NEW DELHI: India is flexing its maritime muscles to counter growing Chinese influence, conducting sea trials on its first indigenous aircraft carrier and dispatching a task force for joint exercises with the United States and other allies.

The INS Vikrant, which began trials off the southern state of Kerala on Wednesday, will be India’s second aircraft carrier in operation.

The Indian Navy said the country can now “join a select group of nations with the capability to indigenously design and build an Aircraft Carrier, which will be a real testimony to the ‘Make in India’ thrust of the Indian Government.” The new 262-metre (860-foot) carrier joins the INS Vikramaditya, the Soviet-made Admiral Gorshkov that India bought in 2004.

The navy said 44 other ships and submarines were being built indigenously.

It is also pressing the government for a third carrier, with Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh saying the force could not remain “tethered”.

China, vying for influence in the Indian Ocean where New Delhi has traditionally held sway, is currently building its third aircraft carrier.

The Indian Navy said separately that it was sending a task force of four ships to South East Asia, the South China Sea and Western Pacific for two months of exercises including with Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and the United States.

The deployment “seeks to underscore the operational reach, peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly countries towards ensuring good order in the maritime domain and to strengthen existing bonds between India and countries of the Indo Pacific,” it said.

India, Japan, Australia and the US together form the “Quad” alliance seen as a bulwark against China.

Last year, 20 Indian troops died in a clash on their disputed Himalayan border with China.

This year, India has also conducted naval exercises with France and most recently with a British task force in the Bay of Bengal last month led by the new HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier.

This week, broadcaster Al Jazeera reported that India may be building a naval facility in the Mauritius archipelago, citing satellite imagery, financial data and on-the-ground evidence.

Mauritius on Wednesday said that although work was underway on an air strip and a jetty on the island of Agalega, they would not be used for military purposes.

The Indian foreign ministry declined to comment.

Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2021

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