The drill will make India the 4th dialogue partner of the ASEAN to have a maritime exercise with the 10-nation-bloc

India is set to hold its first-ever maritime exercise with the South East Asian nations off the coast of Singapore from May 2 to 8, even as it is keeping a close watch on the “large presence” of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy’s vessels in the Indian Ocean.

New Delhi is also continuing to expand India’s defence cooperation with the neighbouring island nations. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will visit the Maldives from Monday to Wednesday. He will ceremonially hand over to his counterpart, Mariya Ahmed Didi, a fast patrol vessel and a landing craft – India’s gift for the Maldives National Defence Forces (MNDF). India also had the 10th edition of its annual bilateral maritime exercise with Sri Lanka, SLINEX-2023, from April 3 to 8.

The Indian Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar will travel to Singapore for the inaugural ceremony of the first-ever ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise (AIME). The drill will focus on enhancing interoperability between the navies of India and the 10 ASEAN nations.

India in November 2022 elevated its 30-year-long ties with the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. It also moved to add more military heft to the relations with a maritime war drill with all the 10 countries of the bloc.

The drill will make India the 4th dialogue partner of the ASEAN to have a maritime exercise with the 10-nation-bloc, after China, the United States and Russia.

New Delhi’s move to step up maritime security cooperation with the South East Asian nations came amid China’s growing belligerence, not only along its disputed boundary with India in the Himalayas but also in the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region.

Admiral Hari Kumar of late said that India was aware of the “large presence” of the Chinese PLA Navy vessels in the Indian Ocean region and kept “a very close watch” on the developments in the region to protect and preserve its national interests in the maritime domain.

He added that the Indian Navy was also keeping a close watch on the Chinese PLAN vessels docking at the ports of Pakistan.

New Delhi’s move to hold a naval exercise with the South East Asian nations came in response to China’s foray into maritime neighbourhood of India.

India in 2021 signed an agreement with Maldives to “develop, support and maintain” a harbour at Uthuru Thila Falhu naval base in the island nation. Though the new harbour is being built officially for the use of the Maldives National Defence Force Coast Guard, it is likely to turn into a strategic asset for India and give it an edge over China, which has been trying to spread its tentacles in the Indian Ocean region. India last year also completed the installation of a coastal radar system, comprising 10 radar stations, in the Maldives to help keep watch in the Indian Ocean.

Singh’s visit to the Maldives from Monday to Wednesday is also in tune with India’s commitment to helping friendly countries and partners in the region to build capacity, according to a spokesperson of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in New Delhi.

An MoD spokesperson said that India and the Maldives were working closely to effectively address shared challenges, including maritime security, terrorism, radicalisation, piracy, trafficking, organised crime and natural disasters. India's vision of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) along with its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy as well as Maldives’ ‘India First’ policy were intended to work together to jointly develop the capabilities within the Indian Ocean region, added the spokesperson in a press release issued in New Delhi.