US & India mull over 'joint patrols' in South China Sea — report

© U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Declan Barnes
Washington and New Delhi reportedly discussed plans to conduct joint naval patrols that could include the South China Sea, where Beijing has built several islands in the Spratly archipelago amid protests and territorial claims by neighboring countries.

A US defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said in an exclusive interview with Reuters that India (which has a long-running land border dispute with China) and Washington had thoroughly discussed joint patrols, adding that they hoped to launch them within the year. The patrols would likely be in the Indian Ocean, where the Indian Navy is a major player, as well as the South China Sea, the official told Reuters.

Delhi and Washington have recently boosted military ties, holding naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, which involved the Japanese navy last year. The Indian Navy has never carried out joint patrols with another country, however. A naval spokesman told Reuters there was no change in the government's policy of only joining an international military effort under the United Nations flag.

India has recently stepped up its naval presence far beyond the Indian Ocean, deploying a ship to the South China Sea almost all the time, an Indian navy commander told Reuters, noting this wasn't the practice just a few years ago. The commander added that the largest number of Indian naval ship visits in the South China Sea region was to Vietnam, which also lays claim to the area.

The issue of joint patrols also came up in December, when Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar visited the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, an Indian government source told Reuters.

"It was a broad discussion, it was about the potential for joint patrols," the source, who declined to be identified, said.

Last year US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi also agreed to "identify specific areas for expanding maritime cooperation" when Obama visited New Delhi.

READ MORE: China seeks investment to develop disputed South China Sea islands, launch regular flights

The South China Sea is believed to have massive deposits of oil and gas. Around $5 trillion of shipping trade passes through the area per year. China claims almost the entire South China Sea. Accusing Beijing of using the islands only to ensure Chinese control over the area, Washington has been trying to make its regional allies take a more united stance against China. It says China’s actions pose a threat to freedom of navigation in the region and denies Beijing’s sovereignty over the islands.

The Spratly Isles lie off the coastlines of Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and China, with all claimants having their national names for the islands. They comprise over 750 reefs, atolls and islands, and lie at the heart of economically important shipping lanes in the South China Sea. The archipelago boasts rich fishing grounds, among other things.

Chinese officials have long insisted the new islands would be mostly for civilian use, however, such as coast guard operations and fishing research.

Earlier this month China accused Washington of seeking maritime hegemony in the name of freedom of navigation after a US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of a disputed island in the Paracel chain of the South China Sea in late January. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called the sail-by illegal, saying permission from the Chinese authorities was necessary.

The US Navy conducted a similar operation in October, when it sent the guided missile destroyer Lassen to sail pass a man-made Island in the South China Sea.

In December, Singapore allowed US P-8 Poseidon spy aircraft to use its territory for reconnaissance flights over the South China Sea.