Confrontation is brewing in the South China Sea, with the Financial Times reporting that the United States Navy (USN) is about to challenge China's construction of "artificial islands" in disputed waters. By sailing warships next week through a 12-nautical mile zone around these islands, the USN will explicitly reject China's claim.
Beijing's maritime neighbours, especially Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam are backed by Washington in resisting China's increasingly aggressive claims to most of the South China Sea and islands in the Sea of Japan, on which the neighbours maintain their own claims.
New Delhi maintains distance from this face off, but only to a point. This week, the navy will join the USN and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force in coordinated battle drills in Exercise Malabar 2015 in the Bay of Bengal.
One of the four USN ships participating, the USS Forth Worth, was involved four months ago in challenging China's claims over the disputed Spratly Islands. In May, Beijing lodged an official protest with Washington after USS Forth Worth made a "freedom of navigation" passage through the Spratly Islands.
From October 14-19, the three navies will rehearse scenarios for destroying hostile submarines, surface warships and aircraft. The phrase "People's Liberation Army (Navy)", or PLA(N), will not be used in the exercise. Yet, there will be little doubt about what these sailors are training for.
In a major shift for New Delhi, Exercise Malabar, a hitherto bilateral US-India annual event, albeit with foreign invitees, will now be permanently designated a trilateral US-Japan-India exercise. Defence Ministry sources tell Business Standard a formal case has been taken up in New Delhi and an announcement will soon be made.
This will be another overt Indian step towards the western Pacific, one that New Delhi has so far hesitated to take. In 2007, after a five-nation Exercise Malabar, with Japan, Australia and Singapore as invitees to what strategists dubbed a "concert of democracies", Beijing went on a diplomatic offensive. New Delhi quickly backed off, soothing Chinese feelings by reverting to a bilateral format.
Now a trilateral Malabar is being formalised, and in September, India and Australia held their first-ever bilateral naval exercise, billed as AUSINDEX-15. It is also noteworthy that Malabar is held on alternate years in the western Pacific.
Analysts like Shashank Joshi (in Australian publication, "The Interpreter") rightly point out that, going purely by warship numbers, Malabar 2015 - featuring ten warships - is significantly smaller than the 2007 exercises that involved 26 warships. Nor is it larger than Malabar 2010, 2012 and 2014, which also involved ten warships.
Even so, Indian admirals say the exercises are growing ever more sophisticated and display growing trust between participating navies. Joshi notes that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's meeting with President Barack Obama in September 2014, a joint statement noted they had "agreed to upgrade their existing bilateral exercise Malabar". This endorsement was repeated when Obama visited New Delhi in January.
The US warships participating this week will include the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of the USN's eleven nuclear powered aircraft carriers. This vessel is nicknamed "The Big Stick", after Roosevelt's famous admonishment, "Speak softly, but carry a big stick". it embarks 70 aircraft: including 44 F/18 fighters, four Growler electronic warfare aircraft, four E-2C airborne early warning aircraft, and 20 combat helicopters.
The USN is also sending USS Normandy, a less-than-cutting-edge Ticonderoga-class destroyer; the USS Fort Worth, America's newest and most modern littoral combat ship (LCS); and a nuclear powered attack submarine, USS City of Corpus Christi.
India will field a Rajput-class destroyer, a Brahmaputra-class frigate, a Shivalik-class frigate, a fleet tanker and a Kilo-class submarine. New Delhi has never yet fielded an aircraft carrier in Exercise Malabar and - disappointingly for the US given the agreement between the two countries to cooperate in building India's indigenous aircraft carrier - this year will maintain that absence.
Tokyo is fielding only a single warship, the destroyer JS Fuyuzuki. Nick-named the "Japanese Aegis", this will be amongst the most potent warships in the exercise.
Malabar 2015 will feature cutting-edge airborne maritime surveillance, with the USN and Indian Navy both deploying the world's most advanced maritime aircraft, the Boeing P-8 Poseidon. The USN calls their version the P-8A, while the Indian version is called P-8I.
This aircraft scans vast swathes of ocean for enemy ships and submarines. When it detects one, it is able to quickly direct friendly ships and submarines onto the contact, using satellite-enabled digital linkages.
The Malabar naval exercises began in the early 1990s, when Washington and New Delhi began exploring a new, post-Cold war relationship. In 1991, the army chief of the US Pacific Command (PACOM), Lieutenant General Claude Kicklighter, held talks in Delhi, resulting in the first modest Exercise Malabar, featuring two ships from each navy.
After a hiatus in relations caused partly by India's nuclear weapons tests in 1998, Exercise Malabar resumed in 2002, and have been held every year since then.