India flexes naval might at biggest fleet review

Japanese naval personnel in a parade on Thursday, ahead of the International Fleet Review. The five-day review involves 90 warships from countries including China, the United States, France and Malaysia.
Japanese naval personnel in a parade on Thursday, ahead of the International Fleet Review. The five-day review involves 90 warships from countries including China, the United States, France and Malaysia. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Event involving over 50 countries reflects country's maritime importance, say experts

India has rolled out its biggest maritime exercise as part of an International Fleet Review involving over 50 countries, showcasing its maritime capabilities against the backdrop of China's growing military might in Asia.

The five-day review - which kicked off with the inauguration of a maritime exhibition on Thursday and an opening ceremony yesterday - involves 90 warships from countries including China, the United States, France and Malaysia.

No ships from Singapore are taking part, but Singapore's Chief of Navy, Rear-Admiral Lai Chung Han, is leading a delegation to the review in the port city of Visakhapatnam, headquarters of the Indian Navy's eastern command, off the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.

The port city is seen as India's naval access point to the east, the focus of India's Act East policy that also aims to balance China's increasing might in the region.

"The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world. We have our littoral neighbours.... Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia, which are on fringes of our bay. It was our endeavour to hold the... review in proximity of our littoral neighbours... easier for their ships to participate," said Indian Navy Chief R.K. Dhowan at a press conference yesterday.

He had earlier told the NDTV network that the review would increase naval cooperation, with the "safety, stability and the security" of the oceans a "collective responsibility".

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has called the review a "big opportunity" to establish maritime links, has sought to boost activities in the Indian Ocean in an effort to regain strategic space taken over by China, which has built up its presence in the region in recent years.

The Prime Minister had gone on a tour of Indian Ocean countries in March last year, while Japan last year was invited to become a permanent part of naval exercises between India and the US.

Mr Modi will attend a parade of the ships over the weekend.

Experts said the review also showed India's maritime importance in that over 50 countries were participating. This is the second time the review is being held in India. The previous one was held off Mumbai in 2001. Twenty-nine countries took part in that event.

"It is a reflection of the importance that India holds in the maritime world. If you have a party and all the big shots come, your status goes up," said Dr P.K. Ghosh, a retired naval officer and senior fellow at the Delhi-based think-tank Observer Research Foundation.

"There are many messages from this fleet review. It is a way of projecting hard power and an extension of India's Act East policy and recognition of the fact that there is a growing power in the East and we need to build our bridges with South-east Asian nations and further up."

At the review, the Indian Navy will feature its two aircraft carriers the INS Vikramaditya and INS Viraat, the oldest aircraft carrier in service in the world that is set to be decommissioned this year.

The induction of INS Arihant, India's first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, however, is not taking place at the review as was speculated earlier.

India has been trying to bulk up its naval capabilities with 46 ships and submarines currently under construction.

Still, the country faces challenges in boosting its naval prowess, such as updating an ageing submarine fleet and securing funding.

A string of submarine and ship accidents over the last three years have also hit the navy hard.

Mr Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies, said: "The Indian Navy is the most credible navy in the Indian Ocean region... (But)... the Chinese have made impressive strides.

"The Chinese are building a ship a year, we take five to six years."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 06, 2016, with the headline 'India flexes naval might at biggest fleet review'. Print Edition | Subscribe