The Indo-US joint naval exercise in the Indian Ocean region and an invitation to Australia to join the maritime drill come as an unmistakable signal to China whose increasing belligerence has evoked consternation in the region. Beijing has been wary of the Quadrilateral security dialogue or Quad that was revived in late 2017 by India, the US, Australia and Japan, and these suspicions have increased since the four countries upgraded the forum to the ministerial level last year. The ongoing Malabar military exercise, involving a total of eight Indian and US warships, assumes significance against the backdrop of the India-China border standoff in Ladakh that resulted in casualties on both sides. While the two sides are engaged in a delicate and prolonged process of disengagement on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), New Delhi has been sending unambiguous message through decisions like ban on Chinese mobile apps and import of power equipment that Beijing cannot get away with blatant incursions. The Indian Navy has increased its surveillance missions and beefed up operational deployment in the Indian Ocean region with increased cooperation from the US and Japan in view of the fast evolving regional security landscape. Navies from the US, India, Australia, Japan and France have been deepening their mutual cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region following China’s growing attempts to expand military influence in the resource-rich region. The US, on its part, has been pushing for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific, which is seen by many countries as an effort to contain China’s growing clout in the region.
Given the increasing brazenness of China’s territorial ambitions, India needs to increase its naval operational reach in the Indian Ocean region. It has already signed reciprocal military logistics agreements with countries like the US, France, South Korea, Singapore and Australia. The Indo-Pacific is increasingly becoming a geostrategic focal point for China and India, as both countries engage in a growing competition. While China has aimed to secure access to strategic ports to gain an economic and strategic advantage, India’s role in the region is increasingly seen as a protector of the international order set up by the United States in the region, particularly as it pertains to maintaining open sea lanes and the freedom of navigation. As India looks to counter growing Chinese influence, it must focus on its naval power. In addition to its cooperation with democratic allies and neighbours in the region, it should increase investment in its navy. In particular, completing construction of new aircraft carriers and attack submarines, modernising India’s naval assets and improving its maritime domain awareness capabilities will ensure that India has a modern navy that can counter growing Chinese influence in the region.
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