The largest multinational military exercise on Indian soil involving the 10-nation ASEAN grouping and eight of its dialogue partners, among them India, started yesterday, reflecting the South Asian giant’s increasing focus on deepening defence ties with South-east Asia.
More than 300 soldiers are taking part in the seven-day exercise, the aim of which, the Indian Defence Ministry said, is “to learn and share best practices with the other armies of the world, and display commitment for peace and stability in the region”.
The foreign troops, together with the Indian Army, yesterday began training in peacekeeping and de- mining operations in the city of Pune in western Maharashtra state.
“We are looking at situations where a multilateral force is asked to clear mines in conflict areas as part of demining operations,” said an official who did not want to be named.
The theme of the joint training exercise is Humanitarian Mine Action and Peacekeeping Operations.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been looking to boost co-operation with ASEAN countries since he took office and has even changed the name of India’s policy from “Look East” to “Act East”.
The past year has seen a flurry of high-level political engagements between India and South-east Asia, including Vice-President Mohammad Hamid Ansari’s visits to Brunei and Thailand last month, and Mr Modi’s visit to Singapore last year.
Trade, the mainstay of India-ASEAN ties, hit US$76.6 billion (S$107.4 billion) in 2014/2015, with security and defence co-operation now coming into greater focus.
The current exercise is taking place under the framework of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.
Besides India, ASEAN’s other dialogue partners in this drill are Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.
Experts said that the exercise signalled India’s interest in pushing defence co-operation with ASEAN.
“This exercise is more about developing mutual understanding. If there is any kind of challenge tomorrow…we can co-operate with each other. This exercise is meant to foster better ties,” said Brigadier (Retired) Rumel Dahiya, currently deputy director-general at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“It (the exercise) is part of the Act East policy because security (in the past) did not get that kind of prominence,” he said.
The multinational exercise also comes amid efforts by India to bolster its military profile in the region as China increasingly flexes its military muscle.
Last month, India held its biggest-ever maritime exercise as part of the International Fleet Review that saw participation from 50 countries.
Last year, it expanded maritime exercises with the US in the Indian Ocean to permanently include Japan. It also held its first exercise involving border troops with China in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.
“India wants to play a bigger role in the Asian strategic scene and is much more proactive… and military exercises are a critical component,” said Dr Rajeswari Rajagopalan, senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation.
“We are on the way to playing a larger role in South-east Asia and other parts of Asia,” she said.
This article was first published on March 3, 2016.
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