As the Indian Navy's INS Shivalik prepared to leave Qingdao port on Friday after a six-day stay in China, both countries declared that the missile frigate's visit had gone a long way in deepening strategic trust between two navies that are increasingly coming into contact on the high seas.
Officials on both sides said the Shivalik’s visit and participation at the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) 65th anniversary celebrations – marked by first-ever maritime exercises involving 7 nations in China – had sent a strong signal of India’s keenness to deepen navy-to-navy links with China. The United States did not send a ship to Qingdao after Japan was not invited to participate.
China asked India, along with Indonesia, to participate in the most challenging of three different drills held on Wednesday. This involved staging an anti-hijacking exercise, for which China also deployed its elite commando unit besides an advanced PLAN vessel.
“The exercises may not be as advanced as what we have had with the United States, but this is definitely the most high-level drill we have had with China,” said one official.
Chinese officials said the six-day-long stay of Shivalik would also help build trust between two countries that have rapidly developing navies with an increasingly wide presence across the Indian and Pacific oceans.
“The Indian ship is a very strong ship with powerful weapons,” said one PLAN official, who visited the Shivalik. “This gives us a good opportunity to see the Indian Navy".
The exercises helped enhance “mutual understanding, trust and friendship among maritime forces” and “cooperation in safeguarding maritime security to better respond to emergencies,” Xinhua said.
PLAN officials expressed admiration that the Shivalik sailed 4,500 miles from Port Blair to Qingdao, through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, with neither an accompanying vessel nor an official from headquarters on board to supervise the exercises. This was unusual from the point of view of the Chinese Navy, where ships are rarely given such a degree of autonomy, seen as reflecting the confidence and experience of the Indian Navy on the high seas.
China has invested billions in building a modern blue-water Navy, but is still taking tentative steps in spreading its presence, only starting to venture more deeply into the Indian and Pacific Oceans beyond the South and East China Seas. In February, a three-ship flotilla of the PLAN for the first time held a 5-day exercise in the Lombok Strait near Indonesia in the Indian Ocean. The PLAN has also held more than a dozen drills near the Gulf of Aden, along sea routes crucial to China’s energy security.
In December, the Indian Navy held a more substantial 10-day exercise involving 15 ships and submarines in the Sunda Strait near Indonesia.
Indian Navy ships also make it a point to regularly traverse the South China Sea – whose waters and islands are disputed by China and ten other countries – to underline India’s commitment to freedom of navigation.
As more Chinese ships sail west and Indian ships sail east, both countries have used this week’s exercise to stress their intent to ensure they will deepen mutual trust to address any insecurities.
To that end, both countries have also discussed holding another round of maritime exercises later this year. The bilateral exercise is likely to coincide with the India-U.S. Malabar maritime exercise, which may also involve Japan for the first time in seven years, and ease any anxieties China may have had about India’s strategic intentions.