Over the weekend, an Indian warship made a goodwill visit to Brunei. The development, which was part of commemorations under way marking a quarter-century of partnership between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), put the focus on New Delhi’s emphasis on engaging Southeast Asian states this year on the defense side.
As I have noted before, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attempted to signal a more action-oriented policy towards ASEAN specifically and East Asia more generally through its Act East Policy, in contrast to India’s original Look East Policy first formulated under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the 1990s (See: “Modi Unveils India’s Act East Policy to ASEAN”).
2017 is an especially significant year for ASEAN-India relations, since it marks the 25th anniversary of India becoming a sectoral dialogue partner with ASEAN back in 1992. In early September, as part of the commemorations for the 25th anniversary, the Indian defense ministry disclosed that two Indian Navy ships would proceed on a three-month deployment to East and Southeast Asia covering 12 ports after leaving the Indian port of Visakhapatnam on September 8.
As I have observed previously, during the deployment, the ships – the INS Satpura, a multi-role stealth frigate commanded by Captain Rahul Shankar, and the INS Kadmatt, an anti-submarine corvette led by Commander Nithin Cariappa – were to visit Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Brunei, and Russia. The ships were scheduled for a range of activities in Southeast Asian states, from regular port visits to exercises.
From November 25 to 28, the INS Satpura docked at Muara Port in Brunei after participating in the ASEAN International Fleet Review (IFR) which had been held in Thailand (See: “ASEAN’s First Naval Exercise in Perspective”). India and Brunei already have defense collaboration in place in several areas including training, exchanges, and ship visits, with a recent example being when the INS Airavat visited Brunei in May 2016 to participate in the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) exercise on maritime security and counterterrorism hosted by Brunei.
Yet this is the first time that the INS Satpura itself has visited Brunei. During the visit, the INS Satpura engaged with the Royal Brunei Navy (RBN) in formal calls as well as an array of professional, social, and sporting engagements. The ship was also made open for public visitation during part of its time there. Following the harbor phase, it conducted a Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with the RBN.
Few details were disclosed by officials about the exact nature of the exercises and engagements conducted. But Indian officials said that the INS Satpura would continue on its ASEAN voyage with a stop in Malaysia before finally beginning its return to India. The Malaysia stop is expected to feature an exercise focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).