In what may be seen as a major shift in its foreign policy, India has sent four Stealth warships to South China Sea for a two-and-a-half-month-long operational deployment.

The Indian Navy has confirmed the news, saying in a statement: “In a demonstration of its operational reach and commitment to India’s ‘Act East’ policy, the Navy’s Eastern Fleet, under the command of Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet Rear Admiral S V Bhokare, sailed out on May 18.” The Navy also said that it sent the fleet after receiving an order from the Defence Ministry, adding that the ministry had asked the Navy to send some warships to South China Sea in order to strengthen defence ties with other countries in the region. A senior Navy officer told the media that the move would help the Indian naval forces enhance inter-operability with other Navies.

The Indian Naval fleet consists of the 6,200-tonne Shivalik-class guided-missile stealth frigates “Satpura” and “Sahyadr” that are armed with supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles, the 27,550-tonne Deepak-class fleet tanker “Shakti” – one of the largest surface warships in the Indian Navy, and the 1,350-tonne Kora-class guided missile corvette “Kirch” that is armed with sub- and super-sonic anti-air and anti-ship missiles. As per the itinerary, the Indian warships will make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Sasebo in Japan, Busan in South Korea, Vladivostok in Russia and Port Klang in Malaysia.

The Naval officer stressed that Indian Navy personnel would mainly discuss defence co-operation with the local authorities during their four-day stay in each port. He explained that it would be important for the Indian Naval vessels to take part in passing exercises (PASSEX) with other Navies in South China Sea, as the region is strategically very important for India. A number of Indian vessels use the region to transport goods to East Asian nations. After participating in PASSEX, the Indian ships will also take part in Exercise Malabar off Okinawa Coast in Japan, jointly with the US Navy and Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF).

Meanwhile, China has reacted sharply to India’s decision to send naval fleet to the South China Sea, saying that New Delhi should not encourage Tokyo and Washington to trigger fresh tension in the region. A senior spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday that Beijing would keep a close eye on the activities of Indian ships in the region for the next couple of months. Soon after the Chinese official issued the statement, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said that New Delhi is well aware of Beijing’s growing “militarisation” in the region. The Asian giant claims sovereignty on almost all of the South China Sea that is disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The ministry made clear that New Delhi, which is disturbed by China’s claim, would not take any position on the territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea, as it wanted the dispute to be settled by the concerned parties on the basis of international law.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]