Military & Aerospace

India’s maritime and other challenges in the Indo-Pacific region
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Net Edition | Date : 28 May , 2018

Looking ahead at the developing challenges and securing a naval foothold in the vital Gulf region, we reached an agreement in February this year with Oman for naval access to their bases, the first such agreement in a region which already has US, French and UK bases and where China is expanding its presence. In 2018 the first ever naval exercise with UAE is being planned. In February 2018 we announced a Joint Strategic Vision for the Indian Ocean Region with France and signed an agreement on logistics support with it too. France considers itself an Indian Ocean power by virtue of its overseas territories such as Reunion and Comores and has a permanent naval presence in this part of the Indian Ocean. With India and France having a long tradition of close defence ties, including in the naval domain- the Scorpene submarine contract, for instance, and the possibility of other cooperation in the naval domain- civilian nuclear cooperation and the general quality of political ties, the stepped up naval cooperation in the western Indian Ocean makes political and strategic sense.

India has long been active in raising its profile and its responsibilities in the Indian Ocean region as an independent player. We have been holding naval exercise with a host of countries in this region to help create a friendly and tension-free environment. Since 2003 we are holding the joint INDRA bi-annual military exercise with Russia. With France we hold the annual Varuna naval exercise since 2001, either in the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean sea. The 2015 exercise included a French battle-group led by its aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle carrying the naval version of the Rafale.  India also carries out the Konkan naval exercise with the British Royal Navy, the Simbex with the Singapore Navy, the Slinex with Sri Lanka, the IBSAMAR exercise with the Brazil and South African navies (in 2008), the AUSINDEX with Australian Navy and the Sahyog-Kaijin, which is a joint exercise of Coast Guards of India and Japan.

Since 1995, the Indian navy conducts the biennial Milan exercise with navies of the Indian Ocean region at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The 10th edition of this exercise was held in March this year with the participation of 28 warships including 17 from India, and 11 from Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. 39 delegates from 16 countries participated. This was the largest gathering since 1995 when only 5 navies had taken part.

In 2008 India launched the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) with a view to  providing a forum for all the littoral nations of the Indian Ocean to co-operate on mutually agreed areas for better regional security. The naval chiefs of 35 members are represented at this forum. The symposium is intended to generate flow of information between naval professionals to develop a common understanding and cooperative solutions in areas of common interest such as HADR, information security, interoperability and maritime security.

As part of its larger Indian Ocean strategy India played a leading role in developing the concept of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in 1997 (then called the IOR-ARC) along with South Africa. The objective was to create a platform for the littoral states of the Indian Ocean to take cognisance of their common interests, including maritime security in the regional context, as well as to meet the many traditional and non-traditional security challenges, including piracy, illegal fishing, human trafficking, drug smuggling, trafficking of weapons, maritime pollution, disaster management and climate change. India as a leading IORA power has an important role to play in this regard. The IORA celebrated its 20th Anniversary when Indonesia, as the current Chair of IORA, hosted the first ever IORA Leaders’ Summit on 7 March 2017 in Jakarta under the theme “Strengthening Maritime Cooperation for a Peaceful, Stable, and Prosperous Indian Ocean”.

Today, the Indian Navy is one of the largest navies in the world. As of 2017, according to available information, it consists of 1 aircraft carrier, 1 amphibious transport dock, 8 Landing ship tanks, 11 destroyers, 14 frigates, 1 nuclear-powered attack submarine,1 Ballistic missile submarine, 13 conventionally-powered attack submarines, 23 corvettes, 6 mine countermeasure vessels, 10 large offshore patrol vessels, 4 fleet tankers and various auxiliary vessels and small patrol boats. The Indian Coast Guard operates around 90 – 100 armed patrol ships of various sizes. The Navy has 41 vessels of various types under construction, including an aircraft carrier, destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and conventional-powered and nuclear-powered submarines. The goal is to build a 200 ship navy over a 10-year period. Of all the three armed forces, the Navy has indigenised production the most, with all 41 ships under construction being built in Indian shipyards. But given the challenges that lie ahead the issue of dwindling numbers of our submarine fleet is a matter of concern.

Having emphasised that India’s primary concerns are in the Indian Ocean, even though we have vital interest in the security situation in the western Pacific, I should come back to the rationale behind the concept of the Indo-Pacific which has now replaced the Asia-Pacific concept even in the vocabulary of the United States. From the US point of view this would be logical as the US Pacific Command based in Hawaii also covers the Indian Ocean and for the US there is an organic link between these two oceans in terms of security. India and the US have agreed on a road map for implementing this strategic vision. For the United States and India only China can significantly threaten Indo-Pacific security, given its spectacular rise and the unveiling of its maritime ambitions, including in the Indian Ocean. This joint vision document affirms the “importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. It envisages extended cooperation amongst regional countries in the form of trilateral arrangements, and potentially even quadrilateral cooperation.

The inclusion of Japan in the Malabar exercise as a permanent participant was a significant development with geopolitical connotations and elicited a negative official comment from China. In October 2015 Japan participated in the trilateral Malabar exercise in the Bay of Bengal for the first time. The expansion of our naval ties with Japan has arisen from Prime Minister Abe’s decision to bring about changes in the Japanese constitution that would permit Japan to be more active in assuming broader collective defence responsibilities. As part of this new Japanese approach to its defence role, Japan is keen to sell its US- 2 amphibious aircraft to India for use in disaster relief. India and Japan have signed a White Shipping Agreement. Australia has expressed its keen interest to join the Malabar exercise but India remains reticent possibly because of political concerns that this might be construed as India joining a US-led military alliance, as both Japan and Australia are US allies.

The deficiency of the Indo-Pacific concept from our point of view would be that the remit of the US Pacific command is limited to India’s eastern coast and does not cover the Arabian Sea which falls under the jurisdiction of the Africa Command. Our maritime security concerns are not limited to the Bay of Bengal and extend equally importantly to the Arabian Sea in view of threats from the Pakistan navy which is being strengthened by the acquisition of Chinese submarines, critical transfers of technologies from China to Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the development of Gwadar port and another in the region as a logistic hub for the Chinese navy after Djibouti. Chinese experts are now talking about acquisition of foreign bases for the Chinese navy for protecting its overseas interests, contrary to China’s earlier discourse that it would not behave as traditional big powers have done and will not seek foreign bases. For the Indo-Pacific concept to reach its potential equal importance has to be accorded to security in both the oceans so that while we engage with others in the Western Pacific we are left relatively exposed in the Indian Ocean. An integrated view of the the China threat has to be taken as it covers both land and sea. The Belt and Road Initiative is an integrated concept, with a land dimension and a sea dimension with the two corridors, one through Myanmar and the other through Pakistan linking the two geo-strategic thrusts of China.

Notwithstanding all the steps India is taking on its own and jointly with others to promote maritime security, our challenges are set to increase. China’s 2015 White Paper on Military Strategy formalised a new maritime strategy encompassing “open seas protection” for which the country’s naval capacity to protect its overseas interests and sea lanes of communication is slated to increase greatly, including in the Indian Ocean.

China has established a naval base at Djibouti. Apart from its strategic location, by maintaining its naval contingent so far away from home for long periods it is obtaining vital experience in blue water operations. It is developing Gwadar, once again located strategically- at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz- as a commercial port to begin with, but Its evolution as a naval base is a matter of time. The sale of eight submarines to Pakistan will establish the presence of Chinese naval personnel on the Baluchistan coast on a long term basis. A Chinese submarine has already surfaced at Gwadar, and China has supplied two warships to Pakistan for the port’s security. Reports have appeared about China raising the size of its marine corps from about 20,000 to 100,000 personnel to protect the country’s life-lines and its growing interests overseas. Some of them would apparently be stationed at Djibouti and Gwadar. China’s diplomatic strategy is one of camouflaging its intentions; it continually says one thing and then quietly divulges something to the contrary when the time is ripe. It has been denying that it is seeking military bases abroad and claiming that its One Belt One Road initiative is essentially commercial and development oriented in nature, even when its calculations are different and get revealed as in the case of Gwadar at a time of its choosing, and in stages.

China is selling two submarines to Bangladesh, which too will mean a Chinese presence on the Bangladesh coast, albeit limited. As evidence of its increasing naval activity in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines have twice surfaced at the Colombo port. China, seeking a foothold in Maldives, has acquired some islands there, ostensibly for the purpose of tourism development. Once it implants itself there more deeply economically, and should Maldives walk into a debt trap as Sri Lanka has slid into, China will make more strategic demands on it. As it is, the conduct of the Maldives government in creating difficulties for India to continue operating under existing agreements is causing concern. It has begun a “go slow” on the Indian radar installation project and is seeking to push Indian entities away from its southern atolls where China is strongly present. China appears to want unfettered access to the 1.5 degree channel and has interest in the 8-degree channel.

Some naval experts believe that for the present Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean is not a cause for alarm as the assets it is creating are vulnerable, being too far away from the Chinese mainland and lacking air cover. US naval power, it is argued, rests on the vast network of military bases that America has across the world. Simply having access to ports for replenishment of stores, rest and recreation and for doing exercises is not enough to wield naval power. A proper naval base would require the positioning of ordnance, spares and capacity to service vessels. From providing peaceful passage to foreign naval vessels to allowing base facilities is a strategic step that Indian Ocean countries may refuse in view of a strong Indian response. Pakistan is the only exception. Gwadar can become a veritable naval base as it has hinterland access, meaning that the Chinese can position equipment, ammunition, spares etc. there through the illegal China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Given Pakistan’s declared willingness to offer naval rights to China at Gwadar, the threat to Indian Ocean security from Chinese activities there is not to be dismissed.

China is expanding its naval capacities with the construction of additional aircraft carriers and a sizeable nuclear powered submarine fleet. The immediate objective is to challenge US naval power in the western Pacific. China is, like Russia in a sense, substantially “landlocked” as it does not have unfettered access to the open sea and is largely confined to the seas along its coast. From Taiwan to Japan it is ringed by the so-called first island chain, shored up by a powerful US military presence. China’s major strategic objective would be to break out of this throttling island chain and obtain access more freely to the Pacific and Indian Oceans for its navy.

Chinese energy supply chains are vulnerable as it does not have as yet adequate means to protect them on its own. It is seeking access to the Bay of Bengal through Myanmar and to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan so that it can have alternative supply lines to passage through the Malacca Straits. However, in the view of experts, this can only very partially alleviate its Malacca dilemma as the amount of energy that can be transported through these routes is a small proportion of China’s total requirements. We can expect that in the future the PLA Navy will deploy a substantial number of ships in the Indian Ocean to ensure protection of its own SLOCS. The regular presence of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean will naturally cause us concern because China is seen as a threatening power in view of our outstanding territorial differences and its power projection in our neighbourhood, especially its policy of bolstering Pakistan.

China is increasing its presence in our area, and this will grow as its naval capacities expand and along with it its political ambitions as a rising great power. It is cultivating, and will do so increasingly, those very strategically placed countries in the Indian Ocean that are important for India’s security. Its US $40 billion Maritime Silk Road project, which is economic, political and eventually military in scope, parades its ambitions.

China’s proposition of a maritime silk route connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans is part of its drive to convince the world about the beneficial aspects about its rise as a power.The port facilities China is obtaining or building in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan, while justifiable from the Chinese point of view to buttress its huge external trade flowing in large part through the Indian Ocean, raise concerns about China encircling us physically and politically. While India should keep engaging China, manage the relationship and expand ties in areas of mutual advantage, it has to remain watchful about Chinese declared ambitions that the 2018 US National Security Strategy and National Defence Strategy documents interpret as a will to dominate Asia and eventually replace the US as the world’s leading power.

China’s conduct in the South China Sea and its belligerent reaction to the award by the UNCLOS established Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on its maritime claims in this sea has to be taken into account by India in the context of Indian Ocean security. While there are no maritime territorial disputes involving China in the Indian Ocean and the problem of creating artificial islands and militarising them is absent in these waters, China’s disregard for international law if it works contrary to its interests carries lessons for us.

India, US and Japan, along with Australia, have therefore a shared interest in maintaining a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure peace and stability. Indonesia should be a partner in this because to avoid the Malacca Straits choke point, the Sunda and Lombok Straits passing through the Indonesian archipelago provide a route for Chinese submarines to enter the Indian Ocean. India and the US are already collaborating in tracking the movement of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, as publicly disclosed by the US Pacific fleet commander in New Delhi in January 2017 in a seminar.

China seems to believe that with its economic success, command of huge financial resources and mounting military capacities, it can flex its muscles, and that other countries, including the US, unwilling to risk a conflict, would be prone to accommodate its conduct. The credibility of US security commitments in the region has therefore become a question, with Taiwan being especially nervous. President Donald Trump’s policy remains unclear as he has blown hot and cold over China. While he is threatening a trade war with China, progress on the North Korean issue could work in favour of accommodation. India’s maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific region are set to increase in any circumstances. Prime Minister Modi’s recent informal summit with President Xi Jinping will stabilise the relationship at a certain level but the differences with China are structural in nature and therefore as we develop the Indo-Pacific concept in practical terms, the expansion of our naval strength is a strategic necessity.

1 2
Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary of India

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left