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Malabar 2018 Sailed Completely Under The Radar

June 21, 2018

Aerial photo of US Navy and JMSDF formations in the Philippine Sea. Via USN/Wikimedia Commons.

This month had three major navies operating close enough to China’s territorial waters for reasons that should worry Beijing. The Malabar exercises date back to 1992 as a post-Cold War effort at building trust between the Indian and US navies. Since 2007, however, it has grown to include Japan for the sake of alliance building against an increasingly powerful China.

Last year’s Malabar exercises were conducted in the Indian Ocean and had a strong emphasis on interoperability. But the location was changed for 2018. The participating navies sailed off Guam from June 7 to 10 and traveled around the Philippine Sea from June 11 to 16.

An Indian Navy Chetak helicopter lands on a flight deck. Via JMSDF/USN.

But instead of the Indian, Japanese, and US ships testing doctrine against a simulated opponent, Malabar 2018 focused on having crews serve alongside their foreign counterparts. This year’s roster of naval assets was equally impressive. From the US side were the supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan and three destroyer escorts. Accompanying the strike group was a Los Angeles-class attack submarine, a replenishment oiler, and one P-8A Poseidon.

Japan’s own contingent from its Maritime Self-Defense Force was composed of the JS Ise “helicopter carrier” with two destroyer escorts, a submarine, and a Kawasaki P1 maritime patrol aircraft. India’s contribution was one stealth frigate, one anti-submarine warfare corvette, a supply ship, and a P-8I Poseidon. Since Malabar 2018 already involved 3/4th’s of the Quad Alliance, it must be clarified that Australia has no role in these annual naval exchanges.

Holding the latter half of Malabar 2018 in the Philippine Sea didn’t raise much of an outcry from China’s overzealous defense ministry. It did drive home the importance of the waters between Luzon and Guam because controlling its expanse is vital in any future conflict over the South China Sea.

Indian and Japanese crews practice yoga on the ships to commemorate International Yoga Day. Sailing ahead of the Kamorta-class corvette is the JMSDF’s Ise helicopter carrier. Via Indian Navy.

The 10-day duration for Malabar 2018 was enough for a variety of exercises that spanned anti-submarine warfare, carrier operations, and search and rescue. Although Malabar’s itinerary is known for never singling out China as its preferred antagonist, it’s understood that deterring the PLAN is the end goal among the participating navies.

Japan in particular is becoming agitated by China’s military ambitions. In light of a festering territorial dispute over small islands and PLAAF aircraft violating its airspace, the Self Defense Forces must prepare for an inevitable showdown in the coming decade. India has reason to be worried about China as well. Both countries are bickering over a remote geographical area along the Tibetan Plateau. Delhi is suspicious of China’s plans in the Indian Ocean and the Belt and Road project that stretches from Central Asia to Eastern Europe.

In the course of Malabar 2018, Indian and Japanese sailors did participate in a collective yoga demonstration aboard their respective ships. Photos were later released by the public relations offices of each navy showing the crews performing yoga.

A Ticonderoga-class destroyer that joined the USS George H.W. Bush’ strike group. In the background is a suspected PLAN surveillance ship. Via USN.

Not surprisingly, the US has the biggest bone to pick with China. As the two countries are now locked in a much anticipated trade war, Beijing’s influence in some of Washington, DC’s thorniest foreign policy headaches is unmistakable–be it North Korea’s nuclear gambit, Taiwan’s fragile independence, or the South China Sea crisis. The creation of the “Indo-Pacific Command” on May 30 was more than just a gesture to impress India. It signaled how the strategy for defeating a belligerent China had grown to breathtaking proportions.

There weren’t any controversies that erupted in the course of Malabar 2018. But a surprise appearance of a mysterious Chinese vessel did reverberate in social media. During previous installments of Malabar reporters covering the exercises have noticed PLAN ships stalking the trilateral flotilla. Then as now, the kind of intelligence they collect has never been ascertained.

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