The national security debate in India generally revolves around three themes, sovereignty, China and Pakistan. India's national interest lies in growth, development and prosperity of the country which is dependent as per the Prime Minister on a, 'a peaceful and prosperous periphery'. In line with this, the armed forces role has a new dimension of, 'security cooperation, developing strategic partnerships and deterrence ' in consonance with our security and strategic interests.'
Malabar 2007 fits in well with the first part of the role definition; however whether it conforms to overall national interests of the country needs consideration.
Navies have always represented a combination of diplomatic and military muscle. While gunboat diplomacy is an age old clich', its re-emergence in the 21st Century albeit in the form of maritime cooperation denotes that the basic tenets of naval employment remain unchanged. Malabar 07 falls in the same paradigm. Five navies, three of them, Australia, Japan and Singapore in military alliance with the United States are participating in the sea maneuvers. India is the only odd one out and is the second largest participant. None of the local navies be it Thailand which even fields an aircraft carrier, Indonesia or Malaysia are participating, not even Bangladesh which only last month has re-commissioned a top of the line frigate. As per some reports, ironically, India is the designated, 'enemy' for exercise purposes.
The overall concept of the US Navy denotes creation of joint task forces to dominate critical sea lanes. CTF 150 is one such force which patrols the Gulf waters, the command of which is currently with the Pakistan Navy. No such arrangement exists in the critical Malacca straits principally because there is no necessity. The threat of maritime piracy has been consistently in recession. IMRB reports indicate that between 2002 to 2006, piracy incidents off India have come down from 18 to 5, Indonesia 103 to 50, in the Malacca straits from 16 to 11 and Bangladesh from a high of 58 in 2003 to 47. Moreover Bangladesh has seen just 5 incidents over the past eight months in 2007 indicating a steep decline.
Combating maritime piracy involves low intensity maritime operations (LIMO) which essentially necessitate deployment of a littoral force and not aircraft carrier based contingents of two dozen blue water ships and submarines including a nuclear powered one. Moreover the maneuvers being conducted in Malabar 2007 have been typified as dissimilar air combat, air defence of war ships and submarine hunting from the air. None of these have any linkage with anti piracy operations. On the other hand, disaster relief given the experience of the tsunami 2004, wherein proactive action by the Indian Navy saved many lives has been thrown in as an addendum.
There is no gain saying that Malabar 2007 denotes beginnings of a maritime alliance in the Indian Ocean region. The reason for this is certainly not the threat of piracy, but a new bonding between like minded nations. This is supportive of new concepts fostered by the US Navy such as the Thousand Ship Navy (TSN) and seeks to pull India into the post 9/11 existing ones of Container and Proliferation Security Initiative.
These alliances will certainly create for India a, 'feel good' factor. However there is a need to deliberate their impact on our overall national interest. Will it be fulfilled by a coalition with states who's defence budgets are driven by the military industrial complex, thereby creating avoidable tension in the neighborhood, possibly leading to 'arms racing' if not an arms race? Or should we continue with our age old policy of bilateral military engagement evenly across the current geo political divide? For the asymmetry between Malabar 2007 and the port calls cum brown water training (not exercises) carried out between the Indian and Chinese Navy in the past is so wide, that any assertive state is bound to react. Thus there is a dire need for expanding the restrictive dialogue by spin masters on either side of the pro and anti establishment divide to a well informed debate on issues which are in larger interests of India, a developing country and not an emerging maritime power in the Indian Ocean.