US secretary of defence Ashton Carter on Tuesday kicked off his three-day India tour with a visit to Vizag-based Eastern Naval Command, which controls operations in the Bay of Bengal, at a time when Washington is tracking the Chinese navy’s increasing capability to operate in unfamiliar waters.
India and the US will conduct the Malabar joint naval exercise later this year in the Bay of Bengal. China has in the past raised objections over other countries, especially Japan, being invited to take part in the naval drill.
The US embassy in New Delhi said Carter’s trip to India was part of his focus on the “US rebalance to Asia” — the shift of strategic focus from west to east. Experts believe the “rebalance” is a priority for the Obama administration to counter Chinese ambitions in the region.
The UPA government viewed the shift of focus to Asia-Pacific as a development fraught with uncertainty, with former PM Manmohan Singh stressing in 2013 it was unclear if the strategic and economic transitions, exemplified by the increasing contestation in the seas to India’s east, would be peaceful.
Carter toured INS Sahyadri at Vizag, a locally-built stealth frigate whose sister ship INS Shivalik hit the headlines last April after the Indian Navy politely refused an unusual request from Chinese navy chief Wu Shengli. Wu wanted to be shown the all-important tactical room of the frigate docked in Qingdao for an exercise.
Carter is scheduled to meet with PM Narendra Modi, defence minister Manohar Parrikar and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj during the Delhi leg of his tour. Parrikar and Carter will sign the 2015 US-India Defence Framework Agreement to deepen defence cooperation in several security-related areas.
The pact’s previous avatar led to some major weapon sales to India and strengthened the overall strategic partnership during the last 10years. Delegation-level talks are also expected to focus on Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
China had last week released a white paper on defence setting out a bigger role for its maritime forces far away from its shores. Modi and President Barack Obama had talked about a new vision for Asia Pacific during the latter’s visit to India in January.