PEARL HARBOUR (Hawaii) • The US military has renamed its Pacific Command the US Indo-Pacific Command, in a largely symbolic move underscoring the growing importance of India to the Pentagon, US officials said.
United States Pacific Command, which is responsible for all American military activity in the greater Pacific region, has about 375,000 civilian and military personnel assigned to its area of responsibility, which includes India.
"Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability," US Defence Secretary James Mattis said.
"In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command," he said on Wednesday during a change of command ceremony.
Admiral Philip Davidson was assuming leadership of the command from Admiral Harry Harris, who is President Donald Trump's nominee as ambassador to South Korea .
The renaming does not mean additional assets will be sent to the region at this time, but rather recognises India's increasing military relevance for the US. In 2016, the US and India signed an agreement governing the use of each other's land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply, a step towards building defence ties as they seek to counter the growing maritime assertiveness of China.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said they had noted the name change. "We'll continue to pay attention to developments," he told a monthly news briefing.
The US is also keen to tap India's defence market. It has emerged as India's No. 2 arms supplier, closing US$15 billion (S$20 billion) worth of deals over the last decade.
Mr Mattis has been pushing for a waiver for countries like India, after Mr Trump signed a law last year which said any country trading with Russia's defence and intelligence sectors would face sanctions.
Experts said the name change would mean little unless it was tied to a broader strategy. "Renaming (it) is ultimately a symbolic act ... (it) will have a very limited impact unless the US follows through with a significant array of initiatives and investments that reflect a wider aperture," said Mr Abraham Denmark, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for East Asia.