|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
‘Milan’ is a multilateral naval exercise hosted by the Indian Navy under aegis of the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC) on biennial basis. Naturally, it is held in Andaman & Nocobar Islands. Besides, professional exercises, it also features seminars, social events and sporting fixtures amongst participation nations. The Milan series of exercises commenced in 1995; with navies of Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka having participated that year. The largest Milan multilateral exercise until now was held during 2014 with 17 participating nations. However, Milan 2018, scheduled from March 6 to March 13 at Port Blair will be bigger with navies of 23 countries including India participating; the 22 foreign countries are Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Kenya, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Myanmar, Oman, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand and Vietnam. The interactions during Milan encompass sharing of views and ideas on maritime good order and enhancing regional cooperation for combating unlawful activities at sea. Besides fostering cooperation through naval exercises and professional interactions, it will also provide an opportunity to the participating navies to nurture stronger ties in dealing with various security challenges. Commencing from the sub-regional context, Milan has now grown into an international event encompassing navies from South Asia, South East Asia and the larger Indian Ocean Region (lOR). It is quite natural that Chinese aggressive moves and military manoeuvres in the South China Sea, as also military posturing in the Indo-Pacific region will likely come up for discussion among the Naval Chiefs of the 23 participating countries.
But the manner in which China has reacted to Milan 2018 confirms the conscience of a thief, besides being humorous. Aside from the navies mentioned, South Africa, the Philippines, Mozambique, Brunei, Papua New Guinea, Seychelles and Timor Leste will also participate in patrolling exercises, maritime rescue and other humanitarian missions. China has warned India for staging Milan 2018 since it views the exercise as a solid step to push the new Indo-Pacific co-defense strategy, which could risk “spreading the Sino-Indian tensions from land to the sea”. China’s primary state-sponsored Beijing-based ‘Global Times’ (rebuked by many on social media because of its trashy language and idiotic threats at large) has called upon the Chinese military to stage a “tit-for-tat” response - like a drill of similar size. Look at the comedy of Communist Party of China (CPC) advising itself through its own mouthpiece, with the draft possibly approved by Commander-in-Chief President Xi Jinping himself. Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and possibly nominated unofficial spokesperson of the CPC told the People’s Daily, “India is provoking China, China should respond militarily to send the message that it’s prepared to go to the stakes when it comes to safeguarding its own legitimate interests.” Earlier, an editorial in the PLA Daily had stated that in 2018 that PLA should hold drills and beef up its presence in places that the Chinese navy and air force have seldom been before.
According to the editorial, the PLA Navy ‘traditionally’ holds exercises in the Yellow Sea and East China Sea (ECS) but “expect more sights of Chinese warships in other parts of the globe.” But this is a load of bullshit because China has been holding exercises in the Indian Ocean including with navies of Sri Lanka and Pakistan. It has also held exercises with the Iranian and Pakistani navies in the Arabian sea right next to the strategic Straits of Hormuz, as well as with the Russian navy in the Sea of Japan and in the Mediterranean. China has been reacting similarly to the Malabar series of naval exercise that have been held since 1994, originally between Indian and US navies. In 2007, the scope of Malabar was enhanced and the high-point was a five-nation multilateral naval exercise that brought on board three other nations; Japan, Australia and Singapore. China was visibly irked when Malabar 2016 was held in Western Pacific. But then Malabar 2017 held in the Bay of Bengal between India, Japan and the US also evoked similar response from China. If more nations are coming forward to join the Milan series of exercise, China has itself to blame because of: arbitrarily extending its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) without any consideration of encroaching upon territorial waters of its neighbours; claiming entire SCS, its militarization and strong arm tactics against Japan and Philippines using her navy and civilian boat militia; blocking oil exploration by neighbours due to her own illegal claims; scant regard to UNCLOS and freedom of navigation of global commons; unceremoniously dismissing ruling of the Hague-based International Court of Arbitration and announcing it will set up its own China-led international courts; continuing aggressive moves in Indo-Pacific and indications of intent to militarize the IOR akin to what she has done in Western Pacific. Perhaps China is also peeved at India’s initial response at Doklam and the fact that PLA naval task force had to turn turtle from Maldives recently because of Indian naval deployment. Milan is a multilateral exercise without malice towards any country including China. But behind China’s all around aggressive moves appears the major reason of the CPC having built around itself an aura of superiority and invincibility because of China’s economic and military muscle, which is giving fanciful flight to Chinese irredentism. It is for China to decide whether confrontation with majority of the world is good for her considering its economy has already started to decline and her reserves need to be viewed against the external debt that is 254 per cent of the GDP.