India-Australia drills targeting submarines seen rattling China
India and Australia will focus on anti-submarine warfare in their first ever joint naval exercises, signaling a growing strategic relationship to counter China's increased activity in the Indian Ocean.
The war games starting Sept. 11 off India's Visakhapatnam port in the Bay of Bengal will include exercises to protect a tanker from a hostile attack submarine. The area is near waters where China deployed a nuclear-powered submarine for the first time last year, as well as the Sri Lankan port where another unit surfaced twice. That caused a diplomatic uproar.
There's the "potential for increased security tensions in the Indian Ocean," said Captain Sheldon Williams, defense adviser at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi. "We sit right in the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. We have a significant responsibility for its security. That's how we're looking at it now."
The drills -- first discussed a decade ago -- come as global powers vie for greater influence. The Indian Ocean's sea lanes account for nearly half of the world's container trade, including 80 percent of China's oil imports.
"We're seeing a genuine power play in the Indian Ocean," said Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University in Canberra. "Indian security cooperation with the U.S. and its allies is increasing, which rattles the Chinese."
Australia is dispatching Lockheed Martin's P-3 anti- submarine reconnaissance aircraft, a Collins submarine, tanker and frigates, Williams said. Among assets India will deploy are Boeing's P-8 long-range anti-submarine aircraft and a locally manufactured Corvette, said navy spokesman Captain DK Sharma.
A month later in the same waters, India and the United States will conduct drills that U.S. Ambassador Richard Verma described as the most complex yet between the two nations. Japan has been invited to join.
China made strides into a region India considers its traditional sphere of influence, building ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and an oil pipeline to Myanmar's coast. President Xi Jinping has also lobbied the Maldives, Seychelles and Sri Lanka to join a maritime version of his Silk Road trade rejuvenation project.
Most alarming for India, though, has been China's deployment of submarines near its shores. A nuclear-powered submarine patrolled the Gulf of Aden on a two-month anti-piracy mission last year, according to Indian media reports citing an advisory from China's Foreign Ministry to India's embassy in Beijing.
A Chinese submarine also popped up in Sri Lanka's Colombo port for "replenishment purposes" in September and November. India says another Chinese submarine docked in May and July in Pakistan.
Those moves are prodding Prime Minister Narendra Modi to align India more closely with the U.S. and a "rules-based" approach for maritime security. That order's threatened by China's attempts to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea with the construction of artificial islands and runways.
While Australia doesn't take sides in the South China Sea dispute, it's concerned about China's land-reclamation activities, Williams said. "Certainly, the tension that that causes is not good for anyone, particularly the potential militarization of those areas," he said.
China doesn't appear to be backing off. Beijing's leaders want to complete a free-trade deal with Sri Lanka by year's end and announced more than $350 million in aid money last month.
"India alone cannot assure the security of the Indian Ocean, even if it regards the Indian Ocean as its backyard," the China Daily said in an editorial. "If the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate China and the U.S., so is the Indian Ocean to accommodate India and China."
Article Published in Chicago Tribune