New Delhi, 4 September About two dozen ships from five nations, led by the US, began their most ambitious exercises in the Bay of Bengal on Tuesday, as Indian communists opposed to strategic ties with Washington launched protests.
The naval drill, called the “Malabar Exercise”, is the seventh involving aircraft carriers, submarines and fighter jets of India and the US, whose friendship has blossomed this decade after they were on opposite sides of the Cold War.
This year, the exercises have been expanded to include a few ships from Australia, Japan and Singapore in what some analysts see as a new alliance of democracies ranged against the growing military might of China.
“The basic aim is to learn from each other and gain from each others’ expertise,” a top Indian defence official said. “By including more countries this time we are saving on costs and time as we won’t need separate exercises with each country.”
“If this sends a message to China in the process, why not?” said the official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
Although top officials from countries involved in the wargames have publicly assured Beijing that it is not the focus of the exercise, China remains concerned by what it sees as a new security alliance that aims to encircle it.
The drill coincides with a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in Sydney this week and a trilateral security dialogue on its sidelines between US President George W. Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Japanese premier Shinzo Abe.
The exercises have angered communist parties who shore up Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition, already threatened by the opposition of the left to a landmark nuclear energy deal with the US.
The communists say the nuclear deal and the wargames are part of an American strategy to subvert India’s foreign and security policies and draw it into Washington’s sphere of influence.
They have announced protest rallies that will converge on the port city of Visakhapatnam, headquarters of the eastern command of the Indian Navy, at the end of the week.
On Tuesday, thousands of communist supporters gathered in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata as two buses carrying protesters were flagged off to Visakhapatnam.
Some carried placards that read “American Imperialists Go Back” and “Down With USS Kitty Hawk”, referring to one of the two US aircraft carriers participating in the wargames.
“This is an extremely important battle, not only against America but also against the central government in New Delhi, which is handing over our country to imperialist forces,” veteran communist leader Jyoti Basu told the rally.
The communists, who also protested against a port call by US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Nimitz in July, were unnecessarily muddying the waters, said C. Uday Bhaskar, a former Indian navy officer and an independent analyst.
“India’s pedigree is such that it is nobody’s poodle and it has always prided its autonomy, at times in a rather prickly manner,” he wrote in the Times of India daily on the eve of the naval exercises.
Even “Beijing is well aware of this Indian trait”, he said. (Additional reporting by Bappa Majumdar in Kolkata) REUTERS