Chinese vessels shadow Indian ships in Asean drill, say officials | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Chinese vessels shadow Indian ships in Asean drill, say officials

May 09, 2023 12:00 AM IST

The presence of the Chinese vessels was first reported on social media by Ray Powell, a former US Air Force officer

Chinese surveillance vessel Xiang Yang Hong 10 and at least eight maritime militia ships, a front for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), sailed towards the area where the inaugural Asean-India naval drill ended on Monday, officials familiar with the matter said.

The opening ceremony of the Asean-India maritime exercise was held at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on May 2. (Courtesy: Indian Navy)
The opening ceremony of the Asean-India maritime exercise was held at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on May 2. (Courtesy: Indian Navy)

The Chinese vessels then moved towards the exclusive economic zone of Vietnam, and experts said it was not clear whether the purpose was to keep an eye on the naval exercise or to make a foray into Vietnam’s EEZ, where China is engaged in a maritime dispute.

The presence of the Chinese vessels was first reported on social media by Ray Powell, a former US Air Force officer who tracks developments in South China Sea for the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University.

Powell said five Chinese maritime militia ships moved from the Spratly Islands to the area of the India-Asean drill on Sunday evening. Another three Chinese maritime militia ships left Subi Reef and headed in the direction of the exercise area on Monday.

The opening ceremony of the Asean-India Maritime Exercise (AIME-23) was held at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore on May 2, with the drills aimed at promoting maritime cooperation and enhancing trust, friendship and confidence among Asean and Indian Navies.

The regional bloc consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The inaugural edition of AIME was co-hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy and Indian Navy. The harbour phase of the exercise was held at the Changi Naval Base from May 2 to May 4, and the sea phase in the South China Sea from May 7 to May 8.

The drill involved nine ships, six aircraft, and more than 1,800 personnel from the Asean states and India.

People familiar with the matter said the Chinese vessels were in the proximity of the area where the naval drill concluded on Monday. The people said the Indian warships involved in the exercise had gone “dark” by switching off their automatic identification system (AIS). This was also done by warships from some other Asean states.

“The maiden India-Asean drill culminated successfully in South China Sea on Monday and was not affected by the presence of Chinese vessels in the area,” an official aware of the matter said, asking not to be named.

The people said it is not uncommon for countries to keep a watch on military drills and other activities in their areas of interest.

The Chinese side has sought to establish a strong presence in South China Sea, where it is engaged in maritime disputes with Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

The deployment of maritime militia is part of China’s “gray zone operations” or the use of non-traditional forces to pursue security objectives. According to the Army University Press, the US Army’s multimedia organisation, China’s maritime militia has helped the country “rewrite the rules of freedom of navigation, buttress its maritime claims, secure vital resources, and extend its economic reach across the globe”.

The maritime militia consists of Chinese citizens trained by the navy and Coast Guard to perform tasks such as border patrol, surveillance and reconnaissance, maritime transportation and auxiliary tasks in support of naval operations in wartime. Since 2005, China has preferred to employ the PLAN in background roles while relying on maritime law enforcement agencies and the maritime militia as its “frontline responses to maritime disputes and contingencies”, according to Army University Press.

As part of negotiations with Asean states on a proposed Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, Chine proposed clauses in 2018 that would give it a veto over Southeast Asian countries conducting exercises with foreign militaries in these waters.

An official from an Asean state, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the exercise as an “important development” as it allows navies of Asean states and India to strengthen collaboration, enhance understanding, and build confidence to address common maritime security challenges.

During the shore phase, personnel participated in exchanges focused onboard, search and seizure, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. During the sea phase, the navies conduct drills focused on helicopter cross-deck landings, maritime security, communication, and manoeuvring.

As part of the maritime security exercise, the participating ships tracked the movement of simulated vessels of interest, cued by alerts from the Asean International Liaison Officers attached to Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre.

Indigenous warships INS Delhi and INS Satpura along with a P8I maritime patrol aircraft participated in the drill.

India is keeping tabs on China’s moves in the South China Sea and taking steps to ensure that the Chinese navy doesn’t muscle its way into the Indian Ocean where combat-ready Indian warships are carrying out round-the-clock surveillance for any unusual activity.

India has consistently called for a free, open and inclusive order in the Indo-Pacific, pivoting on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, while stressing on peaceful resolution of disputes through dialogue and under the framework of international laws.

Maritime affairs expert, Commodore (retired) Srikant Kesnur said given that this was the first India-Asean maritime exercise, it had a certain amount of symbolic significance and the drill was bound to trigger curiosity of other nations. “Monitoring of activities and exercises by other nations in international waters is a common occurrence. If the Chinese ships, whether maritime militia or others, did anything in relation to this exercise, the important question is whether they offended the sensitivities of the Asean nations, many of whom have a testy relationship with China over the South China Sea issue,” Kesnur said.

There was no immediate comment on the development from the Indian government.

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