NEW DELHI, —The U.S., India and Japan will conduct joint naval exercises in the northern waters of the Philippine Sea, an area close to the East and South China Seas where Beijing is locked in an increasingly tense standoff with Washington.
The maneuvers are part of an annual event between the U.S. and Indian navies that, since 2014, has expanded to include Japan, signaling closer cooperation between the three countries that share concern about China’s military ambitions.
Dates for the exercises haven’t been disclosed.
U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris announced the location of this year’s exercises—called Malabar—at a conference in New Delhi Wednesday. The Indian navy said Japan would participate, but declined to confirm where the event would occur.
The U.S. has in recent months ratcheted up its warnings over what it calls China’s growing “militarization” of the South China Sea, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with a number of countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines. U.S. warships and aircraft have undertaken a series of operations in the region to challenge Beijing’s moves and U.S. officials are seeking to stitch Asian military powers into closer collaboration.
In recent statements, U.S. officials have prodded India to join its security operations, including patrols, that New Delhi has so far been reluctant to undertake. Adm. Harris said that, “on the security front, we need India’s leadership in the Indo-Asia-Pacific.”
In a veiled reference to efforts aimed at countering China’s activities, Adm. Harris proposed a four-way security dialogue including India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. to “amplify the message that we are united behind the international rules-based order,” adding, “No nation should perceive freedom of navigation operations as a threat.”
“We are ready for you,” Adm. Harris said, referring to India. “We need you.”
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken a measured approach, advancing defense and strategic cooperation with the U.S. while avoiding steps that could provoke a reaction from Beijing, a neighbor with which India is engaged in long-standing territorial disputes and has fought a war.
India and the U.S. unveiled a “joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region” in January 2015 to ensure "freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.” India also launched a trilateral dialogue with Japan and Australia last year.
U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Verma last month said he hoped U.S. and Indian navy vessels would soon be “steaming together” in Indo-Pacific waters. But India has so far stayed away from a formal security alliance or joint patrols with the U.S.
Both sides have denied they are in talks for such patrols in the South China Sea.
An editorial late-February in China’s English-language daily newspaper, Global Times, denounced U.S. efforts it said were aimed at “drawing countries outside the region, such as India, Japan, South Korea and Australia” into disputes there.
Another editorial in the same newspaper warned that if India conducted joint patrols with the U.S., "it will do nothing but showing its hostility against Beijing and devastate their strategic mutual trust, which will also compel the Chinese government to adopt changes in its India policy.”
The Naval ships from India, Australia, Japan, Singapore, and the United States steam in formation in the Bay of Bengal during Exercise Malabar 07-2 on Sept. 5. Exercise Malabar is a trilateral naval exercise involving the United States, Japan, India as permanent partners. Originally only a bilateral exercise between India and the U.S., Japan became a permanent partner of the exercise in 2015. Past non-permanent participants are Australia and Singapore. The annual Malabar series began in 1992, and includes diverse activities, ranging from fighter combat operations from aircraft carriers, through Maritime Interdiction Operations Exercises.