think-tank based in India, Roughead said that America's leaders at the highest level had declared that the US and India would be strategic partners for the 21st century.
"I'm here to say that the United States Navy in particular is a committed friend to India for the long term."
During the 10-day naval exercise, India's Western Fleet participated in drills with the US's Seventh Fleet. Though the scale of operations was lower this year compared to previous years, Task Force 70 of the Seventh Fleet based in Yokosuka, Japan, brought the cruiser USS Shiloh, the destroyers USS Chafee and USS Lassen and the frigate USS Curts.
In addition, the US deployed a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, the USS Annapol. From the Indian side, the guided missile destroyer INS Mysore and three frigates - INS Godavari, INS Brahmaputra and INS Tabar - were also a part of the operations.
Some of the key focuses of the operations were on anti-submarine warfare, surface firings and maritime interdiction operations, apart from humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief efforts.
There are several main reasons that might explain the increase in India-US naval cooperation. First, the Barack Obama administration does not believe unilateral solutions are available to deal with regional security challenges. Second, India's importance in Washington's eyes as a potential strategic partner has steadily increased because of Delhi's growing economic and military capabilities as well as its strong democratic credentials. Third, both the US and India are concerned about the rising power of China in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
Although the US and India want and actively seek strong cooperative relations with Beijing, both are conscious of potential conflicts of interest in bilateral relations with Beijing. This recognition has cumulatively served to bolster US-Indian ties. Washington also now believes that US-Indian political and military cooperation is necessary to counter the very real challenges of international piracy and Islamist terrorism in the Horn of Africa.
From the US's point of view there is a fear that China might intervene forcefully in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Nearly 44 of the 51 small islands and reefs are claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The conflict stems from overlapping sovereignty claims to various Spratly Islands, which potentially could produce natural resources such as oil, natural gas and seafood. China's aggressive stance is motivated by its need to meet growing energy demands that outstrip its supply capability. The US might be forced to "intervene" and would need a partner in India.
India would not suffer any sleepless nights if the US was ready to counter China's "string of pearls" strategy in the Indian Ocean, which includes courting allies in South Asia and littoral states by providing funds and building ports. This strategy is intent on making sure the Indian Ocean is not India's ocean.
The US's 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) acknowledged India's rise as a military power in the Asia-Pacific and the dominant role its navy could play in years to come. The QDR also mentioned that the US Navy would be deployed in forward positions in the years to come.
Interestingly, the present chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, explained the importance of the navy in the QDR, the first time a naval officer has been chairman since the 1996 QDR.
The wheel has come full circle since the first Malabar exercise in 1992. At that time, Washington had "won" the Cold War against the Soviet Union through a "containment strategy" propagated by American diplomat George Kennan. The US wanted to court India, which had been an ally of the Soviet Union.
The US's geostrategy is also partially based on the concept of the 20th-century Dutch-American geostrategist and the "godfather" of the containment strategy, Nicholas John Spykman. He said that "whoever controlled the Rimland rules Eurasia; whoever rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world". Typically, the Rimland refers to the maritime fringes of the Eurasian continent.
Spykman emphasized that the US needed partners in the Rimland to counter the rise of the Heartland (Soviet Union) and the Middle Kingdom (China). This is the reason the US continues to court India through the Malabar exercises.
Balaji Chandramohan handles the Asia-Pacific Bureau of World News Forecast, a United States-based news website for the past three years. He is a member of think-tanks such as the Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, United Service Institute, Australian Institute of International Studies and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.