China is suspicious of a huge multinational naval force near Guam
US, Japanese, and Indian warships converged in Guam for the 22nd iteration of Exercise Malabar, an annual exercise focused on developing coordination and training to counter maritime threats.
2018's version of the exercise, which is the first to take place around Guam, runs from June 7 to June 16, 2018, but as the ships involved gathered beforehand, the Chinese navy was keeping an eye on the proceedings.
Indian ships sailing to Guam were shadowed by Chinese warships in the South China Sea, breaking off only when the Indian ships entered the Philippine Sea.
"We had good, polite conversation. They were there for some time, and then broke off," Rear Adm. Dinesh K. Tripathi, commander of India's Eastern Fleet and head of India's delegation to Malabar 2018, told The Economic Times. "The moment we entered the Pacific across the Philippines Sea, they went back. It was interesting."
Surveillance by Chinese ships, which Tripathi said was "not surprising," comes a few weeks after Indian warships spotted a Chinese ship "tailing them at a safe distance" as they left Vietnam, following the first joint exercise between those two countries.
"We knew we were being tailed, but we were on international waters or global commons, and therefore took evasive measures," sources told India Today of the incident.
That exercise, which ran from May 21 to May 25, 2018, attracted Chinese ire, with a Global Times op-ed calling it "a futile attempt to flex muscle."
'Distance actually does not matter'
Malabar started in 1992 as a US-India bilateral exercise. It has been done annually since then — with the exception of 1998 through 2002, after India's 1998 nuclear tests — expanding to a trilateral exercise with Japan's addition in 2015.
Other countries have participated in the past, though Indian has declined Australia's request to take part for the past two years. (Observers suspect Chinese pressure is behind Canberra's exclusion.)
Malabar 2018 consists of on-shore and at-sea portions. The former ran from June 7 to June 10, 2018, involving expert and professional exchanges on carrier strike group, maritime patrol, and reconnaissance operations as well as on surface and anti-submarine warfare. The latter portion lasts from June 11 to June 16, 2018, in the Philippine Sea, and will include military-to-military coordination, air-defense and surface-warfare exercises, and replenishment while underway.
The US Navy has sent the USS Ronald Reagan, Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers USS Antietam and USS Chancellorsville, Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold, and a P-8A Poseidon aircraft.
India's participants include stealth frigate INS Sahyadri and the first-in-class antisubmarine-warfare corvette INS Kamorta, which was trailed by a Chinese ship while leaving Vietnam May 2018. India's fleet tanker INS Shakti and a P-8I Neptune, the Indian variant of the P-8A Poseidon, are also taking part.
Japan sent its Hyunga-class helicopter carrier JS Ise as well as two destroyers, JS Suzunami and JS Fuyuzuki.
As in years past, Malabar 2018 includes a focus on submarine and antisubmarine warfare, a capability that has grown in importance as Chinese submarine activity has increased in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
A number of countries in the region have been investing more in their submarine forces — India in particular is seeking to add submarines and Neptune maritime-patrol aircraft.
2018's version of the exercise is also the first since the US Defense Department renamed US Pacific Command as US Indo-Pacific Command— a shift that has been interpreted as both a rhetorical swipe at China and an adjustment to the growing interconnectedness of the Pacific and Indian ocean regions.
Chinese spy ships have been spotted lurking near US naval exercises with partners in the region in the past, and such activity is expected again during Malabar 2018.
For India, basing the exercise in Guam reflects the country's willingness and ability to project power.
"Distance actually does not matter. Wherever Indian maritime interests are, that is our area of operation," Tripathi told The Economic Times. "Wherever national interest takes us, we will deploy if needed."
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.