New Delhi:Three Indian warships are now in the Western Pacific along with US and Japanese naval vessels for the latest edition of mega military exercise Malabar that began on Thursday off Guam.
The latest edition of the naval drill is significant as it comes amid growing Chinese assertiveness in the strategically critical Indo-Pacific region with India, the US and Japan targeting greater inter-operability to counter Beijing.
The exercise begins days after the Pentagon in a largely symbolic move to reflect new US national priorities changed the name of the Pacific Command to the US Indo-Pacific Command.
“Relationships with our Pacific and Indian Ocean allies and partners have proven critical to maintaining regional stability,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in Hawaii on May 31.
The command is responsible for all US military activities in the greater Pacific region. It has about 375,000 civilian and military personnel assigned to the area, which includes India.
India has fielded stealth frigate INS Sahyadri, missile corvette INS Kamorta, fleet tanker INS Shakti and long range maritime patrol aircraft P8I for the exercises that were first established in 1992 between India and the US.
The US has brought in its over 100,000-tonne USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered carrier with F/A-18 fighters, early-warning and electronic warfare aircraft, and other frontline assets including a nuclear attack submarine and P-8A patrol aircraft.
The Japanese have sent one of the two 27,000-tonne helicopter carriers, a Soryu-class submarine, Takanami class destroyer JS Suzunami and Kawasaki P-1 maritime aircraft. The naval drill became annual feature only after 2002 following nuclear tensions in 1998. The warships under the command of Rear Admiral Dinesh K. Tripathi, Flag Officer Commanding, Eastern Fleet, are currently on an overseas deployment to South East Asia and the Western Pacific.
According to an Indian Navy spokesperson, the three ships are scheduled to reach on June 7 for the Harbour Phase of the 22nd edition of Malabar taking place off Guam — an island in Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean under the US control.
It is for the first time the exercise is being conducted off Guam. In 2017, it was held on the Eastern Sea Board of India, off Chennai and Visakhapatnam.
Over the last 26 years, the Maritime exercise has grown in scope and complexity and aims to address the variety of shared threats and challenges to maritime security in the Indo-Pacific, the spokesperson said.
“Further, the exercise contributes towards increasing the level of mutual understanding, inter-operability and sharing of the best practices between the three navies.” The scope of the June 7-15 war game includes professional interactions during the Harbour Phase. The sea phase includes a diverse range of activities at sea including aircraft carrier operations, air defence, anti-submarine warfare, surface warfare, visit board search and seizure (VBSS), joint manoeuvres and tactical procedure.
Chinese government officials have remained quiet about the upcoming exercise. Before last year’s Malabar, though, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said the country had no objection to cooperation among countries but that “we hope such relations and cooperation are not targeted at a third party and are conducive to regional peace and stability,” according to a briefing released by the Foreign Ministry.
In January, Australian officials sounded hopeful their naval forces would be invited to rejoin the Malabar exercise. But they have not been invited for the games, because of India’s reluctance, according to observers.