India, the United States and Japan could hold naval exercises in waters off the northern Philippine coast, near the South China Sea, potentially increasing tensions in the region.
The head of the United States Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, said at a conference on Wednesday that the annual Ma- labar naval exercise involving the navies of India, the US and Japan would be held off the Philippine coast.
Although he did not specify whether it would be near the South China Sea or when it would take place, he noted the US was keen to collaborate with India on security in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region.
The announcement on the Malabar exercise was not confirmed by Indian officials yesterday.
"India, Australia, Japan and the US can create a security architecture that balances the region," said Adm Harris.
"On the security front, we need India's leadership in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
"Together, we can ensure free, open sea lanes of communication that are critical for global trade and prosperity."
Tensions have risen in the East and South China seas where China has been embroiled for some time in territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
The US, which has been sailing near the disputed areas to emphasise the right of freedom of navigation, warned China this week against its recent action like the deployment of surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island, Woody Island.
India, for the most part, has stayed away from being directly involved in the South China Sea, but has moved closer to the US under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014.
In January last year, India and the US signed the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region during US President Barack Obama's visit to India, expressing intent of greater maritime cooperation.
Later that year, India also invited Tokyo to be a permanent part of the Malabar exercises. The exercises have been held in the Indian Ocean and, once, off the Japanese island of Okinawa.
Even so, India has yet to commit to a formal security alliance involving the US.
Foreign policy analysts said that if the exercises were held off the northern Philippine coast, it would draw India into the territorial dispute.
"Having these exercises in that area is a little problematic as it sends a message that the target is China," former India foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told The Straits Times.
"I think we are signalling to China we have begun to recalibrate our policies with regard to China but, at the same time, we don't want to rush into it. A joint patrol, for instance, is too premature."
When contacted, Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup yesterday denied India was considering holding joint patrols with the US in the Asia-Pacific.
Responding to a question on the Malabar exercise at a press briefing later, Mr Swarup said: "I am not aware we have taken such a decision."
China remains India's largest trading partner but irritants remain in bilateral ties over increasing Chinese influence in India's neighbourhood, apart from a border row. Tensions between the two countries still simmer, with China claiming the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as its own. In 2014, India also lodged a protest with Sri Lanka for allowing Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo.
Foreign policy analysts said the rise of China could compel India and other countries to join forces.
"The China factor is unifying big and small powers. There are early signs of some sort of alliance emerging but whether the grouping will gain more traction, we will see in the coming days," said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow at think-tank Observer Research Foundation.
China has responded to Adm Harris' latest announcement.
"We hope the cooperation of relevant countries will benefit regional peace and security, and not harm the interests of third parties," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei was quoted as saying by Reuters.