India, Japan and the United States will hold joint naval exercises each year, Indian government sources said on Monday, as the three countries kicked off the first such drills in the Bay of Bengal in eight years, a move likely to concern China.
The last time New Delhi hosted multilateral drills in its waters in 2007, it prompted disquiet in China where some saw it as a U.S. -inspired security grouping on the lines of NATO in Europe.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signaled a more robust security policy, seeking stronger strategic ties with the United States and Japan, while keeping a lid on border tensions with China.
The United States is deploying the aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, and a nuclear-powered submarine in the week-long exercises the Indian navy said will cover the full spectrum of maneuvers.
"These exercises are all-encompassing, starting from one spectrum to the other including anti-piracy operations, board, search and seize and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," said Indian navy spokesman Captain D.K. Sharma.
The decision to expand the Malabar exercises the U.S. and India conduct each year to include Japan comes days after a Pentagon official said it was considering sailing warships close to China's artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The Financial Times newspaper last week cited a senior U.S. official as saying U.S. ships would sail within 12-nautical-mile zones that China claims as territory around islands it has built in the Spratly chain, within the next two weeks.
India has kept away from the tensions in the South China, but has stood with the U.S. in calling for freedom of navigation in the region.
Tokyo has been involved in the drills off and on in recent years when these have held in the Pacific, but the three governments now have agreed to formalize it, Indian defense sources said.
The Indian navy is deploying a submarine to the Malabar exercises along with surface ships and maritime surveillance aircraft, but neither of its two aircraft carriers will take part. Japan has sent a lone destroyer.
Srikanth Kondapalli, who teaches Chinese Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that Australia and some Southeast Asian countries also were interested in joining the Malabar drills.
"One of the primary concerns is the challenge to the free flow of goods and services on the high seas in recent times and strengthening the Indo-Pacific idea," he said.