New Delhi, July 12 (IANS) With Japan now a permanent member of the annual Malabar exercise that also involves India and US, an American official said on Tuesday that it was focused on the “Indo-Asia Pacific region” and was an opportunity for the three navies to work together to increase their interoperability.
“It is an opportunity with a focus on the Indo-Asia Pacific region and maritime nature of all three countries. It is really an opportunity for the three countries to work together for cooperation and security in the region,” the official told a select group of reporters here via teleconferencing from the nuclear-powered supercarrier USS Ronald Reagan that is currently operating in the South China Sea.
He said this year’s exercise involved longer and broader planning processes.
The exercise, held in two phases between June 10 and 17, involved several scenarios including strike warfare maneuvering, search and rescue and air defence communication. There was also focus on basic submarine warfare with the participation of more assets.
“We focused mostly on basic inter-submarine warfare, trying to increase complexity with the number of assets that were participating from aircraft to ships to personnel,” he said.
The interaction with the US official came on a day an international tribunal ruled against China’s claims to rights in South China Sea, backing a case brought by the Philippines.
China’s expansive claims over South China Sea have been contested by several countries including the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan. Ties between China and Japan were strained by a territorial row over a group of islands in the East China Sea.
The US official, however, skipped a question about Chinese interest in interoperability between the three navies during the Malabar exercise.
“That question is better asked to the Chinese side. We were focused on our ability to operate together,” he said.
To a follow-on question about how far the Chinese ships were during the drill, he said: “We were focused on how we were operating together as a unit.”
He said there were several vessels in the vicinity but the focus was on “our interoperability going forward”/
Asked about challenges of operating in the South China Sea, he said it was challenging as other parts of the world.
“We are down here to make sure we are free to operate, where we normally operate and we have been operating for the past 100 years and practice our proficiency and readiness support our allies and partners around the region,” he said.
A Chinese navy reconnaissance ship had entered Japanese territorial waters while tailing two Indian naval ships participating in the Malabar exercise. The Dongdiao-class intelligence vessel was spotted by a Japanese P-3C patrol aircraft to the west of Kuchinoerabu island.
The official said the Malabar exercise was “fantastic” and said there was effort every year to increase its complexity .
“We welcome India’s growing defence capability and its commitment to freedom of navigation,” he said.
On the possibility of Indian aircraft carrier Vikramaditya taking part in next year’s exercise, he said any opportunity to increase cooperation and interoperability was great.
Answering another query, he said it was too early to say if Australia can be a part of the next year’s edition.
India was represented during the exercise by stealth frigates INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri, corvette INS Kirch and tanker INS Shakti along with the vessels from the US Navy and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF).
The harbour phase of the exercise was held from June 10 to 13 off the Japanese city of Sasebo and the sea phase in the Pacific Ocean, close to South China Sea, from June 14 to 17.
The Indian and US navies have annually conducted annual Malabar exercise since 1992. Japan had taken part in last year’s exercise in the Bay of Bengal.