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International relations

India and US strengthen military ties with 'Tiger Triumph' drill

Maiden exercise comes as China seeks to widen influence in Indo-Pacific

Sailors aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Germantown man the rails as the ship pulls into Visakhapatnam, India, as part of the Tiger Triumph exercise in the Bay of Bengal on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy) 

NEW DELHI -- India and the U.S. are holding a major nine-day joint military drill, which analysts view as crucial to protecting the two countries' shared interests in the strategic Indo-Pacific region -- an area where China is becoming increasingly assertive.

The maiden "Tiger Triumph" exercise involves all three Indian military branches -- the army, navy and air force -- working with the U.S. Navy. The drill is focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and developing cooperation between the forces.

The exercise along the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal started on Nov. 13 and will run through Nov. 21. The militaries of the world's two largest democracies are undertaking maritime and amphibious operations, according to India's defense ministry.

With China looking to consolidate its presence in the Indo-Pacific, India has repeatedly stated it wants the region to be "free, open, and inclusive." The U.S. has maintained it will stand up to any power that threatens its interests and those of its allies in the area.

"We have yet to look into how we can really utilize [the 2018 India-US security agreement] out in a real theater," said Pankaj Jha, a defense and strategic affairs expert and associate professor at O.P. Jindal Global University in Haryana state. "These exercises provide us an understanding that [this agreement and the 2016 logistics memorandum of agreement] are instruments that can be used when the time comes."

The 2018 agreement allows the U.S. to share sensitive communication equipment and codes with India, enabling the two sides to operate on the same communications systems in real time. The logistics pact provides reciprocal access to military facilities for supplies and services such as food, water, transport, petroleum during authorized port visits, joint exercises and training.

The current drill "is primarily meant to activate all those technological matrices that we have entered with the U.S., including network-centric warfare, so that when there is time [for action against an adversary] we are well prepared for it," Jha said. He added that from an "implied perspective" the exercise is aimed at China, though the purely diplomatic view would say otherwise.

"When we do exercises there is some enemy in mind -- a nation or group which might be doing something that could be detrimental to the interests of the countries engaged in a drill," he said, pointing out that Beijing must be watching the ongoing exercise carefully "with some kind of apprehension."

U.S. President Donald Trump and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi hug each other at the  "Howdy Modi" event in Houston, Texas, on Sept. 22.   © Reuters

China is gaining military influence in the Indo-Pacific owing to massive investments in sophisticated defense equipment, according to an August report by the Sydney-based United States Studies Centre.

"Faced with an increasingly contested regional security landscape and with limited defense resources at its disposal, the United States military is no longer assured of its ability to single-handedly uphold a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific," the report said.

Some analysts, however, do not see the current drill hurting China's interests and aspirations, and view it more as a natural progression of strengthening overall Indo-U. S. ties.

"The decision to hold a tri-service joint exercise indicates both deepening political and strategic trust between the two countries, as well as growing familiarity between their militaries," said Prashant Kumar Singh, an associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

"When big countries like India and the U.S. cooperate in strategic arenas, they pitch their strategic cooperation on a much higher and generalized level than aiming it at any one particular country. India-U. S. security and defense cooperation spans across the Indo-Pacific."

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