China, India Square Off in the Himalayas as U.S., India, Japan Hold Naval Exercise

Japanese Rear Admiral Hiroshi Yamamura (L), US Rear Admiral William Byrne (R) and HCS Bisht, vice admiral of the Indian Navy, pose for photographers during the inauguration of joint naval exercises with the United States and India in Chennai on July 10, 2017. India began holding naval exercises with the …
ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Even as China and India square off over unrest on their borders, the United States Navy held its largest joint maritime exercise with India and Japan in three decades, teaming the USS Nimitz battle group with India’s only aircraft carrier and Japan’s most powerful warships.

The naval exercise, known as Malabar 2017, was rather clearly intended for a Chinese audience, although all parties involved carefully avoided saying so, at least without playful qualifications.

“I would like to say this is a strategic message to China. It would also be the same to Canada or to Republic of Korea or to Australia or to any other maritime force,” U.S. Rear Admiral William D. Byrne Jr. said after the exercise was inaugurated. The odds of the U.S. and India teaming up to battle Australia for control of the high seas are rather slim.

Reuters quotes military officials concerned about China’s “rising weight” disrupting the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region, citing such incidents as Chinese subs making port in Sri Lanka and increased sightings of Chinese military vessels in the Indian Ocean.

The U.S. Pacific Command said a major goal of the exercise was helping the Indian Navy integrate with U.S. forces. Malabar 2017 is scheduled to continue until July 17.

Besides China’s well-known provocations in the South China Sea, there is also a land dispute brewing between India and China. As Newsweek observed on Monday, the conflict has not drawn much international attention, but Chinese and Indian media have both written as if a war could break out in the Himalayas at any moment. Chinese newspapers have been goading India about losing the last such border conflict in 1962.

The conflict revolves around China’s construction of a road into the strategically important Doklam plateau, which is adjacent to Tibet, India’s Sikkim province, and the nation of Bhutan. India worries that China is creating an unbeatable strategic advantage for itself in the area, while Bhutan claims the area where China has been doing construction work.

About three weeks ago, Indian border guards from Sikkim crossed into territory claimed by China and blocked road construction. India stated this was done to defend Bhutan’s claims on the Doklam area. China insists it owns the real estate, and India is obliged to recognize its claim by treaties dating back to British rule.

India, on the other hand, says China has been “belligerent” and indulging in “dangerous brinkmanship” as it looks to “bully India into submission,” as First Post puts it. India fears the loss of international status if it cannot defend Bhutan’s claims and worries that China will use the standoff in Doklam as an excuse to send troops into the extremely volatile Kashmir province on Pakistan’s behalf, or possibly make an even deeper incursion into Indian territory.

The First Post editorial also zings China for being worried that Indian and Bhutanese defiance will inspire Tibet to become a headache for Beijing again and suggests the conflict in Doklam could be part of the larger chess game over the South China Sea, as China seeks assorted concessions to give up on its development plan in the Himalayas.

Business Standard adds accusations that China wants to use the crisis in the Himalayas to drive wedges between India and its regional allies with “the strident war-talk emanating from Chinese officials, state media, and experts.” This analysis further suggests that China wants to make other Asian nations afraid to ask for American help with regional disputes by raising the perceived risk of military conflict.

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