China is carefully monitoring the upcoming Malabar naval exercises to gauge whether Japan will become a permanent participant in the Indo-U.S. manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean.
A write-up in the state-run Xinhua news agency observed that Washington is “pushing for making the ‘Malabar’ naval exercises between India and the U.S. into a trilateral framework to involve Japan as a permanent participant”.
China had objected to the participation of Japan, Australia and Singapore in Malabar-2007 exercise, which was hosted by India in the Bay of Bengal. Since then, these drills, when held in a trilateral format that included Japan, took place in the West Pacific.
The sharp deterioration in Sino-Japanese ties, following the controversy over the jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Island, also called Senkaku by Japan, and the security bills in its Parliament that are in play, which would free Japan to contribute forces in global hotspots, has heightened Beijing’s security concerns. Analysts say that alarm bells are likely to ring loud in China by perceptions that Japan’s out-of area reach was being enhanced in the Indo-Pacific zone through naval exercises such as Malabar 2015.
The Chinese also want to ensure that India, which is fast becoming an active player in the Indo-Pacific, does not join Japan, Australia and South Korea in bolstering the U.S. led and China-centred containment
policy under President Barack Obama’s “Asia Pivot” doctrine. A write-up in the China Daily newspaper has noted that Washington is stringing Japan, India and Australia within the ambit of its Pivot to Asia doctrinal formulation. “The U.S. concept of Asia Pivot revolves around isolating China and creating a block of Regional and Extra Regional 2nd tier powers to strategically suffocate China in the 21 century. These 2nd tier powers include India, Australia and Japan,” the daily observed.
Observers point out that Chinese concerns have been heightened by the first trilateral meeting of foreign ministers from India, U.S. and Japan that was held last month in New York. In a veiled reference to China, a media note circulated by the State Department following the meeting, pointed to “the growing convergence” of the interests of three countries in the Indo-Pacific region, underscored by “the importance of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes; freedom of navigation and over flight; and unimpeded lawful commerce, including in the South China Sea”.
Indian officials, however, stress that notwithstanding the perception of its tilt towards Washington, New Delhi has been pursuing “multi-vectored diplomacy where IOUs are being parcelled to countries on either side of the political aisle”.
Observers say that the unimpeded access to the commercial sea lanes, which are central to countries on either side of the Malacca Straits, is at the heart of the growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific. Regarding Japan, China’s state run tabloid Global Times acknowledged that “Tokyo considers the maritime passage a critical lifeline for its energy security”. The write-up was referring to the Japan’s dependence on imported oil, especially from the Persian Gulf countries, which was transited through the Malacca straits.
On its part, China wants to avoid the Malacca Straits, which is fully covered by the U.S. military footprint. Consequently, it has been investing heavily in energy pipelines from Siberia. China has also has acquired access to an oil and gas terminal in Myanmar to transit part of its energy supplies from West Asia in order to avoid the Malacca trap.
During Malabar-2015, the United States is expected to field Theodore Roosevelt, a 100,000 tonne aircraft carrier. This is in tune with the exercises that were held earlier when aircraft carriers, including Ronald Reagan, George Washington and Carl Vinson participated in the manoeuvres.