Chinese reports in the ‘Global Times’ have portrayed MILAN as an inflammatory tactic, aimed at ‘spreading tensions from the land to the sea’, a blatant Indian attempt to undermine Chinese influence in South Asia.
This is a question that has troubled Indian observers in recent months. In a series of op-eds and write-ups since the Doklam incident, commentators in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece have rained fire on New Delhi, criticising it for “inciting trouble” in the neighbourhood.
In a scathing report last week, Hu Zhiyong, a Chinese analyst, chided the Indian navy for its MILAN naval exercises in the Bay of Bengal. A few days later, Liu Zongyi, another Chinese commentator accused New Delhi of using Vietnam as a “springboard for Indian influence projection in the Indian Ocean to the West Pacific”. The Vietnam navy’s participation in the MILAN exercises, he suggested, was only a ploy to aggravate China.
MILAN, which got off to a lively start earlier this week, is a biennial meeting of regional navies organised by the Indian navy at the Port Blair-based Andaman and Nicobar Command, meant to expand cooperation and teamwork in tackling regional challenges. But Chinese reports in the ‘Global Times’ have portrayed it as an inflammatory tactic, aimed at “spreading tensions from the land to the sea”, a blatant Indian attempt to undermine Chinese influence in South Asia. New Delhi, Chinese commentators have warned, faces the risk of a military response from China for its “unreasonable provocations”.
How did Beijing come to such a grave misunderstanding of Indian intentions? MILAN has been around since 1995 and has always sought to promote peaceful naval cooperation in the nautical commons. With professional exercises and seminars, social events and sporting fixtures between participating nations, the engagement has never remotely resembled a tool of geopolitical signalling. So why are the Chinese observers so upset?
Well, it seems People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) analysts have noticed a more-than-subtle shift in the pattern of Indian naval deployments, where a new configuration of task-forces has been attempting to cramp Chinese naval operations in littoral-South Asia.
Since November 2017, when the Indian navy announced mission-ready patrols in the Indian Ocean, Indian naval ships have deployed around the maritime choke points leading from Southeast Asia to the Bay of Bengal with one expressed purpose: monitor Chinese naval warships and keep PLAN regional power projection in check. Even Admiral Lanba, the Indian naval chief, has been unusually outspoken in raising China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean, especially PLAN submarines that are no longer an occasional contingency but a “near-permanent presence”.
But apparently, the scale and tempo of activities during MILAN too has registered an uptick. In its original avatar, the exercise was meant to be a professional interaction for regional navies to compare notes, share best practices, protocols and procedures. Most of the early iterations in the early years involved low-spectrum drills in areas that were decidedly non-traditional in content – missions such as search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, anti-piracy, anti-poaching, and counter trafficking exercises. The intention was for maritime forces to come together and practise professional skills and law enforcement techniques. Good order at sea lay at the heart of these exchanges.
But times have changed, and MILAN – now in its 10th edition with 16 participating navies – seems more in the nature of a martial congregation of maritime forces from south and south-east Asia emphasising Asia’s power balance. Indeed, there is a sense that the Indian navy increasingly construes MILAN as an instrument of diplomatic leverage over smaller navies to tacitly underscore New Delhi’s geopolitical ambitions. While the nature of naval exercises during MILAN is mid-spectrum at best, the event is ever more geared towards affirming India’s nautical pre-eminence in the sub-continental littorals, increasingly under siege from China’s growing naval presence.
So concerned has India’s naval leadership been about PLAN posturing in the Indian Ocean, that it is openly exhorting regional navy chiefs to resist the march of Chinese naval power in maritime Asia. Not only is this exceptionable, say Chinese analysts, but also a turn for the worse.
What Chinese observers do not acknowledge, however, is that the changed security dynamic in littoral South Asia is a direct consequence of PLAN aggression in the Asian commons. Not only has China expanded its reclamation of islands in the South China Sea, it has only become more assertive in the Indian Ocean. A few weeks ago, Beijing sent a naval surface action group (SAG) into the eastern Indian Ocean, a subtle signal to New Delhi of China’s growing heft in the Indian Ocean.
The naval contingent – which entered the Andaman Sea through the Sunda Straits and remained in station for no more than a day before exiting into the South China Sea – consisted of a Type 071 transport vessel used to land troops in an amphibious assault. The ship’s deployment seemed intended at pre-empting Indian action in the Maldives, in the tightening grip of a constitutional crisis and fast slipping away from New Delhi’s political orbit. With China’s support, Maldivian officials even had the nerve to decline India’s invitation for the island state’s navy to attend MILAN in Port Blair.
And yet, the evolution of MILAN as a naval exercise is no different from other maritime interactions in littoral Asia, where regional states have sought to jointly emphasise their stakes in their near-seas. The US Navy organises RIMPAC in the Eastern Pacific biennially; the Australian navy does exercise KAKADU in waters off Darwin; Sri Lanka holds the annual Galle Dialogue (in combination with a multinational exercise); and the Pakistan navy conducts exercise AMAN in the northern Arabian Sea.
Like India, most Indo-Pacific powers seem to believe a regular show of cooperative synergies with partner navies in the near-neighbourhood is enough to keep rivals at bay.
The problem for New Delhi is that Beijing’s strategy in the Indian Ocean is a sophisticated blend of maritime projection and a geo-economics strategy that stresses infrastructure creation. The Chinese leadership isn’t sending its naval forces to dominate India’s neighbourhood; it’s creating the conditions to render inevitable China’s security presence in Asia. Far from being threatening, the Chinese navy is successfully creating the illusion of being an effective security provider, leading many regional states to welcome its presence.
Paradoxically then, the consensus that India believes interactions like MILAN help forge against PLAN aggression is a non-starter. Oddly for New Delhi, the political leaderships of many of the countries whose warships, assets and military personnel attend India’s premier multinational exercise are increasingly beholden to China. They’re sending their naval ships to join the party in Port Blair to simply keep India in good humour. In reality, Beijing remains in firm control.
The Global Times intemperate rants are just a diversionary sideshow