By Tommy Wilkes
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Australia wants to join India, the United States and Japan in joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean, widening participation in multilateral drills as China's influence in the region grows.
Australian Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said expanding the exercises to include more countries would help avoid military mistakes in a region where China and India are increasingly competing.
"Exercising together is one way to avoid some kind of miscalculation happening," he told reporters on the second day of a visit to New Delhi.
"India shares our interest in the wider free passage of international trade."
India and the United States hold the so-called Malabar exercises in the Indian Ocean every year.
This year, Japan will take part, the first time since 2007 the exercises have included a third country - and a sign of closer military ties between allies worried about Chinese activity in the region.
China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea has angered neighbors there as well as Japan and the United States, two of the major maritime powers in Asia.
China also shocked India last year with two Chinese submarine visits to Sri Lanka, India's island-nation neighbor to the south.
Andrews said on Wednesday Australia was concerned about escalating strategic rivalry in the South China Sea, saying it put Asia at the risk of a military blunder.
His visit to New Delhi comes as India and Australia prepare to hold their first bilateral naval maneuvers next month, where they will showcase their anti-submarine warfare capability.
Andrews said defense ties with India would deepen.
"Gradually we will expand the range of exercises. We are looking at air force to air force and army to army exercises over the next year or two," he said.
India last hosted a multilateral exercise in 2007 when it invited Japan, Australia and Singapore to join drills with the United States in the Bay of Bengal, prompting disquiet in Beijing.
India's Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar also expressed interest in Australia's "Bushmaster" armored infantry vehicle, Andrews said, although talks on any sales were at an early stage.
(Reporting by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Robert Birsel)