China keeps close eye on Malabar exercises

Updated - October 18, 2016 02:15 pm IST

Published - June 16, 2016 01:47 am IST - NEW DELHI:

Multiple incidents during the ongoing Malabar naval exercises between India, Japan and the U.S. off the Okinawa coast in Japan highlighted the increasing friction between China and the other nations in the region over developments in the South China Sea, unwittingly dragging India into the tensions.

According to a report by Reuters , a Chinese observation ship had on Wednesday tailed the U.S. aircraft carrier USS John C Stennis in the Western Pacific which is taking part in the exercises, while in a separate incident Japan said that another ship entered its territorial waters for the first time in over a decade, while tailing two Indian naval ships.

Over 20 ships and 90 aircraft from India, Japan and the U.S. are taking part in the 20th edition of Malabar exercises close to several islands claimed by China in the South and East China Sea. The sea phase of exercise began in the Philippine Sea on June 14 after conclusion of the harbour phase at Sasebo port.

These developments come at a time of increased hostility over Chinese claims on islands in the South China Sea and land reclamation in support of its claims. The U.S. and other nations have called for freedom of navigation and adherence to the principles of United Nations Convention of the Law of Seas (UNCLOS).

India which has land dispute with China has strongly supported the right over flight and open seas and in the recent times is seen as increasingly aligning with the US.

A Chinese Dongdiao class intelligence vessel was spotted in Japanese territorial waters to the west of Kuchinoerabu Island by a P-3C patrol aircraft of the Japanese Navy, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko said in Tokyo.

According to Defense Minister Gen Nakatani, “The ship appeared to be tracking two Indian naval ships that were sailing in the waters during joint naval drills.”

Following the incident, Japan has lodged a protest with the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo. However Chinese officials in Beijing defended their actions saying the passage was in line with the principle of freedom of navigation and international rules.

‘It’s normal’

Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London observed that it is normal for naval forces to watch an adversary’s exercise, typically at a safe distance, and particularly so when three adversaries are exercising together. “What's unusual about this is not the surveillance, but the intrusion into Japanese territorial waters,” he said.

Mr. Joshi added that China’s intention is probably both to surveil the exercise, and to send a message that it does not take kindly to this form of maritime collaboration between three rivals.

Tracking US carrier

In the other incident the U.S. aircraft Carrier was tailed.

"There is a Chinese vessel about seven to ten miles away," Captain Gregory C. Huffman, commander of the Stennis, was quoted as having said on aboard the carrier during the exercise. He added that the Chinese ship had followed the U.S. vessel from the South China Sea.

Commenting on the incident, a senior U.S. official told The Hindu in an email that this type of interaction has become common as the Stennis spent more than 80 days in the South China Sea and routinely operated in close proximity to Chinese Naval vessels.

“As long as each ship acts professionally, follows international law and communicates their intentions clearly, we don't anticipate a problem,” he said.

Indian officials said that it was not surprising that China is monitoring the exercises as it is happening in their backyard. But they observed that the war games were taking place in international waters and anyone has the right to do so.

In a related development, the U.S. Navy had announced on June 14 that additional warships from the Navy’s third fleet would be moved to work in East and South China seas to work alongside the Seventh fleet based in Japan.

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