India conducted joint naval exercises with the US Navy, off the coast of Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The exercises with the US involved makeovers called PASSEX or passing exercises and involved various coordinated exercises such as surface action, surveillance and anti-submarine drills to check the inter-operability between the two navies and sharing of best practices. The development is significant given the increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
The conduct of the exercises in the Bay of Bengal in a maritime area that overlooks the Malacca Straits, a critical sea route for international trade, including China; is very significant. The exercises included four Indian naval ships and is being conducted with ships from the US fleet that includes the USS Nimitz, a nuclear power warship, which has been conducting ‘freedom of navigation’ operations in the South China Sea. It came at the same time China is conducting military drills of its own in the South China Sea, near the contested Paracel Islands.
The Indian Navy has been on an operational alert in the Indian Ocean, where scores of warships are ready for any task as a result of the border tensions between India and China, after skirmishes in the Ladakh sector escalated dramatically. India has positioned warships along critical sea lanes of communications and choke points under its mission-based deployment and the vessels could be diverted for any mission. The Indian Navy is keeping a close watch on development in the Indian Ocean Region as the Chinese naval presence has increased over the past few years in the name of anti-piracy patrols. In 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
India is improving its infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and is also upgrading its facilities of the Indian military’s Andaman & Nicobar Command. The Indian Air Force has deployed half a squadron (eight to 10 aircrafts) of its Jaguar fighters at the strategic Car Nicobar air base, in a show of strength amidst the heightened tension along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The naval exercises with the U.S. follow on the heels of a similar exercise conducted between India and Japan last month near the Malacca Straits. India, the United States and Japan are close naval partners in the region and take routine part in joint exercises including the Malabar Naval exercises. With the likelihood of Australia taking part in the trilateral naval exercises in the future, all the four countries of the ‘quad’ (quadrilateral) which is for a free, inclusive and open Indo-Pacific will be part of the exercises for the first time. It will be the first time all members of the regional grouping will be engaged at the military level. China has been wary of the grouping, which was first formed in 2004 to help nations in the Indo-Pacific after the tsunami and revived in 2017. Beijing is also watching the events since the four countries upgraded the forum to the Ministerial level in 2019.
The US Defence Secretary Mark Esper, meanwhile said, at a time when China is engaging in “systematic rule-breaking” and coercion, the US sees its growing security cooperation with India as “one of the all-important defence relationships of the 21st century”. The joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean between Indian Navy warships and a US Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Nimitz reflects the shared commitment of the two countries to boost naval cooperation in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific, he said.
Secretary Esper was speaking on the US strategy and vision for security in the Indo-Pacific during a virtual event organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Mr. Esper made numerous references to what he described as rule-breaking and coercive behaviour by Beijing, especially in South China Sea and against members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Script: Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Strategic Analyst on American Affairs