Chinese ships during an exercise in South China Sea region

New Delhi: The Indian Ocean is an important area of interest for Australia and it has been ramping up military cooperation with India as both sides have convergence of interests in the region, a senior commander of the Royal Australian Navy said on Tuesday.

Rear Admiral Jonathan Earley, the Commander of the Australian Fleet, also said that the challenges facing the Indo-Pacific include "big power muscle movements", in an oblique reference to China's increasing military assertiveness in the region.

Earley is on a four-day visit to India as part of Australia's flagship regional engagement activity, Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE).

At a media briefing, the commander also referred to the understanding of India having to manage a large border with China, while responding to a question on Chinese muscle-flexing in the region.

The Royal Australian Navy's Anzac-class frigate HMAS Anzac and Canberra-class ship HMAS Adelaide have docked in Visakhapatnam two days back as part of the third edition of the IPE.

The IPE is one of Australia's key regional maritime engagements and ships under it are visiting 14 countries in Southeast Asia and the Northeast Indian Ocean from September to November.

The IPE is aimed at promoting security and stability in Australia's near region through bilateral and multilateral engagement, training and capacity building.

Rear Admiral Earley said Australia is committed to making effective contributions to humanitarian and security efforts in the region.

"The Indian Ocean Region is an important area for us. It is of interest to us," he said.

India is bolstering defence and security ties in the Indian Ocean with like-minded countries in the backdrop of concerns over China's growing forays into the region, considered the backyard of the Indian Navy.

The Rear Admiral said the IPE is not directed at any one country and that its main driver is to allow countries to operate freely and uphold international law.

Asked about the growing security cooperation between China and Australia's Pacific neighbour Solomon Islands, Rear Admiral Earley said Canberra respects any country's sovereign decision.

"Solomon Islands is a sovereign country. It is their decision with whom they want to engage," he said.

"We can help countries make informed decisions. But it is for them to decide," he added.

Asked whether Australia supports increasing the number of participants in the Malabar naval exercise, he declined to give a direct reply suggesting it would be a political call.

At the same time he said there was no harm in operating with like-minded countries.

The current members of the Malabar exercise are India, the US, Japan and Australia.

The Rear Admiral also said that India will be invited to a mega naval exercise in Australia's Queensland next year.

The defence and security ties between India and Australia have been on an upswing in the last few years.

In June 2020, India and Australia elevated their ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership and signed a landmark deal for reciprocal access to military bases for logistics support.

The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) allows the militaries of the two countries to use each other's bases for repair and replenishment of supplies, besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation.

In August, four Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jets and two C-17 heavy-lift aircraft of the Indian Air Force joined a 17-nation air combat exercise in Australia.

Over 100 aircraft and 2,500 personnel from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Republic of Korea, the UAE, Singapore, Thailand, the US and the UK participated in the exercise in Australia's Northern Territory.