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  Navy hails successful South China Sea visit Navy hails successful South China Sea visit

Josy Joseph in New Delhi

The recent visit of an Indian naval fleet to the South China Sea is a great leap in maritime diplomacy, believe naval officials. The visit to various Asian countries, especially China, has demolished certain diplomatic prejudices, even as it sets up a strong, confidence-building path between India and China.

The Chinese, who had raised a diplomatic furore over India's plans to hold exercises in the South China Sea, gave the fleet a rousing welcome and, in an unusual gesture, released a first-day cover in honour of the visit. Naval sources admit that even the Indian navy, which has been actively involved in maritime diplomacy for over a decade now, has never released a first-day cover in recognition of a foreign fleet's visit.

Indian and Chinese ships carried out combined exercises, which included an exchange of personnel and basic manoeuvres, after the former entered Shanghai port on September 15. "The exercises lasted almost eight hours. Language definitely was a problem, but it was successful considering the fact that it was our first combined exercise," say naval sources.

The Indian ships -- INS Delhi and INS Kora -- left Shanghai three days later.

International observers had seen the Indian navy's decision to venture into the South China Sea as an attempt to present a direct challenge to China, which claims the entire sea as its territorial waters. Observers had also warned that it could escalate tension between Beijing and New Delhi. Yet, there were others who pointed out that the Chinese have the habit of "making noise over an issue because they don't want their basic views to be ignored by the international community. Subsequently, though, they work out practical solutions."

Senior officials at the naval headquarters added, "When we sent them a request about visiting Shanghai, there was no reluctance on their part. Once we reached there, there was no indication that the Chinese were unhappy about our presence. They gave us a rousing welcome and accepted our invitation to the International Fleet Review in Bombay next year."

They also hail the first-day cover released by the Chinese as a "remarkable gesture." The cover contains a photo of the Indian navy's pride, the indigenously-built INS Delhi.

"We think the visit has not only greatly boosted maritime diplomatic relations between the countries, but has also given a fillip to the New Delhi-Beijing contacts. We hope to see further intensification of the relationships with the expected participation of the Chinese navy at the International Fleet Review," say officials at the Indian naval headquarters.

This was third time in independent India's history that an Indian naval ship visited China. The old INS Delhi first visited China in 1958; two other ships visited China in 1995.

The possibility of a hostile reception was not the only danger faced by the Indian fleet. On the way to Shanghai, they were struck by three typhoons. One officer dislocated his arms, while the ships suffered minor damage to their decks. "It was a test for the fleet. Our ships and sailors withstood them bravely," says a senior naval officer.

When Typhoon Saomai struck, the Indian fleet -- which was just about 300 miles from its eye -- had to battle rough seas. They were forced to divert several miles off course and wait until the typhoon passed over. The ships also survived Typhoons Wukung and Bopha.

Flag Officer Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Command, Vice Admiral Pasricha was present at the port when the fleet reached Shanghai. He told the naval headquarters that the Chinese reception was very warm and that they repeatedly appreciated the professionalism and technological advancement of the Indian navy.

The fleet also received a grand welcome in Pusan, South Korea. Pasricha and his counterpart vowed to improve contact between the navies of both the countries. They also resolved to exchange midshipmen for training. Both INS Aditya and INS Kuthar docked in Pusan from September 15-18.

At Sasebo in Japan, the fleet was received by the Mayor and Miss Sasebo in a traditional welcome ceremony. Both INS Delhi and INS Kora stayed in Sasebo from September 21-24.

INS Sindhuvir visited Singapore from September 25-28, while INS Rajput went to Ho Chi Minh from September 28 to October 1.

In the fleet's last stop over, INS Delhi, INS Aditya and INS Kuthar entered Jakarta last week, from October 5-8, while the kilo-class submarine stayed out in the sea. In Jakarta too, there was a round of exercises with the Indonesian navy.

The Indian navy insists the venture into the South China Sea was not an offensive attempt, but part of a "detailed plan to expand the horizons of our maritime diplomacy." These kind of plans are worked out almost three years in advance, in consultation with the ministry of external affairs. In the last nine years, the Indian navy has conducted 60 exercises with various countries, most of them in the Indian Ocean rim. Her ships have also travelled to the UK, USA and other European countries.

The naval headquarters lays great importance on "maritime diplomacy and increasing regular contacts with various navies, especially those which are in the Indian Ocean rim." They believe the proposed International Fleet Review in February would greatly boost the ongoing efforts at maritime diplomacy. Twenty-two navies have already confirmed their participation in the Review, which is hyped to be a spectacular show off the Bombay coast.

They believe such goodwill visits, joint exercises, deployments and foreign training can be potent instruments in projecting the nation's foreign policy. They seek to achieve confidence-building measures with friendly states, support India's national policy and increase friendly access to countries of interest. Maritime diplomacy also aims at strengthening bargaining powers in diplomatic negotiations, providing reassurance to Indians abroad, projecting a favourable image and demonstrating a nation's industrial and technological prowess.

Another major achievement of these engagements has been India's increasing success in countering the threat of piracy. In November 1999, the Indian naval and coast guard ships recaptured a hijacked Japanese cargo ship after a 12 hours chase. It proved to be a great morale booster to Indo-Japanese naval ties, since India believes Japan and Vietnam are key strategic partners in anti-piracy operations.

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