- By Hugh Tomlinson
Indian and US warships have held joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean in a show of unity prompted by mounting Chinese aggression throughout the region.
A carrier group led by the USS Nimitz, the largest vessel in the US navy, passed through the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean on Saturday. There they linked up with Indian destroyers and submarines off the coast of the Andaman and Nicobar islands for a series of war games on Monday.
The two countries have held regular joint naval exercises for more than a decade but the latest round has assumed greater significance amid growing concerns over China’s political and military ambitions in the South China Sea and the greater Indo Pacific region.
- Hannah Moore
Chinese troops are still encamped on Indian soil in Ladakh, high in the Himalayas, after clashes along the border last month that left 20 Indian soldiers dead, the most serious such incident between the rival nuclear powers for 45 years. China got the better of India in a brief, month-long war fought from October 20 to November 21, 1962 over the disputed Himalayan border. Indian and Chinese military officers are in talks to defuse the crisis but it has prompted a trade boycott of Chinese technology and goods by India, and allowed Washington to step up its efforts to draw New Delhi closer into an alliance against Beijing. The US has urged India for years to become a closer military partner and a bulwark against Chinese expansion.
Despite forging closer military ties with the US, Delhi has maintained a strategic neutrality between the two sides until now. The pressure has increased under the Trump administration, however, and the recent violence, prompting a surge of anti-China sentiment throughout India, has raised US hopes that Delhi is now leaning towards a closer alliance with the West.
Michael Kugelman, at the Wilson Centre in Washington, said: “There’s certainly a realisation that the Ladakh crisis gives India a powerful incentive to shed its inhibitions about antagonising China and to move closer to the US. But there’s also a realisation that Delhi won’t easily jettison a strategic autonomy policy that has come to replace non-alignment.
“The realistic expectation should be that India will move closer to the US, and it will pursue even deeper security co-operation, but it won’t be willing just yet to become a full-fledged ally.”
In a further sign that hostilities with China have prompted a strategic rethink in Delhi, India is expected to invite Australia to join its annual naval exercises with the US and Japan. The move will strengthen the Quad, an alliance of Indo-Pacific powers that has formed to counter China’s rising sea power. India had blocked Australia’s participation in the exercises for years, viewing it as too provocative towards Beijing, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have had a change of heart. Mr Modi signed a significant defence agreement with Scott Morrison last month, allowing troops from the two countries to use each other’s military bases.
India has responded to the fighting in Ladakh by banning scores of Chinese mobile phone apps, including TikTok. The violence has provoked a nationalist frenzy across the country, with Bollywood stars and business figures joining calls for a boycott of Chinese goods. Like Britain, Delhi is also expected to bow to US pressure and bar the Chinese tech giant Huawei from building its 5G wireless network. Washington accuses Huawei of assisting in cyberespionage for the Chinese state, a charge the company denies.
The Nimitz, alongside the USS Ronald Reagan, was part of a large US naval deployment that recently concluded a mission in the South China Sea. The freedom of navigation exercise was billed as a show of strength and support for America’s allies in a region where China has been aggressively asserting its territorial claims.
In recent weeks Chinese ships have sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat and harassed Malaysian oil exploration vessels in the South China Sea.
With the controversial new security law stripping Hong Kong of its remaining autonomy, China has again laid claim to Taiwan.
India, like the US, has become increasingly alarmed at China’s military expansion throughout the Indian Ocean. Beijing has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, with a second expected to follow at the Pakistani port of Gwadar, close to the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway at the mouth of the Gulf. In 2018 China acquired a port in Sri Lanka, off India’s southern coast, and has courted India’s neighbours throughout the region, leaving Delhi’s influence in its own backyard looking increasingly fragile.