NEW DELHI: Two Indian naval ships joined their counterparts from the US, Japan, and The Philippines for a “Group Sail" exercise through the contested waters of the South China Sea, underlining India’s commitment to working with partners to ensure safe and open sea lanes, the Indian Navy said in a statement on Thursday.
Incidentally, the two ships –INS Kolkata and Shakti -- that participated in the “Group Sail" were the same vessels that took part in the International Fleet Review in China’s port city of Qingdao as part of the 70th anniversary celebrations of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (Navy), the Indian Navy statement said. The two ships then sailed to Busan in South Korea where they represented India in the Maritime Security (MS) Field Training Exercise before sailing back home, it said.
The exercise comes at a time when India has been warily looking at increased Chinese activity in the northern Indian Ocean, traditionally seen as India’s backyard. The presence of Chinese ships and submarines has been on the rise.
In 2017, China opened its first overseas military facility in Djibouti and has also been investing heavily in infrastructure along Africa’s eastern coast – in Tanzania and Kenya – as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A recent Pentagon report noted that as China goes ahead with the BRI, the project would “probably drive military overseas basing through a perceived need to provide security" for these projects.
Though India has joined hands with the US, Japan, and Australia for talks on “a free and open Indo-Pacific region," New Delhi has been seen as unwilling to formally forge an alliance with these countries to counterbalance China.
According to analysts, “much should not be read into this ‘Group Sail’" through the South China Sea, large parts of which are claimed by China and its neighbours like The Philippines.
Abhijit Singh, who heads the Maritime Policy Initiative at the New Delhi based Observer Research Foundation think tank was of the view that the sail through the South China Sea was a “‘professional interaction’ in safe waters, and no challenge to China."
“A combined PASSEX (passage exercise) is really no substitute for sustained, high-end joint exercises" which conveys “strategic intent," he said.
According to the Indian navy, the “six-day long Group Sail had participation of six combatants from the four participating countries and included the Guided Missile Destroyer INS Kolkata and Fleet Support Ship INS Shakti of India, Helicopter Carrier JMSDF (Japan Maritime Self Defence Force) Izumo and Guided Missile Destroyer JMSDF Murasame of Japan; Frigate BRP Andres Bonifacio of Philippines and Arleigh Burke Class Destroyer USS Williams P Lawrence of USA.
The Group Sail was aimed at deepening existing partnership and foster mutual understanding among participating navies, the Indian Navy said.