NEW DELHI—From the waters of the Philippine Sea this week emerged a partial outline of Washington’s vision for a new Asian maritime-security order that unites democratic powers to contend with a more-assertive and well-armed China.
A U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier strike group along with warships from India and Japan jointly practiced anti-submarine warfare and air-defense and search-and-rescue drills in one of the largest and most complex exercises held by the three countries.
The maneuvers were being tracked by a Chinese surveillance vessel, a U.S. Navy officer aboard the carrier USS John C. Stennis said on Wednesday. Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Beijing hoped the training “will be conducive to regional peace, security and stability.”
Washington and Tokyo have long cooperated closely on defense. And the U.S. has been working to deepen strategic ties with India and to encourage New Delhi to play a more active role, not just in the Indian Ocean, but in the Pacific as well, as China’s rise shifts the regional balance of power.
“Americans are looking for those who can share the burden,” said C. Raja Mohan, director of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s India center. A strengthened three-way partnership among the U.S., Japan and India is “an important strategic shift.”
India, which is proud of its tradition as a nonaligned state, is unlikely to agree to any formal military alliance. But the countries already have a trilateral ministerial dialogue process that began last year.
Cementing those relationships has been an important U.S. objective as it grapples with what American officials have called China’s growing “militarization” of the South China Sea, where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with its neighbors and is building up artificial islands and reefs with runways capable of handling military aircraft.
The U.S. has sent warships and planes through a series of operations to challenge Chinese claims, saying its aim is to ensure freedom of navigation in waters that carry one-third of global trade.
During a visit to the U.S. last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “the absence of an agreed security architecture creates uncertainty” in Asia and that a strong partnership between India and the U.S. would help ensure freedom of navigation and the security of sea lanes.
India sent two stealth frigates, a guided-missile corvette and a fleet-support ship to join the multiday Malabar exercises, part of an annual series of U.S.-India maneuvers that have grown increasingly sophisticated and wide-ranging. Japan has been a regular participant since 2014.
Before the drills, which officially started last week, Indian vessels made port calls in Vietnam and the Philippines, countries that have disputes with China in the South China Sea.
India’s defense minister, Manohan Parrikar, speaking at a regional security meeting in Singapore earlier this month, said: “All countries in the region need to recognize that our shared prosperity…will be put at risk by aggressive behavior or actions by any one of us.”
India, the world’s largest democracy and its second-most-populous country, is wary of China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean, as well as its growing influence among New Delhi’s neighbors in South Asia, where Beijing is funding infrastructure projects.
The two countries share a long, disputed land border, over which they fought a war in 1962. Wariness of China has helped accelerate the transformation of India’s relationship with the U.S. from one of strained suspicion during the Cold War to one of increasing warmth.
Washington and New Delhi have agreed to cooperate on logistics—with a deal allowing the countries’ armed forces to use each other’s bases for replenishment and repair—as well as defense production.
Mr. Modi has declared plans to spend billions of dollars upgrading India’s navy. Still, it will be some time before India has the strength to routinely project meaningful power outside the Indian Ocean region.
India’s relations with Japan have also strengthened. The two nations have declared a “strategic partnership” and agreed to deepen security cooperation. They have also agreed to tighten cooperation on economic matters.
During a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to New Delhi in December, the two sides said India and Japan would work together on infrastructure projects in South Asia, a move aimed at blunting inroads by China.
While the U.S., India and Japan pursue closer ties, they are nonetheless wary of increasing tensions in the region. Beijing in the past has reacted negatively when it feels countries are joining together to contain it.
—Niharika Mandhana contributed to this article.
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