India, Japan and the United States agreed to hold yearly joint naval exercises, Indian government sources said Monday, as the three countries kicked off the first such drill in eight years in the Bay of Bengal, a move likely to be noticed by China.
The last time New Delhi hosted multilateral drills in its waters in 2007 prompted disquiet in China, where some saw it as a U.S.-inspired security grouping along the lines of NATO in Europe.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signaled a more robust security policy, seeking stronger strategic ties with the United States and Japan while keeping a lid on border tensions with China.
The United States is deploying the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and a nuclear-powered submarine in weeklong exercises that the Indian Navy said will cover the full spectrum of maneuvers.
“These exercises are all-encompassing, starting from one spectrum to the other including anti-piracy operations, board, search and seize and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” said Indian Navy spokesman Capt. D.K. Sharma.
The decision to expand the Malabar exercises, which the U.S. and India conduct each year, to include Japan comes days after a Pentagon official said it is considering sailing warships close to China’s recently built artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The Financial Times newspaper last week cited a senior U.S. official as saying U.S. ships will sail within the next two weeks in the 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around islands it has built in the Spratly chain.
India has kept away from the tensions in the South China Sea but has stood with the U.S. in calling for freedom of navigation in the region.
Tokyo has been involved in the drills intermittently in recent years when they have been held in the Pacific, but the three governments have now agreed to formalize it, Indian defense sources said.
The Indian Navy is deploying a submarine to the Malabar exercises along with surface ships and maritime surveillance aircraft, but neither of its two aircraft carriers will take part. Japan has sent a lone destroyer.
Srikanth Kondapalli, who teaches Chinese studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that Australia and some Southeast Asian countries are also interested in joining the Malabar drills.
“One of the primary concerns is the challenge to the free flow of goods and services on the high seas in recent times and strengthening the Indo-Pacific idea,” he said.