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Delhi flexes naval muscle with eye on Beijing

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India is stepping up efforts to boost its naval influence as it looks to emerge as a counterweight to China in the Indian Ocean Region and beyond.

On Wednesday, India conducted the much-awaited sea trials of its first indigenous aircraft carrier (IAC) Vikrant which propelled it into a select group of countries having capabilities to build state-of-the-art warships.

Separately, India has also dispatched a task force for a joint drill with the United States and other allies in the South China Sea, where Beijing has maintained a near-hegemonic presence for years.

Flexing maritime muscle

The historic sea trials of Vikrant signalled India’s firm intent to play a bigger role in regional efforts to keep an assertive China in check.

The aircraft carrier set off on its maiden sea trials, 50 years after its namesake played a major role in the 1971 war.

Once deployed on the high seas, the 262-metre long and 62-meter wide IAC will pack quite an offensive punch as a floating airfield with fighters as well as a wide array of weapons to project raw military power.

Built at the Cochin Shipyard at a cost of around Rs 23,000 crore with an indigenous content of 76%, the carrier was first sanctioned by government way back in January 2003.

It will be commissioned as INS Vikrant by August next year.

The warship, which will operate MiG-29K fighter jets, Kamov-31 helicopters, MH-60R multi-role helicopters, has over 2,300 compartments, designed for a crew of around 1700 people, including specialised cabins to accommodate women officers.

India currently has only one aircraft carrier, the 44,500-tonne INS Vikramaditya, inducted from Russia for $2.33 billion in November 2013.

The Navy said 44 other ships and submarines were being built indigenously. It is also pressing the government for a third carrier, with Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh saying the force could not remain “tethered”.

China, meanwhile, is assiduously ramping up its naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region. Fast-tracking its aircraft carrier plans, China already has two carriers, Liaoning and Shandong, and is building two more towards its aim of eventually having 10 of them.


In China’s own backyard


Meanwhile, the Indian Navy has also sent a task force of four ships to South East Asia, the South China Sea and Western Pacific for two months of exercises with countries like US, Japan, Australia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Four ships including a guided missile destroyer and a missile frigate will be deployed for a two-month period to southeast Asia, the South China Sea and the western Pacific, the Navy said in a statement.

“The deployment of the Indian Navy ships seeks to underscore the operational reach, peaceful presence and solidarity with friendly countries towards ensuring good order in the maritime domain…” the navy said.

The South China Sea has become one of many flashpoints in the testy relationship between China and the United States, with Washington rejecting what it calls unlawful territorial claims by Beijing in the resource-rich waters.

This year, India has also conducted naval exercises with France and most recently with a British task force in the Bay of Bengal last month led by the new HMS Queen Elizabeth carrier.

Firming up Quad

India has been traditionally wary of antagonising China but the mood has hardened following the border flareup in eastern Ladakh last year which led to the death of 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese troops.

Over the last year, India has grown closer to the United States in efforts to push back against China.

India, Japan, Australia and the US together form the “Quad” alliance seen as a bulwark against China.

Last year in November, the navies of the four countries had participated in a mega Malabar drill — the first time since 2007 that all four nations came together for the exercise.

In March this year, PM Modi, US President Joe Biden, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga held wide-ranging discussions during the first-ever Quad leaders’ summit.

China has in the past criticised multilateral military manoeuvres as destabilising to the region.

(With inputs from agencies)

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