Asia-Pacific, Headlines

SOUTH ASIA: India Flexes its Naval Muscle to Impress

Rahul Bedi

NEW DELHI, Apr 16 1996 (IPS) - India is using its large navy to extend its influence overseas through joint naval manoeuvres with several countries including the United States, Singapore and United Arab Emirates over the past 10 months.

The Indian Navy is also stepping up goodwill visits to foreign ports in a bid to market Indian ships and revive its dockyards, falling into disrepair due to declining orders.

Since last year, India’s ships have visited nearly 20 countries including China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan.

Naval officials said there was potential for India to sell medium-sized ships like Khukri-class corvettes to developing countries looking for cheaper vessels.

They said the Philippines had shown interest in the Khukri class corvettes and a Filipino delegation was soon expected in India for further talks.

“Warship building is one of the areas where India can compete internationally without compromising on technology,” said Admiral Vijai Singh Shekhawat, chief of naval staff recently.

The Indian Navy, meanwhile, completed the third round of exercises with the United States Navy (USN) off the western Malabar coast in the Arabian Sea at the end of March.

Naval officials from both sides said the two-day exercise, code-named Malabar III, aimed at closer defence co-operation between the two countries was “useful” and the two navies worked well together.

India was represented by one submarine, two surface combatants and one Soviet Tu-142, maritime reconnaissance aircraft. The United States fielded one Sturgeon class nuclear submarine, two surface combatants and one P-3C Orion reconnaissance aircraft.

Bilateral naval exchanges between India and the United States have been growing over the past three years under the Kickleighter Proposals for greater strategic co-operation between the two military’s through high-level exchanges, periodic policy reviews and reciprocal visits by senior commanders.

The five-year old Proposals named after General Claude Kickleighter, former commander of the US Pacific forces, aim to steadily strengthen Indo-US military ties by the end of the decade.

These proposals were formally ratified during US defence secretary William Perry’s visit to India in January 1995 when both sides agreed to resume normal security relations after the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War years India was one of the closest allies of the Soviet Union outside Eastern Europe.

Steering committees for the army, navy ands air force headed by senior US and Indian officers have been established and meet periodically to discuss policy issues and strategic concerns.

Meanwhile, India’s exercise with the United States followed immediately after the fourth round of manoeuvres with Singapore’s navy in keeping with India’s aim of increasing its standing amongst the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

And, a few months earlier, in keeping with its expanding role overseas, the Indian Navy carried out its first joint exercise with the United Arab Emirates( UAE) navy in the Gulf, signalling closer links between the Arab sheikhdoms and India.

Officials in New Delhi said the exercise was in line with other “signals” from the UAE, indicating that they would like closer co-operation with India in military matters pertaining to the Gulf region.

But pressing its advantage in south-east Asia the Indian Navy is negotiating an agreement to repair and maintain Indonesia’s naval fleet, recently acquired from erstwhile East Germany which comprise mostly Soviet vessels with which India is familiar.

Indonesia built up its navy almost overnight but has only one dockyard involved with shipbuilding.

And, since its maritime boundary begins around 100 miles from India’s Andaman and Car Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal, India’s under utilised dockyards at Bombay and Calcutta, used to maintaining and building Soviet fighting ships, are a practical destination for Indonesia’s naval craft.

Defence analysts in New Delhi said ASEAN countries were anxious for greater naval co-operation with India as China was fast emerging as a blue water navy from what, till now, has been considered a defensive or “brown water” force.

And though Sino-Indian relations have improved considerably over the past decade after the two fought a war in 1962, even Indian Navy officials are wary of China after it installed signal intelligence facilities in the Great Cocos island, 30 nautical miles from the Andaman islands.

They fear that Beijing’s helping Burma modernise two ports and construct a naval base might lead to some arrangement by which China could maintain a naval presence in the Indian Ocean for the first time.

These fears gained credence two years ago after a Chinese trawler, equipped with sophisticated tracking and surveying equipment was detained by India’s Coast Guard allegedly for spying, but released under diplomatic pressure from Beijing.

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