Fri, Sep 07, 2007 - Page 5 News List

US-Indian exercises aimed at PRC: experts

NAVAL DRILLS Despite repeated denials by Washington and New Delhi, analysts said perceptions remained strong that the whole game is about China containment

AP , NEW DELHI

Indian and US aircraft carriers plow through the Bay of Bengal launching fighter jets into the air. US submarines cruise below Japanese, Australian and Singapo-rean warships.

The stated aim of this week's massive war games off India's east coast is to improve the ability of the five participating militaries to fight terrorism and piracy. But in the five days of naval exercises that began on Tuesday, experts see a broader strategic shift that is being driven in large part by the fear of a rising China.

At the center of Asia's new strategic landscape is the warming relationship between New Delhi and Washington -- and, to a lesser extent, India and Japan -- after decades spent on opposite sides of the Cold War divide.

China isn't the only issue drawing them closer -- the nations have increasingly entwined economies and populations, for example -- but it is certainly among the biggest.

"The Chinese are expanding in a huge way into the Indian Ocean," says Rahul Bedi of the London-based Jane's Defense Weekly.

He pointed to a series of moves by Beijing into the Indian Ocean -- an area that New Delhi has long considered its turf -- that raised alarm bells in Asia and the US.

Myanmar's military junta has allowed China to build an intelligence gathering post on the Coco Islands, deep in the Bay of Bengal. And China is assisting Pakistan and Bangladesh in building deep sea ports that its navy could use.

"The whole game, as I see it," Bedi says, referring to naval exercises, "is about China containment."

Still, India is loath to antagonize China, with which it fought a 1962 border war, and has gone to great lengths to assure its neighbor that the drills are not focused on Beijing.

"There is no question of confrontation. There is no military alignment. It's only an exercise," Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony told reporters last month.

Defense officials at the US embassy in New Delhi had no comment on the exercises, although reporters were being allowed onto US warships for the drills.

Last month, Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the US Pacific Command, denied the exercises were aimed at isolating China.

"We are looking to minimize the potential areas for misunderstanding and confusion between all of us in the region and China," Keating said during a visit to New Delhi.

Even so, analysts say, while securing vital trade routes for oil and energy resources is certainly part of the rationale behind the exercises, the scope and location of the exercises won't go unnoticed, they say.

"India has taken the precaution of informing China that this is not meant to make an Asian bulwark to contain China," said New Delhi-based strategic analyst Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian general. "Nevertheless, perceptions will lead many others to a different conclusion."

The exercises stretch from India's eastern coast, past the Coco Islands to the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's busiest waterways through which 25 percent of all sea-borne oil shipments pass, US government figures showed.

The war games come as both China and India boost defense spending and modernize their militaries.

Buoyed by its booming economy, China has raised its military budget by 17.8 percent to 351 billion yuan (US$44.94 billion) this year, the largest annual increase in more than a decade. The US Defense Department estimates actual defense spending may be much higher.

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