Drill with Vietnam to test China waters

New Delhi, June 6: Four Indian warships anchored in Da Nang will sail out of the Tien Sa port for a rescue drill with the Vietnamese navy in waters that China contests, about the same time that defence minister A.K. Antony lands in New Delhi tonight after a three-nation Asia-Pacific tour.

INS Ranvijay entering Tien Sa Port in the central city of Da Nang
INS Ranvijay entering Tien Sa Port in the central city of Da Nang

The warships from the Indian Navy’s eastern fleet headquartered in Visakhapatnam sailed for an annual overseas deployment on May 30, just after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s India visit that followed a tense three-week standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies in Ladakh’s Daulat Beg Oldi.

The Tien Sa port in Da Nang where the fleet commanded by Rear Admiral P. Ajith Kumar is now anchored is at the point where the Han river flows into the South China Sea — or as the Vietnamese call it — the East Sea.

A little less than two years ago, the Indian Navy’s assault ship, the INS Airavat, was sailing from one Vietnamese port to another in those waters when it was buzzed by what was later reported to be the Chinese navy. It was warned that it was in Chinese waters.

Now with another, more potent, Indian naval presence at roughly the same place, the defence establishment in New Delhi is listening intently for echoes of that buzz.

The Indian flotilla comprises the INS Satpura, home-made “stealth frigate”, the INS Ranvijay (destroyer), the INS Kirch (missile corvette) and the INS Shakti (logistics vessel). The flotilla is also due to sail for Manila in the Philippines the day after tomorrow. The Philippines also contests the claim of China over those waters.

The sensitivities are particularly heightened after the Raki Nala “tent war” that observers in Japan noted had coincided with Chinese assertiveness over claims on the Senkaku Islands. The Indian naval presence in those waters, therefore, is a demonstration of both reach and a show of power.

But Antony has been emphasising during his tour of Singapore, Australia (the first by an Indian defence minister) and Thailand that India was not making any statement of intent.

“We support freedom of navigation in international waters and security of sea lanes of communication,” he said in Bangkok today — as he had said in Singapore, Perth and Canberra — his last stop before taking off for New Delhi.

“We support the resolution of differences and disputes through the process of dialogue and consensus between the parties to such disputes. All countries must exercise restraint and resolve issues diplomatically, according to the principles of international law,” he said. Antony’s visit to Bangkok has coincided with a meeting of representatives of China and ASEAN countries on evolving a code of conduct (CoC) to resolve disputes in international waters.

The placatory statements have other resonances too because of the timing and destinations that the defence minister has covered on this tour. Singapore, Thailand and Australia are among the US’s greatest allies in the region.

In Perth, where Australian defence minister Stephen Smith made a case for greater military-to-military ties with India, Antony said New Delhi and Canberra would make efforts for a major naval exercise in the Indian Ocean region in 2015.

In Singapore, Antony watched over the signing of the five-year extension of a treaty to give military training facilities to the Singaporean army and air force. The treaty is unique to Singapore that does not have adequate space required for military training. Singapore also pays for the use of Indian facilities such as the airfield in Kalaikunda, Bengal.

En route to the South China Sea, the flotilla of Indian warships also held “Simbex”, an exercise with the Singaporean navy.

In Bangkok today, Antony invited Thai teams to visit Indian defence production facilities and offered to export or set up plants if Thailand so desired. All three countries — Thailand, Singapore and Australia — use US-made military equipment and host US military bases through far-reaching agreements that the US has offered to India but New Delhi has so far been cagey of signing.

Australia has specifically pointed out that the Indian Air Force was also now using US-made platforms like the C-130J special forces transport aircraft and the commonality of equipment would allow for intensive training. Antony has so far refused to commit.

Antony’s stopover in Bangkok has also come in the week after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s halt on his return from a visit to Japan that followed Premier Li Keqiang’s Delhi trip. In Japan, the Prime Minister’s talks focused on strategic and military relations and an exchange of notes on the dispute over the Senkaku Islands that China claims.

Antony landed in Singapore on his first stop a day after the Shangrila Dialogue, an annual event hosted by the Institute of Strategic Studies, London, that was attended by most Asian defence ministers (including China’s). India was represented by the chief of naval staff, Admiral D.K. Joshi.

But by taking-in Singapore, Australia and Thailand, three US allies in the Asia-Pacific, on a single tour, India’s defence minister has signalled that New Delhi wanted to beef-up military relations with each of these countries bilaterally but stay away from what might look like alliance-making to China.

Telegraph India