NEW DELHI: The United States and India have held talks about conducting joint naval patrols that a US defence official said could include the disputed South China Sea, a move that would likely anger Beijing, which claims most of the waterway.
- US official: India and US discuss joint naval patrols in South China Sea
- Indian Navy denies reports of joint patrols with the US
- China claims control of South China Sea. Has built 7 man-made islands
Washington wants its regional allies and other Asian nations to take a more united stance against China over the South China Sea, where tensions have spiked in the wake of Beijing's construction of seven man-made islands.
But the Indian navy has never carried out joint patrols with another country and a naval spokesman told Reuters there was no change in the government's policy of only joining an international military effort under the United Nations flag.
He pointed to India's refusal to be part of anti-piracy missions involving dozens of countries in the Gulf of Aden and instead carrying out its own operations there since 2008.
The US defence official said the two sides had discussed joint patrols, adding that both were hopeful of launching them within the year. The patrols would likely be in the Indian Ocean where the Indian navy is a major player as well as the South China Sea, the official told Reuters in New Delhi on condition of anonymity.
The official gave no details on the scale of the proposed patrols.
There was no immediate comment from China, which is on a week-long holiday for Chinese New Year.
Neither India nor the United States has claims to the South China Sea, but both said they backed freedom of navigation and overflight in the waterway when US President Barack Obama visited New Delhi in January 2015.
Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi also agreed at the time to "identify specific areas for expanding maritime cooperation".
More than $5 trillion in world trade moves through the South China Sea each year.
In December, the issue of joint patrols came up when Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar visited the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, an Indian government source said.
"It was a broad discussion, it was about the potential for joint patrols," said the source, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
India has stepped up its naval presence far beyond the Indian Ocean, deploying a ship to the South China Sea almost constantly, an Indian navy commander said, noting this wasn't the practice a few years ago.
Still, the idea of joining the United States in patrols in the region was a long shot, the officer added.
© Thomson Reuters 2016