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Indian, Japanese warships conduct joint exercises

By Sandeep Dikshit

NEW DELHI, SEPT. 15. India has opened a new chapter in defence cooperation with three of its naval ships conducting joint exercises with two Japanese naval ships off the Mumbai coast early this month. Both sides have kept the exercise under wraps. India is wary of upsetting China while Japan has a huge domestic constituency opposed to its "Self-Defence Force,"adopting an aggressive posture. Senior officials of both the countries have confirmed the development.

Developing harmony

The `Pass-Ex' or passing exercise on September 2 is seen as the first step towards developing harmony between the two naval forces before undertaking more complex manoeuvres involving all the three naval dimensions — surface, sub-surface and air. It also marks a turning point in ties with Japan that soured after the nuclear tests India conducted in 1998. The ties started improving in 2000 with the visit of the then Defence Minister, George Fernandes, to Japan.

Since then, naval ships have visited each other's ports several times but exercises were limited to the two Coast Guards till two naval ships visited Japan shortly after Mr. Fernandes' visit. This was followed by another call in October 2002 to participate in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force Fleet Review.

The significance of the present exercise lies in the fact that India has the largest navy among all countries between the two commercial straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Over half of the world's maritime trade passes through these channels. Countries heavily dependent on this route for their oil and export requirements are always anxious about keeping the passages clear of obstacles. A single sunk ship in one of the shallow and narrow stretches of the Malacca Straits can block the passage of other cargo ships for days and play havoc with the economies of the South East Asian states.

`Importance recognised'

"This exercise is a recognition of our importance in the Indian Ocean," said a naval officer, pointing out that the Malaysian naval chief recently visited India to discuss steps to counter piracy. Indonesian naval ships are now conducting the fourth series of coordinated security patrol with Indian ships. Soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks, a worried U.S. drafted India for patrolling in the Malacca Straits. A combined invitation for joint patrolling with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore is now pending with the Government.

Not publicised

However, unlike these heavily publicised joint security initiatives with the South East Asian nations, India has been of talking about the exercise with Japan. Officials who confirm this information say that India is concerned about Chinese sensibilities. It does not want to give Beijing, with whom it is mending ties, the impression that it is forging a security partnership with a country that has always been eloquent about its security concerns vis--vis China.

Japan, on the other hand, is not concerned about Chinese perceptions but, domestically, concern has been raised about its increasing militarism. The vice-minister of defence, Shingo Nishimura, lost his job for advocating the acquisition of nuclear weapons. "We cannot talk about it but we can confirm that the exercise was conducted," said a senior Japanese official.

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