On 11 September the Indian Navy (IN) embarked on a week-long maritime engagement with the Royal Australian Navy in the Bay of Bengal. AUSINDEX-15 is being seen as a milestone of sorts, as it is the first time India and Australia have met for a bilateral naval exercise in the Indian Ocean. However, the composition of the participating contingents has led to speculation about the real intention behind the exercise.


HMAS Sheean in Visakhapatnam, India, for the AUSINDEX15 exercise. (Defence.)

As RAN ships arrived in Visakhapatnam to participate in the exercises, media reports surmised that the presence of a Collins class submarine, a P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft and an Indian P-8I maritime patrol aircraft indicated an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) focus, revealing a shared anxiety over Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. What is more, commentators suggested that the engagement was a precursor to closer naval interaction between India, Australia, Japan and the US.

These suggestions are fueled not just by AUSINDEX-15 but other recent and upcoming exercises. The Indian navy is scheduled to hold the Malabar series of exercises with the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (JMSDF) in October. And Australia hosted the Talisman Saber exercise involving Japan and the US in July.

Claims of an emerging 'security quartet' in the Indo-Pacific also gained credibility after the visit of then Australian defence minister Kevin Andrews to New Delhi early this month. Speaking at a Defence Studies and Analyses event on 2 September, Andrews said that the Australian Government was open to participating in a four-way security initiative with the US, Japan and India, provided it were invited by New Delhi to do so. In response to a question about Canberra's past reservations over multilateral naval exercises involving India, he said the Rudd Government's decision in 2008 to withdraw from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue had been a mistake. 

While Andrews' admission is commendably candid, it needs to be viewed with a degree of circumspection. Given Australia's commitment to defence ties with India, the reference to quadrilateral naval exercises is more an act of political signaling than a call for concerted action against China.

Canberra is looking for maritime partners in the Indian Ocean, and New Delhi is an obvious choice. Andrews' references to 'nautical norms' and a 'rules-based global order' are an appeal to Indian sensitivities beset by anxiety over the PLA Navy's expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean. But equally, the message appeared directed at an audience back home that has been keenly focused on Australia's evolving strategic posture and a new defence white paper, which is expected to take a hard line against China.

The political context of Andrews' views, however, must not dilute the strategic content of his message. Regardless of where India and Australia stand politically on the issue of multilateral maritime cooperation, they are operationally on the same page. In recent days, media reports have suggested that the focus of forthcoming exercises will be on littoral defence, reflecting a growing regional consensus on the threat posed by Chinese undersea operations in the Asian littorals.

PLA Navy submarine operations in the Indian Ocean have been the cause of much Indian angst lately.

Since May, when a Chinese Yuan class submarine visited Karachi, there has been growing unease in New Delhi over the possibility of greater Chinese submarine presence in India's maritime neighbourhood. The sudden rise in submarine visits suggests a larger game-plan for the expansion of China's naval footprint in the Indian Ocean. In the garb of anti-piracy operations, Indian analysts aver, Chinese submarines have been performing missions intended to lay the groundwork for a rotating but permanent deployment in the Indian Ocean.

More importantly, the pattern of recent undersea deployments reveals a Chinese strategy to carve out controlled spaces in the Indian Ocean. Observers point to a submarine deployment at Colombo last year, when the visiting Song class docked at a harbour built and administered by a Chinese construction company. The docking was in seeming violation of protocols which mandate that a foreign naval vessel dock in Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) berths. Local authorities explained the anomaly by citing operational exigencies, validating suspicions that Colombo was under some pressure to accommodate Chinese submarines at an exclusive facility. At Karachi in May, the Chinese Yuan class deployment was conducted in such secrecy that its details weren't revealed in the media until weeks later. Meanwhile, Chinese maritime planners have been raising the complexity of their undersea missions — the Yuan class deployment at Karachi signaled an improvement over the mission at Colombo, where the Song class submarine was accompanied by a support vessel. 

China's emphasis on undersea operations in the Indian Ocean underscores the growing importance of the concept of littoral dominance in contemporary maritime doctrine, which deems 'access to contested spaces' as an operational imperative. The recalibration of China's maritime posture towards greater 'open-seas' presence, as outlined in Beijing's 2015 defence white paper, appears intended to expand the PLA Navy's access to the Asian littorals. India's Andaman and Nicobar Command is reported to have detected an alarming rise in attempts by Chinese naval ships to get close to Indian territorial waters.

In China's new doctrine of maritime operations, submarines are likely to play an increasingly vital role. Apart from defending tactical maritime space and gathering critical intelligence, Chinese submarines will be crucial in nullifying India's strategic advantages in the Indian Ocean. Submerged in the depths of the Indian Ocean, PLA Navy submarines could evade Indian surveillance and even facilitate attacks on Indian shores. To reinforce the message, Beijing has been deploying nuclear submarines to the Indian Ocean, highlighting growing Chinese confidence in maintaining a standing presence there.

Equally significant are the PLA Navy's growing amphibious warfare capabilities. Since the announcement of China's defence white paper in May 2015, its naval exercises have had an amphibious component, including ground assault drills by marine forces. The PLA Navy has conducted a series of island defence exercises, deploying dedicated amphibious task forces to the western and far-eastern Pacific. China's penchant for expeditionary operations can be discerned from the fact that during the recently concluded Sino-Russian maritime exercises in the Sea of Japan, it deployed a contingent of 200 marines to stage a joint amphibious and airborne landing.

India's forthcoming naval interactions with Pacific powers, therefore, are likely to focus on contingencies arising from greater Chinese naval presence in Asia's littorals. According to media reports, the India-US Malabar naval exercises later this month will go beyond the traditional ambit of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to also include anti-air and anti-submarine warfare operations. The fact that New Delhi has extended an invitation to the Japanese navy to participate in these exercises reveals a willingness to expand the framework of maritime engagements. 

As India, Australia, Japan and the US reorient their maritime postures to cater to the new realities of Asia, there is a shared realisation that regional maritime stability is increasingly susceptible to growing power imbalances. India's forthcoming naval exercises are part of a broader regional attempt to preserve the balance of maritime power in the Indo-Pacific littorals.