NEW DELHI – The U.S., India and Japan will hold joint naval exercises later this year in waters north of the Philippines, a move that is likely to irk nearby China as tensions rise over competing territorial claims in the region.
Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, confirmed the location of the annual Malabar drills during a security conference in New Delhi on Wednesday. The proposed area lies just northeast of the South China Sea, where the U.S. has spearheaded efforts to patrol waters near to where China is building airstrips, lighthouses and ports to assert its claims.
“By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia, the United States and so many other like-minded nations can aspire to patrol together anywhere international law allows,” Harris said. No nation should perceive the patrols as a threat, he added.
China objected after an announcement in December that Japan would join the U.S. and India as a permanent member of Malabar this year. “Relevant countries should not provoke confrontation and create tension in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.
“We all have a vested interest in ensuring our region remains secure, stable, and prosperous,” Harris said, citing $5.3 trillion in trade that passes through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea each year.
“How Indo-Asia-Pacific nations employ naval forces to support these economic interests matters greatly.”
Last year, India, Japan and Australia also held the first round of a trilateral dialogue to discuss maritime security and freedom of navigation. Harris said it would be beneficial for the U.S. to join that group.
“Adding the U.S. into this dialogue can amplify the message that we are united behind the international rules-based order that has kept the peace and is essential to all of us,” Harris said.
Tensions in the South China Sea have risen recently, with the United States and others protesting against Beijing’s land reclamation project, along with the deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the Paracel Islands.
Along with China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims over the waters.