If Malabar has China on edge, it is hardly astonishing. Beijing wants to spread its arc of influence in the Indian Ocean region and has plans for a blue water navy. With its focus shifting from land-centric forces to building naval-centric capabilities, China would be tracking the war games more intently than any other country.
Concern has grown in India and the United States over China’s rapid naval modernisation. It is aggressively augmenting its fleet with more destroyers, a new class of submarines and a wide range of radar-guided missiles. The intention is to assert its regional military leadership and protect its economic and energy interests.
The US doubts China’s strategic intentions and believes it could sow instability in the region. Strategic affairs experts point out that the US wants to expand its global reach by striking greater maritime cooperation with India, which is increasingly looking at the Indian Ocean region as its area of responsibility.
The joint exercise is a manifestation of India and US strengthening their military linkages. It also reminds China of its own naval limitations. China, for its part, has stepped up engagement with Myanmar as part of efforts to gain access to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. It has also invested heavily in the construction of Gwadar port in Pakistan, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf.
It is no secret China is studying how to manufacture aircraft carriers, for a power projection far away in the ocean. It is also developing land-attack cruise missiles that can be fired from naval platforms and modernising their inventory of anti-ship cruise missiles. With so much focus on building a robust maritime force, naval exercises like Malabar will continue to beep on China’s radar.
China has presence in Myanmar’s Coco Islands, an ideal location for monitoring the movements of navies in the eastern Indian Ocean. The general area of Malabar is not too far from here.