India holds joint naval drills with Japan, US

Exercises a sign of Delhi's rising focus on Indian Ocean as China's influence grows

India is holding naval drills with Japan and the United States in the Bay of Bengal and will conduct joint exercises with Indonesia in the Andaman Sea over the weekend, in a sign of India's increasing focus on the Indian Ocean where China has been making significant inroads.

New Delhi invited Tokyo to take part in the Malabar exercises that it holds annually with Washington. This year, it includes two days of training in the harbour followed by four days of sea exercises from tomorrow to Monday.

The drill comes eight years after India expanded the exercises by inviting Japan, Australia and Singapore. China had launched a strong protest against that multilateral exercise, which it perceived as part of a containment strategy led by the US.

Japan also took part in the Malabar exercises in 2009 and last year, when they were held in the north-western Pacific.

"Malabar is a very significant exercise. It includes the topmost navies of the world... all three of them," said Indian Navy spokesman, Captain D. K. Sharma. In a press statement, the US called it a "complex, high-end warfighting exercise" among "natural partners".

The Indian Navy is deploying two frigates, a submarine, a destroyer and a maritime surveillance aircraft while the US is deploying an aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarine, among others. Japan will have one destroyer in the drills that include air defence, search and rescue operations and anti-submarine warfare.

Analysts say the decision to include Japan this year is a strategic move by India at a time when Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put greater focus on restoring the country's credentials as a maritime power in the Indian Ocean.

He has unveiled a wider security and strategic policy since coming to power last year, signalling closer ties with Japan and the US, while remaining engaged with China, which is India's largest trading partner.

India on Monday began a 12-day army exercise with China at Kunming Military Academy in China's Yunnan province.

"The Modi government is definitely setting up maritime diplomacy and outreach. But the big story definitely is India, Japan and US engaging in extended naval exercises. It is not necessarily an alliance but partnership among the willing," said strategic affairs expert Uday Bhaskar.

Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh said that Chinese assertiveness in the region was fuelling closer ties.

"China is flexing its muscles, increasing military capabilities and claiming territories outside its jurisdiction. This is giving incentive to India to get closer to the US and other naval powers for strategic and security interests. The more the Chinese assert themselves, the more it will lead to tighter partnerships," he said.

Over the last couple of months, there has been a flurry of naval engagements in the Indian Ocean, a key route for global trade and energy supplies.

Last month, India and Australia held their first bilateral naval exercise off India's east coast.

This weekend, India and Indonesia will hold a naval drill in the Andaman Sea.

The Indian government called it an "inaugural" exercise that will be included in the two countries' regular joint patrols.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'India holds joint naval drills with Japan, US'. Print Edition | Subscribe