China has said it wants to work with India and other countries to boost maritime cooperation, particularly with regard to coordinating naval escorts in the Indian Ocean to fight piracy.

Chinese officials said they were particularly keen to increase coordination with the Indian navy, as naval officials from 20 countries met in the eastern port city of Nanjing on Thursday at the start of a first-of-its-kind two-day international initiative on ocean escorts, hosted by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Geng Yangsheng, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, singled out India and Japan as two countries with which China wanted to increase exchanges and strengthen coordination of escort missions.

The workshop in Nanjing, he told reporters at a briefing on Thursday, was convened with “a positive attitude” to improve the efficiency of international escort missions deployed in the fight against piracy, through greater exchange of intelligence, commander visits and joint escorts and exercises.

He said the countries had agreed to follow an integrated escort schedule, arranged on a quarterly basis, with the schedule-making being led by “a reference country” chosen every quarter. China, as the first reference country, had already proposed a schedule, and other countries involved in the operation would formulate their schedules accordingly, the official Xinhua news agency quoted him as saying.

This message of cooperation from China comes against the backdrop of its navy, which once limited its reach to protecting China's frontiers, spreading its presence with plans in place for the development of a blue water navy, even as the country's first aircraft carrier undergoes sea-trials.

The PLAN has become increasingly active in escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, protecting Chinese vessels on a crucial shipping route on which China's energy imports depend. The PLAN also carried out a first of its kind operation last year in evacuating Chinese citizens out of Libya, underscoring its increasing willingness, and capability, to engage in operations beyond China's frontiers, although the country has a long-standing policy of not sending its military overseas.

Since December 2008, the PLAN had deployed 10 navy flotillas, including 25 warships, 22 helicopters and over 8,400 officers and soldiers to the Gulf of Aden on escort missions. “It is in the common interests, as well as the common responsibility and duty, for us all to ensure the safety of ocean shipping,” Ding Yiping, PLAN deputy commander, told Xinhua.

China's plans to rapidly modernise its navy have, however, stirred concerns, particularly in the wake of renewed tensions seen last year over disputes that flared between China and 10 of its neighbours over the South China Sea.

The PLAN's increasing participating in escort missions in the Indian Ocean has also brought its ships closer to India's maritime boundaries, even as Indian ships are beginning to sail eastward more frequently amid the renewing of defence ties with India's East Asian neighbours.

Last year, India stressed its strong support for the “freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea”, after the INS Airavat, returning from a goodwill visit to Vietnam, was told over radio by an unidentified caller, claiming to represent Chinese authorities, to leave “Chinese waters”. Analysts here have stressed the need for greater communication, with the navies of both countries increasingly likely to encounter each other on the high seas. Defence exchanges between both countries only recently resumed, following almost a year of suspension over the stapled visa issue, and naval cooperation remains limited.

Chinese analysts have pointed to joint anti-piracy escort missions as a possible platform to increase communication and build trust.

Shen Dingli, a leading strategic expert and director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University, told The Hindu in a recent interview he did not see any frictions at present between the Indian and Chinese navies, and that it was natural that “both China and India would move around in the high sea area, in Pacific or Indian Oceans, for commercial interests and for protecting sea lanes of communications.”

“If India still has concerns, invite China to [have] access to India's ports,” he suggested. “And India could have access to China's ports as well.”

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