New Delhi: India is set to take part in joint naval exercises with Japan and the United States in the Indian Ocean in October, military and diplomatic sources said, a drill that so riled China eight years ago that Delhi has not since hosted such a multilateral wargame.
The Indian Ocean has emerged as a new arena of competition between China making inroads and India trying to recover its position as the dominant maritime power in the region.
New Delhi's decision to expand the "Malabar" exercises that it conducts with the United States each year to include Japan suggests a tightening of military relations between three major maritime powers in Asia, analysts said.
Military officials from India, the US and Japan are meeting at a US navy base in Yokosuka, near Tokyo, on Wednesday and Thursday to plan the exercises, a navy and a diplomatic source in New Delhi said.
A Japanese government official in Tokyo confirmed the meeting and said representatives from the three navies were discussing Tokyo's participation in the wargames. He declined to be identified.
The officials will decide the type of warships and planes the navies will deploy for the exercises in the Bay of Bengal in the northeastern Indian Ocean, said one of the sources familiar with the initial planning.
India and the United States have fielded aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in previous bilateral exercises.
An Indian defence ministry official declined any comment on Malabar 2015, saying announcements will only be made closer to the event. A spokesman for Japan's Maritime Self Defense Force said no decision had yet been taken on Japan's participation.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's inclusion of Japan was part of a trending pattern of forging close ties with the US and its allies, according to Jeff Smith, a South Asia specialist at the American Foreign Policy Council.
"I'd view aircraft carrier participation in this year's drill as yet another signal from the Modi government that it was shedding the (previous) government's anxiety about a more overt balancing posture toward China and a more robust strategic embrace of the U.S. and Japan," Smith said.
India last hosted a multilateral exercise in 2007 when it invited Japan, Australia and Singapore to join its drills with the U.S. navy in the Bay of Bengal.
At the time, Beijing activated diplomatic channels seeking an explanation from the participating nations, said Gurpreet Khurana, Indian navy captain and executive director of the government-funded Maritime Foundation of India.
"Modi's Delhi is no longer willing to give Beijing a veto over its defence partnerships," said C. Raja Mohan, a top Indian foreign policy expert who has just published a book: "Modi's World: Expanding India's Sphere of Influence."
The Indian Ocean has become the new global centre of trade and energy flows, accounting for half the world's container traffic and 70 percent of its petroleum shipments.
© Thomson Reuters 2015