(This was originally posted in Times Of India by Rajat Pandit)
The Bay of Bengal will witness some high-voltage military maneuvers next week, with warships, fighters, aircraft and helicopters of the Quad nations of India, the US, Australia and Japan coming together for Phase-II of the top-notch Malabar naval exercise. This phase in India’s backyard from October 12 to 15 will be even bigger than the first one conducted off Guam in the Western Pacific in end-August, with the US also deploying an over 1,00,000-ton Nimitz-class super aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson with its 90 fighters and aircraft, this time.
The strategic challenge to an aggressive and expansionist China in the Indo-Pacific has witnessed consolidation, both in the military and non-military domains, between the two phases of Malabar. First, the new trilateral AUKUS military pact among the US, UK and Australia was announced on September 15, under which Canberra will gradually acquire at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with conventional weapons and other combat capabilities to counter China’s expanding naval footprint in the Indo-Pacific.Though there are some lingering concerns that AUKUS will ultimately dilute the QUAD’s strategic heft in the Indo-Pacific, US secretary of defence Lloyd J Austin has assured defence minister Rajnath Singh that the trilateral pact will not detract from either the bilateral or quadrilateral cooperation with India, as was reported by TOI last month.
“Make no mistake, India is one of our closest strategic partners, and our relationship is a stronghold of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday on Friday, ahead of his visit to New Delhi next week. “I am grateful for our navies’ continued cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to create an inclusive, free and open rules-based order. By continuing to work closely with the Indian Navy, we will increase our interoperability for decades to come as well as maintain security, stability, and prosperity,” he added.
Between the two Malabar phases, India also conducted bilateral naval exercises with both Australia (AUSINDEX in September) and Japan (JIMEX earlier this month) to further boost interoperability. The Phase-II of Malabar, which is into its 25th edition this year, will similarly see “a high tempo of operations and complex exercises”, including anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine drills, said an officer. Japan, incidentally, will participate with its Izumo-class helicopter carrier Kaga and the guided missile destroyer Murasame. Faced with China, Japan is modifying such helicopter carriers to allow them to operate American F-35B Lighting-II joint strike fighters.