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Indo-Pacific region in focus of India-US maritime talks

The Indian and French navies conducted the last phase of their annual exercises in the vicinity of Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean. Photo: AFP

New Delhi: India and the US on Wednesday held their third maritime security dialogue focussing on cooperation and developments in the Indo-Pacific region, a statement from the Indian foreign ministry said.

The Indian delegation was led by Pankaj Sharma, joint secretary (disarmament) and Munu Mahawar, joint secretary (Americas division) in the foreign ministry besides Richa Misra, joint secretary (navy), ministry of defence.

From the US side, David Helvey, principal deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs and Daniel Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs headed the delegation to the talks.

“During the dialogue, the two sides discussed developments in the maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific Region and exchanged views on ways to further strengthen bilateral maritime security cooperation,” the Indian statement said.

“They also reviewed the implementation of the decisions taken during the previous Maritime Security Dialogues,” it added.

The US is keen for India to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region where China has increasingly been flexing its muscles.

In a speech in October to the Washington based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had spoken of a key role for India in stabilizing the Indo-Pacific region. Contrasting India and China, Tillerson had said that the latter had risen “less responsibly, at times undermining the international rules-based order, even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations’ sovereignty.”

India, the US, Australia and Japan had in November held “quadrilateral” talks on cooperation and collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region —a large swathe of land and sea extending between the West Coast of the US and Africa —something China has been observing warily.

Last week, India and China held an “informal summit” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in a bid to reduce tensions after their 73 day long tense military standoff in Doklam last year.

Meanwhile, the Indian and French navies conducted the last phase of their annual exercises in the vicinity of Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean, a statement from the French embassy said.

The Reunion Island is a French overseas territory with some 850,000 French citizens.

“The third session is being held after two successive phases, the first having involved joint anti-submarine combat training off the Indian coast in Goa, with the participation of both the French nuclear submarine and the Indian Kalvari Scorpene-class submarine, and the second being focused on amphibious operations off Chennai’s coast, with the French landing helicopter dock LHD Dixmude,” the statement said.

The current exercise includes the participation of two major vessels of the Indian Navy —the destroyer INS Mumbai and the frigate INS Trikand —besides the anti-submarine warfare P-8I Neptune, the statement said.

These vessels will “interact with the French ships permanently deployed at Reunion Island, including the frigate Nivôse,” the statement said adding “the seven-day exercise sees the sailors simulating different scenarios, including air defence, firing, manoeuvres, asymmetric warfare and embarkation. Helicopters embarked on board navy ships are also training for touch-and-go landings.”

The exercises off Reunion Island come after India and France made public ‘The Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region” during French president Emmanuel Macron’s visit to New Delhi in March. Though not eager to join an arrangement like the quadrilateral, France has expressed interest in cooperating bilaterally with India in the maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific region where France has a total of 1.6 million French citizens—making the Indian Ocean region an area of strategic importance for France.

The statement noted that India and France shared common concerns on freedom of navigation in the region and would tackle challenges to over-flight and threat of weapons of mass destruction.

The agreement has a vast scope stretching from “countering maritime terrorism and piracy” to “building maritime domain awareness” said a joint statement issued at the end of the official talks. The statement also said it would support “greater coordination in regional and international fora in the region.”

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