Vessels from 16 navies arrive for Indian Navy exercise off the Andaman and Nicobar islands

India's third Scorpene-class submarine INS Karanj is seen silhouetted as a tugboat pulls it in Mumbai, India, on Jan 31, 2018.
India's third Scorpene-class submarine INS Karanj is seen silhouetted as a tugboat pulls it in Mumbai, India, on Jan 31, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Naval vessels from 16 countries, including Singapore, arrived in the waters off the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on Tuesday (Feb 6th) for a major biennial exercise hosted by the Indian navy.

Indian analysts noted that Exercise Milan, which means coming together in Hindi, is taking place amid growing concern here about an increasing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

Officials said the exercise - which last took place in 2014 as India held an International Fleet Review in 2016 - were also an important part of India's outreach to Southeast Asia under the Act East Policy. The exercise kicked off in 1995 with just four countries including Singapore, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

"It is basically a meeting of like-minded navies with common goals... we would work together on maritime security, search and rescue. We learn from each other," said Indian Navy spokesman, Capt D.K Sharma.

"It (Milan) has increased in stature, magnitude and participation and is consistent with India's Act East policy, enhancing cooperation among navies in the rim of the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia," he added.

The theme of the latest exercise is "Friendship Across the Seas."

India has been trying to bulk up its naval capabilities and better patrol its maritime border as well as the Indian Ocean, which is an important global trade route.

In 2016, India organised an International Fleet Review that saw the participation of 50 countries

The Malabar exercises, an annual event, between India and the US was also expanded to include Japan in 2015.

And last year India joined the US Japan and Australia to form a quadrilateral grouping which they said was aimed at pushing for a rules-based order in Asia and to protect freedom of navigation while enhancing maritime security.

Exercise Milan, for its part, has been seen an important signal for India even though its genesis was in the nineties.

"It adds to India's maritime stature that we are one of the biggest maritime powers in the region. The fact that we can hold such a big exercise, that is the strategic signalling being sent," said Dr P K Ghosh, a defence analyst.

"The exercise is aimed at enhancing interoperability to overcome disasters through rescue missions," he added.

The multilateral drills, which takes place over three days starting on Sunday (Mar 11th) will be preceded by a seminar entitled "In Pursuit of Maritime Good Order - Need for Comprehensive Information Sharing Apparatus".

An International City Parade will be held in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, on Friday (Mar 9th) with marching contingents from all the participating foreign naval ships as well as the Indian  armed forces. The parade will include a flypast and an aerobatic display by military aircraft.

The exercises have always taken place in the waters around the strategically placed Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The sultanate of Oman is taking part for the first time this year.

"Even though it started in the nineties, given China is everywhere, this has become even more significant for India to reach out to other countries," said Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think-tank.

"India is now looking at broader maritime cooperation apart from just countries in the immediate neighbourhood. Oman has joined for the first time. We are all looking at how China is setting up facilities in that part of the world." .

China formally opened its first overseas military base, which it called a logistics facility, in Djibouti in August last year. Djibouti, with a population of less than one million, has long punched above its weight, thanks to a strategic location on the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping routes linking Europe to Asia and the Middle East.