Are the warships from the United States, India, Japan, Australia and Singapore that are exercising together this week off the east coast of India harbingers of a new military alliance in Asia to contain China?
Beijing may suspect they are, despite assurances from participants that the aim is sealane security, not alliance building.
Led by the US and India, the countries taking part in the training have assembled an impressive array of naval power. By the time the multinational flotilla disperses at the weekend, it will have practised maritime interdiction, taking control of suspect vessels at sea, and air combat exercises as well as surface and anti-submarine warfare.
The manoeuvres, which began yesterday, are an extension of long-running bilateral naval exercises between India and the US, known as the Malabar series. They have been expanded for the first time to include Australia, Japan and Singapore. The US will contribute 13 warships, India seven and Australia will be represented by a frigate and a tanker, Japan by two destroyers and Singapore by a frigate.
The operational zone for the training stretches from the Indian mainland to India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, guarding the western approaches to the Malacca and Singapore straits, one of the world's busiest waterways.
Some 60 per cent of China's foreign trade and 75 per cent of its oil imports pass through these straits. The formation of a quadrilateral dialogue between the US, Japan, Australia and India is being pushed by Tokyo and Washington on the basis that the four share common values of freedom and democracy, and should co-operate to advance other shared interests.
Australia and Japan are allies of the US. Last March, Canberra and Tokyo signed a Joint Declaration on Security Co-operation. Their foreign ministers hold a regular trilateral strategic dialogue with the US to co-ordinate approaches to regional security and stability. When the US and Japanese foreign and defence ministers met in Washington in early May, they made a direct reference to the importance of engaging India.
The statement said it was their common strategic objective to continue to build on partnerships with India to advance areas of common interests and increase co-operation, recognising that India's continued growth is inextricably tied to the prosperity, freedom, and security of the region.
For Japan, India is a key part of the Arc of Prosperity and Freedom that the Abe government is trying to build around the outer rim of the Eurasian continent skirting the borders of China and Russia. The Arc partnership appears to exclude Beijing and Moscow.
When senior officials of the US, Japan, India and Australia arranged an inaugural meeting on the sidelines of a meeting in Manila in May of the Asean Regional Forum to discuss how to take the four-power relationship forward, China pointedly sent diplomatic notes to each of them requesting an explanation. Since then, Beijing has indicated that if the Quad is formed, it will be divisive, destabilising and risk plunging Asia into another Cold War.
Partly for this reason, Australia and India are wary of giving the group a strategic shape. As if to emphasise that China was not being isolated, Canberra said in July that Australia, China and New Zealand would hold their first-ever tri-nation naval exercise this month near Australia. If the Quad were to emerge as a security partnership, it could well develop as a counterpart to the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation.
The SCO has been stitched together by China and Russia, with four Central Asian states. They say it is not aimed at third countries or groups but is intended to maintain security and stability in the region.
But the Quad alongside the SCO would look suspiciously like an Asian version of Nato confronting a Warsaw Pact-style bloc in the region, with non-members coming under pressure to take sides. Or would it? It is too early to tell. China and Russia may want to draw India into the SCO as a full member. It is already an observer.
The other four participants in this week's naval exercises all have strong economic and other ties to China and do not want to disrupt them. In the longer term, if the Quad takes shape the trick may be for it and the SCO to act transparently.
* The writer, a former Asia editor of the International Herald Tribune, is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.