India has rejected an Australian request to take part in joint naval exercises with the United States and Japan for fear of antagonizing China, which has warned against expanding the drills, navy officials and diplomats said.
Australia formally wrote to the Indian defense ministry in January asking if it could send naval ships to join the July wargames as an observer, in what military experts saw as a step toward eventual full participation.
Four officials from India, Australia and Japan told Reuters India blocked the proposal and suggested that Canberra send officers to watch the exercises in the Bay of Bengal from the decks of the three participating countries’ warships, instead, reports Reuters.
New Delhi is worried that China will step up activities in the Indian Ocean where it is building infrastructure in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, feeding India’s anxiety about being encircled, Indian military sources and diplomats said.
Indian navy officials say there have been at least six submarine deployments by China in the Indian Ocean since 2013 and that Chinese submarines have been docking in Sri Lanka and its long-time ally Pakistan.
“India is being careful about China,” said Abhijit Singh, a former Indian navy officer who heads maritime studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
“India is aware they have upped their maritime engagement in this part of the world and they could just become more brazen with their submarine deployments. We don’t want that to happen,” Singh said.
New Delhi’s ties with Beijing have soured in recent years over a territorial dispute in the Himalayas and China’s military support of Pakistan.
China has also been concerned that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s avowedly nationalist government has stepped up public engagement of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in exile in India and whom it regards as a “splittist”.
An Indian defense ministry spokesman confirmed there had been a request from Australia for observer status in the July exercises, but he said he was not in a position to provide any details of the Indian response.
Both the United States and Japan supported the idea of involving Australia, seeing it as a natural partner in the effort to balance China’s growing might, the four officials said.
The Malabar exercises started out as India-U.S. drills in 1992 but have included Japan every year from 2014.
Dozens of warships, submarines and aircraft take part in the wargames, which are aimed at getting the three powerful navies used to working together. U.S. military officials say this will help in future operations, including joint patrols across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
The exercises are now held in waters close to the East and South China Sea as well as the Indian Ocean.
China, which claims most of the South China Sea, has protested the expansion. Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on the strategic waterway, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.