NEW DELHI, March 12 (UPI) -- India, Japan and the United States are to hold joint naval exercises in the Pacific Ocean, a marked increase in the range and extent of India's fast-changing strategic re-alignment toward the West.
The exercises are to be held around Japan's Yokosuka naval base on April 16, following a 4-day goodwill visit to Japanese ports by the Indian navy. The exercises, for which Japan will contribute a destroyer squadron and helicopters, are to focus on rescue operations, including training to cope with a future tsunami, and intelligence cooperation, to include code-breaking.
This gives the event rather more military significance than the usual joint naval exercises, which mainly focus on communications, maneuvering and trans-shipment between vessels. It also represents a major advance on the other joint exercises that Indian and Japanese ships have staged, which have been limited to coast guard maritime search and rescue and anti-piracy exercises since the year 2000.
"It will be a very large exercise," Japan's ambassador to India Yasukuni Enoki told reporters in Delhi. "Maritime security of the Indian Ocean and security of the line of communication, particularly with oil...crude oil transport, is very much in the area of common interest of Asian countries."
"It is quite new, for example, to hold friendship joint exercises between Japanese vital defense vessels on their way back from the Arabian Sea. As you know, Japan is now deploying some vessels for logistical purposes in other countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. for their peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan," he said in an interview with the daily Asian Age.
Determinedly neutral throughout the Cold War, with a strong tilt toward the Soviet Union on which it relied for advanced weapons, India has since embraced a strategic partnership with the U.S. This partnership is now broadening to include Japan, whose new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is scheduled to visit India this summer, in what Indian officials agree privately is an insurance against the rise of China.
At the same time, India is intensifying its military links with Israel, seen in Delhi not only as an important source of high-tech weaponry but also as a fellow victim of Islamic extremism. India has now bought a total of $5 billion worth of Israeli arms, and army chief of staff Gen. JJ Singh is currently in Israel on a goodwill visit. His arrival followed in the footsteps of Air Chief Marshal SP Tyagi, Defense Secretary Shekhar Dutt and the head of India's defense research and development organization, NM Natajaran.
Gen. Singh's visit coincides with the deployment by India's armed forces of Israeli drones for military reconnaissance, Israeli air defense missile systems and other equipment including thermal imaging and night vision devices. Detailed discussions on the modernization of 300 Soviet-built T-72 tanks with Israeli long-range observation systems and thermal gun sights are also under way.
The most important Indian purchase from Israel is the Phalcon airborne warning and control system, for which special U.S. permission was required. Israel had originally sought to sell the Phalcon system to China, but the sale was vetoed by Washington. The Phalcon, a highly sophisticated aircraft carrying long distance radars, jamming equipment and communications links, allows the airborne control of the airspace battlefield over far wider distances than any ground-based system. Its possession puts India into a special club of advanced military powers.
Although India is keen to maintain friendly links and to encourage trade with China, and has staged low-key joint naval exercises with Chinese ships, Indian officials were sobered by last Sunday's announcement from Beijing that China would boost military spending by 17.8 percent in 2007 to 350.92 billion yuan ($45 billion) -- the largest increase in a decade of double-digit growth in the annual defense budget. China's 2.3 million-strong military is the world's largest.
India is most concerned by China's naval penetration into its own waters. Late this month sees the formal opening of the new deep-sea port at Gwadar, close to the Iranian border on the Baluchistan coast of Pakistan. China designed and built the port (and saw some of its construction team killed by Baluchi rebels) and will enjoy naval facilities there, close to the mouth of the Persian Gulf on India's western flank.
Meanwhile on India's eastern flank, China has long maintained a small base and an electronic listening post on the Cocos Islands in the Bay of Bengal, and has also proposed building a Gwadar-style port in Myanmar to join a new railroad from Kunming in China via Sitwe to the Myanmar coast. China has also proposed similar facilities to Bangladesh, improving the current Mongla port and building a new deep-sea port and naval base at Kutupia.
At the Pentagon, U.S. naval officials call this planned series of Chinese naval bases through the Indian Ocean "the string of pearls," and assume that they are intended to safeguard China's essential but strategically vulnerable oil transport links from the Persian Gulf.
For India, China's planned naval bases look uncomfortably like encirclement. But China may also suspect that it is being encircled by this strategic alignment of the U.S., India and Japan. So far, all four countries are determined to maintain good relations and not to let these preliminary strategic maneuvers get in the way of their booming trade relations. But a new strategic landscape, fraught with potential tension, is visibly emerging in both the Asia-Pacific and in the Indian Ocean.
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