Vice Admiral Timothy W Barrett, Royal Australian Navy chief (RAN), along with delegates, visited Indian Naval Academy (INA) 

NEW DELHI: Chiefs of the four navies that make up the ‘quad’ – quadrilateral grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the US – came together on a single forum on Thursday, a day when India carried out the fifth test of its China-specific 5000-km range Agni 5 missile.

The ‘quad’, that met for the first time late last year, is a diplomatic group but it is underpinned by a suspicion of China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean, particularly in the waters of what is increasingly being called the “Indo Pacific”.

“China is a disruptive, transitional force in the Indo Pacific,” the US Pacific Commander, Admiral Harry Harris, Jr, said at the Raisina Dialogue 2018 here in a session on “Uncharted waters: In search for order in the Indo-Pacific”. He was sharing the dais with the Indian Navy chief, Admiral Sunil Lanba, the Australian navy chief, Vice Admiral Tim Barret, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, chief of staff, joint staff, Japan and a think tank wonk, Dino Patti Djalal of the Foreign Policy Community, Indonesia.

Hours before the session, India’s defence ministry said the Agni 5 was flight-tested for its full range from the Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast this morning.

This successful test of the Agni-5 reaffirms the country’s indigenous missile capabilities and further strengthens our credible deterrence,” the defence ministry said in an official statement.

Though the test was scheduled weeks earlier, its timing, coming on the back of recent face-offs on the frontier with China near Sikkim and in Arunachal Pradesh, adds a sharpness to the tensions.

Earlier this week, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper in an editorial criticized the Indian army chief, General Bipin Rawat, for his remarks that India was deploying more forces to the northern frontier.

At the discussions in the Raisina Dialogue this evening, Admiral Sunil Lanba said China’s PLA Navy had made big changes to its deployment patterns in waters around India.

“They are developing ports and infrastructure that are not viable. They have a base in Djibouti. They have developed a port in Hambantota (Sri Lanka) though we have been told there will be no (permanent) presence (of the Chinese navy) there,” he said.

Japan’s Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano was forthright. “China’s military power is becoming more powerful and expanding. In the East and South China Seas, China has been ignoring international law. In order to deter Chinese provocations, India, the US, Australia and Japan have to cooperate with one another,” he said.

Japan last year joined India and the US in the trilateral Malabar wargames off the Chennai coast. Though the US is keen that Australia also be taken onboard the annual wargames, India and Australia have been reticent. But the BJP’s Ram Madhav said on Wednesday that the scope of the Malabar exercises would be enlarged. He said that mercantile marine traffic would be included in the drills.

Australia’s Vice Admiral Tim Barrett said there was a “trust deficit” among the countries of the Indo Pacific on framing a rules-based regime in the region. “I still have faith in a regional framework,” he said.

Admiral Harris, the US Pacific chief, said “We must be willing to take the tough decisions in 2018 against unilateral ways to change the use of the global commons with rules-based freedom of navigation.”

The Indonesian scholar, Dino Patti Djalal, said that when he was in China recently he had come across suspicions that the ‘quad’ could turn into an ‘Asian NATO’. He said Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia were concerned that China was laying claim to waters in their exclusive economic zones.