PORT BLAIR, Andaman Islands --- India has just concluded its most ambitious naval exercise. Called Exercise Malabar 2007, it included the participation of military vessels and aircraft from the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore. India's navy is positioning itself to dominate its strategic waters while not trying to make waves with China, its biggest potential blue-water rival in Asia.
For modern navies, there is no ship more enviable than the aircraft carrier. It can launch squadrons of attack and support planes into the skies within minutes.
Among those watching American fighter jets catapulted above the Bay of Bengal from the USS Kitty Hawk was India's eastern region naval commander in chief, vice admiral R.P. Suthan, who says these were advanced techniques his officers and sailors need to learn. "We also might at some stage operate three carriers, hopefully," he said. "And then we must know how to manage them at sea."
India has one aircraft carrier, the Viraat. It is a hand-me-down from the British, and is scheduled to be de-commissioned in 2012. Formerly known as the Hermes, the only jets that can fly off it are the British-made Harriers, which have a very short distance takeoff capability and return to the carrier vertically, like a helicopter.
That is a severe limitation for an ambitious navy. India finally has the cash to deploy a variety of aircraft from a carrier in the middle of an ocean. It has ordered a used carrier of that type from the Russians, but delivery has been delayed. India also has plans to build up to two new carriers of its own.
On board the Viraat during the Malabar exercise, the commander of the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet, Doug Crowder, said the Indians are well aware that modern aircraft carriers demand significant investment and highly trained personnel to stay combat ready.
"Having additional carriers give you the flexibility to move them around. It also means you have got to have more of a force, more training and more aviators. It also gives you the ability to have what I call operational availability," said Crowder. "We struggle with that in our own navy as we have come down from 15 carriers, down to 12, down to 11."
India appears eager to build a navy able to dominate the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. This would give India undisputed maritime dominance over neighbor and rival Pakistan.
China, meanwhile, is building its own aircraft carriers and increasingly looks intent on asserting its presence in open southern waters.
A former U.S. deputy assistant defense secretary, Peter Brookes, says China's ambitions raise concerns in India and in other Asian capitals. "The Chinese are doing a number of things in the Indian Ocean that perhaps are making people wonder about their intentions," said Brookes. "The Japanese, during meetings in Japan between China and Japan, called for greater transparency in terms of China's military intentions and also about China's military budget."
Naval commanders who were in the Bay of Bengal stressed the exercise was intended to share tactical knowledge, and tried to avoid comment on strategic implications.
"We should not be politically oriented. The relationship between Japan and China is also getting closer and closer," said Yoji Koda, commander-in-chief of Japan's self defense fleet. "And, also, our participation in international cooperation is getting bigger and bigger."
But the reasons behind the naval build-ups are not hard to find. Japanese worry about getting drawn in to the fight if China tries to take Taiwan by force. It also is uncomfortable about Sino-Russian naval exercises.
India is nervous seeing China construct a port in Pakistan and building ties with Bangladesh, Burma, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Vice admiral R.P. Suthan stresses India's navy has been participating in exercises and training with many countries, not just those viewed as American allies. "We have our own peculiarities here. We have now the 'Look East' policy. We are building bridges of friendship with all the Southeast Asian countries. We have a lot more interaction [with them] going on. And it is open water. I mean that the beauty of oceans. It [our maritime policy] is not restricted by east or west."
China and India have also conducted naval exchanges but Indian officers say they have been limited to basic maneuvers at Beijing's request.
The last time the U.S. Seventh Fleet was in the Bay of Bengal was in 1971, trying to intimidate India as it fought Pakistan in the war that led to the birth of Bangladesh. The Malabar Exercise shows how much ties between India and the United States have improved.
It also shows how far regional cooperation has advanced since then - even as it highlights the risks posed by the growing ambitions of regional powers, from India to China.