When four Indian naval ships left the Philippines earlier this month headed for South Korea, they received an unexpected message.
“Welcome to the South China Sea, Foxtrot-47,” buzzed a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) frigate to the INS Shivalik (F47).
For the next 12 hours, the Chinese warship would provide an unscheduled escort to the four Indian vessels. The PLAN frigate was aware that the four ships were also going to visit Shanghai later in the month during their month-long tour; yet that they insisted on providing an escort through what India and other countries view as international waters underscored for officials how Beijing increasingly views one of the world's most important waterways.
“The tone of the message was welcoming, but was also as though we were entering Chinese waters,” said an official who did not want to be named. The Chinese ship left the Shivalik's side after 12 hours, revealing that it had been instructed to move away by the PLAN.
After port calls in Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan, the four Indian Navy ships arrived here on Wednesday, berthing in the famous Shanghai harbour under the shadow of the distinct skyline of Pudong, the financial district.
The month-long travels of the four ships, led by the indigenously built guided missile stealth frigate Shivalik, have reflected India's increasing interest in protecting its maritime interests in the Asia-Pacific, coming amid rising tensions between China and many of its neighbours over the disputed waters and islands of the South China Sea.
“India's Look East policy was delayed for many years,” acknowledged Vice-Admiral Anil Chopra, Flag Officer Commanding in Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, who came in from India for the port calls in China and Japan, signalling the particular importance of the two countries.
“We were not here extending our hand of friendship to all the nations, so some years ago we consciously decided that we must participate and cooperate more with all nations to the east of India,” he said, describing the visit as “an attempt to bring peace and stability to the region to our east.”
Building navy-to-navy ties with China is the focus of the Shanghai stop, which, officials said, marked the biggest-ever such exercise with China. Two ships from the eastern fleet visited the northern port of Qingdao in 2007, but officials viewed the stop in Shanghai, China's most important port city, as being of greater significance.
Both countries will this year hold a first-ever maritime dialogue, and have also stepped up coordination in joint anti-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden in the Indian Ocean. But renewed tensions in the South China Sea, where Chinese ships are in a stand-off with the Philippines at the Scarborough Shoal and have had run-ins with Vietnamese vessels, have emerged as a new challenge with competing interests over a crucial international waterway.
With the naval ships making ports of call in Vietnam and the Philippines — two countries with which China has had recent strains — the Vice-Admiral stressed that India's “relationships are not at the cost of anybody else” and that there were no “specific reasons” for the port calls. India supported “freedom of navigation in all waters in the seven seas,” he said, and believed bilateral issues between nations “should be resolved peacefully as per international law and international maritime law.”
Over four days, he will have talks with the head of the Chinese eastern fleet and the Shanghai garrison. “It is only by exchange and interaction with each other will we be able to get more cooperation, more trust, more friendship between the two nations and their navies,” he said, adding India welcomed more Chinese vessels to make visits this year following last month's port of call by the PLAN's Zheng He in Kochi.
New carrier next year
Asked by a Chinese journalist about on-going trials of the new aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and whether it would be deployed in the Asia-Pacific, the Vice-Admiral said the new carrier “will come by next year.” “For an aircraft carrier, by virtue of its capability, it does not matter at which side it is based because it has a long freedom of action and it can be deployed in any place,” he said.
Rear Admiral P. Ajit Kumar, Flag Officers Commanding Eastern Fleet (FOCEF), who led the four ships, hoped four days of interactions would be “fruitful” and he had been received warmly by the PLAN. “Interactions will enhance mutual understanding and friendship,” PLAN Rear Admiral Shen Hao told him. “You being here is a friendly statement.”