New Delhi: Indian Navy’s exercise ‘Milan’ that ended Sunday clearly showcased the widening strategic footprint of India. As many of 17 countries participated, including those from the Indian Ocean rim and South-China sea rim, in the six-day event at Port Blair in the Andaman Nicobar Islands.
This was the biggest edition of the ‘Milan’ since its inception in 1995. The event started on February 4 and saw maritime forces of these nations come closer professionally and culturally cementing friendship and building confidence in interoperability. It was the first time that countries from the western IOR participated including two African nations -- Kenya and Tanzania. Mauritius, Maldives Seychelles – all in the western Indian Ocean were joined by navies from Australia, Bangladesh, India, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
But, for India and also China, the thing to watch was the participation of seven countries of the powerful ten-nation Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping. Five of the ASEAN countries are locked in a bitter dispute with China and have overlapping claims in the resource-rich Sea.
The Philippines – which has a US-Navy base in its country -- and Cambodia were first time participants at Milan. Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand, competed the ASEAN group at the exercise. Vietnam, Laos and Brunei, are the other three in ASEAN, which did not participate this time.
ASEAN is crucial for free trade through the South China Sea. India has target of US $ 100 billion trade with ASEAN in 2015, announced in 2012. New Delhi does not have a direct stake in the South China Sea but India’s growing needs for oil and gas have forced it to drill in two offshore oil and gas blocks off the coast of Vietnam. Liquefied natural gas from Russia is shipped to India on this route.
On January 17, the foreign ministers of the ASEAN had voiced concern over China’s new maritime law regulating fishing in the South China Sea. The ministers “expressed their concerns on the recent developments in the South China Sea” said an ASEAN statement released on its website www.asean.org after a retreat in Bagan in central Burma.
The ASEN statement said: “They further reaffirmed ASEAN’s Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea and the importance of the maintenance of peace and stability, maritime security, freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea”.
The ASEAN foreign ministers had gone on ask all parties “to undertake the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in order to build an environment of mutual trust and confidence …( and emphasized) the need to expeditiously work towards the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).”
China’s Hainan province, which includes Hainan Island and the immediate surrounding areas, has said “All foreign persons and foreign fishing boats that enter waters administered by Hainan Province to conduct fishing or fisheries surveys must have pre-approval from the appropriate People’s Republic of China (PRC) State Council office”.
This new maritime identification zone regulating fishing in the province’s territorial waters and it took effect Jan 1, 2014 and covers more than 2 million square kilometers of waters administered by Hainan officials in the South China Sea.
Yesterday, 15 ships from the participating countries sailed in perfect harmony in the clear Andaman Sea for a grand culmination of the ‘Milan -2014’ biennial exercise. After a few manouvers at sea the ships formed up in a column and steamed past the Flag ship with men manning the side of the ship and presenting a traditional salute in the form of “man and cheer ship” to the presiding officer, The Commander-in-Chief Andaman and Nicobar Command (CINCAN), Air Marshal PK Roy.
The six days of engagement included an International seminar on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) with participating nations like Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar and Philippines sharing lessons from their recent first hand experiences in handling disasters such as cyclones, earthquakes and Tsunamis.
In his keynote address, the Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral DK Joshi, emphasized the need for developing capacity and procedures based on common principles and considerations. He stated that ‘Rapid Deployment’, Co-ordination, Logistics and Medical Aid are cardinal considerations for founding common procedures for HADR operations.
A table-top exercise on HADR called “Rahat” was conducted on February 8 which delegates from the participating nations. Delegates grouped into multinational teams evolved a combined response to the eventuality and various options were analysed during the course of the exercise.
On February 8 the Marine Drive in Port Blair transformed into a colourful and festive site during the impressive International City Parade. The local public turned up in massive numbers and adorned the entire stretch of the Marine Drive. The colourful International City Parade showcased the rich heritage of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and gave the audience a glimpse of the Indian culture and the Armed Forces.
In addition to a breathtaking Fly Past by aircraft of the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, the parade included a mesmerising operational demonstration of the Indian Navy involving covert operations by the Marine Commandos and a SAR demo. A spectacular Sky Diving display by the Akash Ganga Sky Diving team of the Indian Air Force also enthralled the audience. The March Past itself had contingents of the Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Air Force, and the Indian Coast Guard, along with military bands and contingents from the foreign ships participating in MILAN 2014.