US woos India for fleet maneuvers near South China Sea

Indian Navy frigate INS Sahyadri visiting Pearl Harbor, Hawaii during RIMPAC 2014 exercises © U.S. Navy
Indian ships will join the US and Japanese navies in massive exercises off the coast of the Philippines later this year, in a move widely seen to be aimed against Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea.

Admiral Harry B. Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, made the announcement Wednesday at the Raisina Dialogue conference in New Delhi. The exercise, called RIMPAC 2016, is scheduled to take place between June 1 and August 1.

Harris also urged India to expand the trilateral “security dialogue” with Japan and Australia about naval cooperation in the Indian and Pacific oceans, to include the United States.

“An idea to consider is perhaps expanding this trilateral to a quadrilateral venue between India-Japan-Australia and the United States,” Harris told the audience gathered at the annual global affairs conference organized by the Indian foreign ministry.

“While some countries seek to bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion, I note with admiration India's example of peaceful resolution of disputes with your neighbors in the waters of the Indian Ocean,” Harris said, according to India Today.

“India, indeed, stands like a beacon on a hill, building a future on the power of ideas – not on castles of sand that threaten the rules-based architecture that has served us all so very well.”

The last remark has been widely interpreted as referring to China, which has built up a number of islands in the Spratly archipelago and asserted sovereignty over that area of the South China Sea also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Beijing reacted by cautioning against regional cooperation aimed against any country in particular.

"We have no objection to relevant countries' normal cooperation, but we believe that relevant cooperation should not be targeted against a third party," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei.

Washington has pushed for including India into its “pivot to Asia” strategy, arranging for joint naval maneuvers with the Indian and Japanese navies in the Bay of Bengal last year. Last month, US officials were in Delhi to negotiate the possible use of US launching technology aboard India’s home-built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, expected to enter service in 2018.

The Indian Navy’s current flagship is the INS Vikramaditya, a refurbished Soviet-built carrier that was known as Admiral Gorshkov before it was decommissioned in 1996. India bought the ship from Russia in 2004, and finished the refit in 2013.