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China’s increasing presence and involvement in the Indian Ocean is certainly not negligible, although it would be rash to say that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has the upper hand in the Ocean.
China’s overall naval capabilities have exceeded India’s. However, the PLAN has limited experience in operations beyond coastal waters. It also has a limited number of blue water naval combatants and only a few long-range air strike capabilities. The lack of logistical support and the obstacle of going through chokepoints to reach the Indian Ocean significantly constrain China’s naval capabilities in the area. In fact, it would seem like an extremely arduous task for China to secure all its Indian Ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs). According to You Ji, an Australian expert on Chinese military affairs, Beijing acknowledges that the use of military force to meet conventional threats to secure its Indian Ocean SLOCs is not realistic.
India, however, cannot remain complacent. China is continuously developing its naval capabilities and forging partnerships with strategically located states in the Indian Ocean. In 2017, China established its first offshore military base in Djibouti. This would provide it with a considerable capacity to monitor the Indian Navy’s movements in the Indian Ocean. In addition, the developments of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor will also provide China with an enhanced military presence in the Indian Ocean region. Among Beijing’s port developments in the region, Pakistan’s Gwadar Port has the potential to become another offshore military base.
From Non-Alignment to Multi-Alignment
For India to maximise its strategic interests in limiting China’s growing presence in its geographic neighbourhood, it would have to deviate from its Cold War policy of non-alignment and engage more with other like-minded states. Among these states, Japan and Australia have cemented their position as key partners of India. And for obvious reasons: China has been ramping up its incursions into Japanese territory in the East China Sea and continues to impose economic coercion over Australia for the country’s desire to investigate the causes of the coronavirus pandemic. These confrontational activities, including the recent border row with India, have pushed the three states closer strategically.
In a significant step that would advance their strategic partnership, Japan and India held their inaugural 2+2 dialogue on 30 November 2019. With an eye on China, both states have also expedited the conclusion of their military logistics agreement – the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) – to expand the strategic reach of both militaries.
Through ACSA, Japan would be able to gain access to Indian facilities in the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands which lie at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, while India would also have access to Japan’s naval facility in Djibouti and other potential bases in Japanese territory. This move would enhance the logistical capabilities of both countries, and would be a platform for them to check China.
Last month, India and Australia announced two bilateral strategic declarations for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and inked seven other pacts, including a key Mutual Logistics Support Agreement for defence purposes. Through this, the two countries can use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies, including fuel and spare parts. Initial collaboration would likely centre on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Australia’s Cocos Islands, which border some of Asia’s most vital trade routes.
In addition to Australia, India has also inked reciprocal military logistics pacts with the US, France, South Korea and Singapore.
Implications and Challenges for the Indian Navy
Indian Navy Admiral Sunil Lanba, who served as Chief of Staff of the Indian Navy, neatly summed up what needs to be done: ‘As far as the Indian Navy is concerned, we have only one front. And that is the Indian Ocean. We have overwhelming superiority over [the] Pakistan navy in all fields and domains. In the Indian Ocean region, the balance of power rests in our favor compared to China’.
Yet, despite its prominence in the Indian Ocean, India still needs to address several challenges facing its navy. Among them, three stand out.
First, enhancing what may be termed as ‘maritime consciousness’ is crucial to the development of the Indian Navy. Since 1947, maritime issues have often been neglected by India due to two factors: excessive concentration on continental threats emanating from the north and northwestern frontiers, and the distance between maritime boundaries and decision-makers in New Delhi. Traditionally speaking, the Indian Navy has been a neglected branch of the armed forces, resulting in a relative decline in spending trends.
Second, there is a lack of acceleration in terms of modernisation. For, although India is trying to enhance the capacity of its navy, developments remain slow. With respect to this, the primary hurdle is to ensure that ships and aircraft are always available.
Third, the quality and reliability of India’s indigenous naval buildup remains questionable. Despite the success of the indigenously produced aircraft carrier INS Vikrant and the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine INS Arihant, India’s indigenous defence production has been marred by serious technical and organisational problems, leading to significant delays in the development of key defence technologies and platforms. Consequently, India finds it difficult to translate its commitment to self-reliance into practice.
Still, the latest clashes with China may have prompted a rethink in New Delhi about the broader naval domain, where India can maintain the upper hand.
Don McLain Gill is based in the Philippines and has written extensively on regional geopolitics and Indian foreign policy.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: The INS Vikramaditya. Courtesy of the Indian Navy/indiannavy.nic.in