The joint naval drills, called Malabar exercises, will be conducted over eight days and they are expected to focus on anti-submarine warfare, maritime interdiction operations and air-defense training.
The maneuvers are aimed at improving co-operation between the navies of the three countries.
While Malabar drills began in 1992 as India-US bilateral naval exercise, Japan became a permanent participant last year.
The Indian navy this year is deploying two of its new guided missile stealth frigates – equipped with weapons and sensors – a missile corvette, and a supply ship.
The US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Yokosuka in Japan, is expected to send an aircraft carrier battle group, including F-18 fighters, a nuclear attack submarine and early-warning reconnaissance aircraft.
Japan, in turn, will deploy the Hyuga – a new helicopter carrier – as well as patrol aircraft such as the P-3C Orion and rescue aircraft like the US-2.
A trilateral partnership
The exercises symbolize the strengthening trilateral strategic partnership between the United States, India and Japan, amid China’s expansive territorial claims and increasingly assertive stance in the South and East China Seas.
While Beijing claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea (SCS) leading to territorial rows with some Southeast Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines, it has a bitter dispute with Tokyo involving a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea (ECS).
In a bid to counter China’s claims, the US Navy has staged freedom of navigation operations in the SCS. And this year’s Malabar drills are taking place off Japan’s coast, close to the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the ECS.
“The exercises demonstrate greater boldness on the part of all three countries in challenging China’s growing assertiveness in the maritime domain while demonstrating their commitment to protecting the freedom of navigation in the region,” Chietigj Bajpaee, a military expert at King’s College in London, told DW.
This view is shared by Milan Vaishnav, a political analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says the drills send a message to China that the three democracies and Asian powers are willing and able to work together to preserve a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The joint exercises are very significant for several reasons, the expert told DW. “First, they highlight increasing cooperation among three big powers in the Asia-Pacific region. In the past, bilateral cooperation has always trumped trilateral cooperation. And second, the exercise enhances military cooperation, coordination, and consultation between the three countries.”
China and Japan claim sovereignty over a group of islets – called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China – in the ECS
Analysts point out that at the operational level, the key objective of these exercises is to improve inter-operability between the navies of the three countries with a focus on air-defense training and anti-submarine warfare.
Japan uses the P-3C Orion surveillance plane to monitor activity near the disputed islands in the East China Sea
For Japan, Bajpaee says, the exercises will also give it the ability to showcase its military platforms as it seeks to step up its defense exports. For India, the analyst reckons, the exercises demonstrate a drive by the Indian Navy to project power beyond its littoral space in the Indian Ocean.
“This comes after India declared a commitment to ‘safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation…in the South China Sea’ in a joint statement issued following the visit of President Obama to India in 2015,” he noted.
For the US, likewise, the exercise reaffirms Washington’s “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific by demonstrating that the US is not only allocating more resources toward the region, but also calling on friends and allies to accept a greater burden-sharing role in ensuring regional security, the military analyst said.