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International relations

US carrier conducts drills with India near key chokepoint Malacca

Sino-American tensions extend to Indian Ocean from South China Sea

The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group steams in formation alongside Indian Navy ships during a cooperative deployment in the Indian Ocean on July 20. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

NEW YORK -- As tensions between the U.S. and China rise in the South China Sea, military and diplomatic hostilities look to spill over to the Indian Ocean.

Just days after concluding operations in the closely watched region of the South China Sea, one of the U.S. Navy's largest ship formations, the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group, has commenced joint exercises with defense partner India near another important maritime region: the Strait of Malacca, a narrow sea lane between Malaysia and Indonesia that is considered one of the world's most critical chokepoints. Much of China's maritime trade with Europe and its imported oil passes through the strait.

According to the U.S. Navy, both American and Indian "naval forces conducted high-end exercises designed to maximize training and interoperability, including air defense." The Nimitz carrier, guided missile cruiser USS Princeton and guided missile destroyers USS Sterett and USS Ralph Johnson participated in the exercises alongside the Indian Navy ships Rana, Sahyadri, Shivalik and Kamorta.

"Interoperability and air defense against whom? Not pirates and terrorists," said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation. "This is code for dealing with a mutual adversary, which is China."

For decades, India has followed a foreign policy built on non-alignment. On Monday, S. Jaishankar, India's foreign minister, reiterated New Delhi's position about not joining an alliance. However, Both Washington and New Delhi are in the midst of heightening tensions with Beijing, which could draw them closer.

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz steams past Singapore while transiting the Straits of Malacca. Nimitz, the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 11, is deployed conducting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

"A great power competition between the U.S. and China could and is impacting India," said Grossman. "India has been neutral for years, but considering its recent standoff with China, India has realized that maintaining cordial ties with Beijing is going to be difficult."

In June, high in the Himalayas, in the disputed region of Ladakh, in what was the deadliest confrontation with Beijing in over three decades, India engaged in deadly skirmishes with Chinese forces. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in hand-to-hand combat with People's Liberation Army troops. Neither country allows their soldiers to bear weapons in that contested region to reduce violence.

This comes as China expands its presence in South Asia. In addition to its support for India's rival Pakistan with military aid and investments, China is also maneuvering for influence in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

"After Doklam [a similar skirmish with China in the same region in 2017], India had a reckoning of sorts. It realized that the Chinese were going for it everywhere. Not just in the mountains, nor just in the Indian Ocean, but also pulling smaller countries out of India's orbit," said Grossman. "Now, with this exercise with the Americans, this is Reckoning Part 2."

Further east, heated rhetoric has been on the rise in the South China Sea, where Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam challenge China's claim to about 90% of the maritime region.

Last week, a strong-worded statement from the U.S. State Department rejected Beijing's claims over the so-called nine-dash line, siding with its regional allies.

"Establishing a military presence in the Indian Ocean against Beijing is of enormous importance," said Grossman. "China is worried about its Malacca dilemma: what would it do if during a conflict its adversaries blocked the Strait? Since Malacca is a key transit point for oil and other natural resources, it could be a big problem."

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