NEW DELHI: India, the US, Japan and Australia on Wednesday kicked off the Malabar naval drills with top officials of the Quad navies attending the opening ceremony hosted by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) onboard JS Hyuga at Yokosuka at a time China is pushing for greater influence in the far seas and its warships are increasingly foraying into the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, officials familiar with the matter said.

Vice Admiral Yuasa Hideki, commander-in-chief, Self Defense Fleet, JMSDF; Vice Admiral Karl Thomas commander, US Navy Seventh Fleet; Rear Admiral Jonathan Earley, commander, Australian Fleet and Rear Admiral Sanjay Bhalla, the navy’s Eastern Fleet commander were among those who took part in the ceremony, the Indian Navy said in a statement.

Two Indian warships – INS Shivalik and INS Kamorta – are taking part in the multi-nation drills along with a P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft, the officials said.

The US Navy is taking part in the exercise with the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, guided missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville and guided-missile destroyer USS Milius, while the Australian navy has sent a frigate and a tanker – Arunta and Stalwart, and Japanese participation include Hyuga-class helicopter destroyer Hyuga, a destroyer and a tanker, said one of the officials cited above.

The drills are aimed at strengthening the synergy and interoperability among the participating navies. The exercise will end on November 18. Malabar began as an annual bilateral naval exercise between India and the US in 1992, and it has increased in scope and complexity over the years.

In 2014, JMSDF became a permanent participant in the drills followed by Australia in 2020.

Wary of the Quad, China has been keeping tabs on the drills. The Quad was revived in late 2017 by India, the US, Australia and Japan, and Beijing’s suspicions have increased since the four countries upgraded the forum to the ministerial level in 2019.

From carrying out naval drills with like-minded countries to reaching out to states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Indian Navy is focusing on checking China’s rising ambitions in the region and sending out a strong message that Beijing’s power play in the South China Sea cannot be replicated in the Indian Ocean.

Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar was on an official visit to Japan from November 5 to November 9 in the run-up to the exercise. He witnessed the International Fleet Review (IFR) conducted by JMSDF at Yokosuka on November 6 to mark its 70th anniversary, and also held talks with top officials of the other Quad navies.

The latest edition of the exercise also comes on the back of the Indian Navy tracking a Chinese surveillance vessel, Yuan Wang VI, which entered the Indian Ocean region last week ahead of a scheduled missile test by India over the Bay of Bengal. The development came after another Chinese surveillance ship, Yuan Wang V, visited Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port in mid-August, with Indian security planners then flagging concerns about a more established Chinese presence in regional waters.

US defence attache to India Rear Admiral Michael L Baker said earlier this month that given Beijing’s belligerent moves in the disputed South China Sea, it was critical to be “mindful and watchful” of Chinese actions in other regions as well.

By Shadab

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