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WASHINGTON: The United States hailed India as a “natural partner” as it laun­ched joint naval exercises with India and Japan in the Indian Ocean a few days ago.

The at-sea portions of the weeklong naval exercises will begin on Monday (today) and are seen in Washington as the demonstration of a joint will to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean.

“As members of Indo-Asia-Pacific nations, our maritime forces are natural partners, and we look forward to continuing to strengthen our bonds and personal relationships,” the US Navy said in a statement issued in Washington.

The US Navy noted that Indian, Japanese and US maritime forces had a common understanding and knowledge of a shared working environment at sea. “Each iteration of this exercise helps to advance the level of understanding between our sailors, and we hope to be able to continue this process over time.”

The Indian media reported that Chinese warships would also be present in the Indian Ocean during the exercises, which feature both onshore and at-sea training.

A US military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, said that China had been critical of the annual exercise. The government-affiliated Global Times published an editorial in December saying Malabar’s purpose “is to target China’s submarine activities in the East and South China seas”.

The editorial noted that the US and Indian navies operated variations of the P-8 Poseidon, a military aircraft that conducted antisubmarine and antisurface warfare and shipping interdiction.

“The Chinese government has also questioned the purpose of deploying the Izumo, which spent time in the South China Sea before heading to India, implying Japan is using the vessel to provoke China,” the report added. Izumo carries up to nine helicopters and conducts some flight operations similar to an amphibious assault ship.

The drill is divided into onshore and at-sea segments.

The ground segment began in Chennai on July 7 and included professional exchanges on carrier strike group operations, maritime patrol and reconnaissance operations, surface and antisubmarine warfare, damage control, explosive ordnance disposal and helicopter operations, the US Navy reported.

The at-sea portions will begin on Monday in the Bay of Bengal and “are designed to advance participating nations’ military-to-military coordination and capacity to plan and execute tactical operations in a multinational environment”, the US Navy added.

The at-sea portions include submarine familiarisation; high-value unit defence; air defence exercises; medical evacuation drills; surface warfare exercises; communications exercises; search and rescue exercises; helicopter cross-deck evolutions; underway replenishments; gunnery exercises; and antisubmarine warfare.

The US navy has sent the world’s largest aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz, to the drill. The Indian Navy’s solitary aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya is also among the 20-odd warships taking part in the exercise. Japan has sent an Izumo-class helicopter carrier.

Other Indian warships taking part in the exercises include two Shivalik-class stealth frigates, two Ranvir-class destroyers, a Kamorta-class antisubmarine warfare corvette, a tanker and a submarine.

The US contingent includes about 6,500 sailors and 700 sailors from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force are also participating. India has not disclosed the number of sailors participating in these exercises but they outnumber both the United States and Japan.

Malabar 2017 is the latest in a series of yearly exercises that have grown in scope and complexity in recent years to confront potential threats in the Indo-Asian maritime theatre.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2017