A massive naval drill opens in the Indian Ocean on Tuesday with warships from the United States and four other nations flexing their muscle in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Twenty-seven ships and submarines from the United States, Australia, Japan and Singapore will join seven from host India off the Andamans archipelago in the Bay of Bengal for the six-day manoeuvres, officials said. <b1>
It will be one of the biggest ever peacetime joint military exercises, including anti-piracy, reconnaissance and rescue missions besides honing inter-operability or coordination skills between the navies of the four nations, Indian Navy spokesman Vinay Garg said.
The exercise, stretching from India's eastern coast to the Andamans near Indonesia, will include super-carriers USS Nimitz and USS Kitty Hawk of the US Navy's Pacific fleet and India's lone aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat.
The international exercises, codenamed Malabar, are facing stiff resistance from anti-US communist allies of India's ruling Congress party, who denounced them as proof of "India's growing subservience to the United States."
The communists, who prop up the government in parliament, also oppose a landmark Indo-US civilian nuclear energy deal to bring New Delhi back into the loop of global atomic commerce after decades in the nuclear wilderness.
The exercises -- the 13th to be held since 1995 -- will spill into the Malacca Strait, a 805-kilometre (500-mile) strip between Malaysia and Sumatra.
The renowned shipping lane accounts for 60 percent of the world's maritime energy transport.
India, who opposed the United States during the Cold War, has denied claims that the exercise is aimed at intimidating neighbouring giant China, with which the country fought a brief border war more than four decades ago.
"This is simply directed at ensuring security of the sea lanes of communication," deputy defence minister Pallam Raju said.
In the past, India has held exercises with navies from Britain, France, Russia, Singapore and Vietnam. A tri-nation event involving Brazil, India and South Africa is likely to be held in May 2008.
The nuclear-armed Indian navy, which operates 137 ships, wants its supremacy in the region unchallenged and during the 2004 tsunami it rebuffed US offers of aid and sent out relief ships to ravaged Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
Experts said India cannot afford to abstain from joint exercises due to the strategic importance of the sea lanes.
"Reluctance to participate in joint naval manoeuvres sends wrong signals to countries that share common interests," said retired rear admiral Raja Menon.
The latest drill is the second Malabar exercise since April 2006 when the Indian and US navies met off the Japanese coast of Yokosuka.
Sri Lanka, which is battling a Tamil separatist revolt, has welcomed the exercises saying they would bolster maritime military cooperation in the troubled Bay waters infested with pirates and Tamil Tiger arms smugglers.
"Whatever activity is taking place, if that strengthens international trade and commerce through the high seas, it's something intrinsically welcome to us," Sri Lankan ambassador to India C. R. Jayasinghe told reporters.
Military industry sources said the event would also give US and other nations a chance to showcase their newest armaments to India's navy which is on a shopping spree for more hardware.
"The navy has been on a shopping binge since it abandoned its doctrine of coastal protection and embraced an aggressive policy of bluewater expansion," Indian analyst Sujoy Banerjee said.
The navy plans to lease a 12,000-tonne Russian nuclear-powered submarine next year and hopes to acquire five more such vessels.