NEW DELHI: India is now steadily cranking up its naval exercises with the “Quad” countries and other key strategic allies, even as US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin on Saturday began his first tour to Asia to bolster military cooperation and ensure “credible deterrence” against China.
Austin’s visit to New Delhi from March 19 to 21, after touring Japan and South Korea with secretary of state Antony Blinken, will come amidst the continuing military confrontation between India and China at the remaining friction points in eastern Ladakh despite troop disengagement taking place on both sides of Pangong Tso last month.
The focus of his talks with defence minister Rajnath Singh will be on further enhancing the robust bilateral defence relationship as well as ensuring “a free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific region, with an eye firmly on an aggressive and expansionist China, as was earlier reported by TOI.
Speaking at the US Indo-Pacific Command at Hawaii on Saturday, Austin said he was travelling to Japan, South Korea and India to strengthen “alliances and partnerships” as well as foster “credible deterrence” against China. South Korean defence minister Suh Wook, incidentally, is also slated to visit India later this month.
With India, US, Japan and Australia making clear their intent to deter any “coercion” in the Indo-Pacific during their leaders’ Quad summit on Friday, their navies will join France for its “La Pérouse” exercise in the Bay of Bengal from April 4 to 7.
India will deploy its frontline warships and P-8I maritime patrol aircraft from the Eastern Naval Command at Vizag for this Quad-plus-France exercise. “France has initiated this exercise of like-minded countries with strategic congruence over the Indo-Pacific,” said an official.
Then, the bilateral “Varuna” naval exercise between India and France will be expanded to include UAE in the northwest Arabian Sea near the strategically-located Persian Gulf from April 25 to 27. France will deploy its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier FNS Charles de Gaulle with its Rafale-M naval jets for the exercise.
“India accords great importance to the Varuna exercise with France, a key strategic partner with whom military interoperability and sharing of maritime intelligence has been enhanced over the years,” said the official.
France, Germany, UK and some other countries are all keen to cooperate with the Quad countries, which had also conducted the 24th edition of the top-notch `Malabar’ naval exercise in November, to keep the Indo-Pacific secure in face of China’s belligerence.
India, incidentally, has also inked reciprocal military logistics pacts with the other three Quad nations as well as France, South Korea and Singapore to enhance its strategic reach in the entire Indian Ocean region and beyond.