Chinese navy aims to challenge India’s preeminence in Indian Ocean

Dragon in India’s backyard

 

In its first deployment of battle-ready warships outside the Pacific, China is extending its maritime role to the Indian Ocean rim under the anti-piracy banner, thereby challenging India’s long-standing dominance there

 

Brahma Chellaney

Asian Age, December 31, 2008

 

While India has remained fixated on the “Jihadistan” to its west — with an indecisive Indian leadership’s addiction to empty rhetoric allowing an open-and-shut case against Pakistan over the Mumbai terrorist assaults to go by — Communist China has made its first-ever deployment of a naval task force beyond the Pacific by dispatching battle-ready warships to India’s backyard. The task force comprising two destroyers and a supply ship is starting escorts and patrols along the Indian Ocean rim in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden.

 

This move, under the banner of internationalism, aims to extend China’s maritime role and presence far from its shores while demonstrating, under United Nations rules of engagement, a capability to conduct complex operations in distant waters where Indian, US, Iranian and Russian navies are already active. Earlier, the anti-piracy plank also came handy to Beijing to agree to joint patrols with Pakistan in the Arabian Sea and extend cooperation to ASEAN.

 

Significantly, Beijing is seeking to chip away at India’s maritime pre-eminence in the Indian Ocean — a theatre critical to fashioning a Sino-centric Asia, if China can assert naval power there to protect its commercial interests and to expand its influence over the regional waterways and states. As the state-run China Daily put it, quoting a military analyst, a “key goal” in battling pirates in Indian Ocean waters off Somalia “is to register the presence of the Chinese navy”.

 

Undergirding the deployment’s larger geopolitical motives was a separate announcement that China is “seriously considering” adding a first aircraft carrier to its navy fleet because, as a military spokesperson put it, aircraft carriers are “a reflection of a nation’s comprehensive power”. This is just the latest indication of China’s commitment to a blue-water navy. In the past, China bought four carriers (three ex-Soviet and one Australian) but, strangely, it inducted none in its fleet, preferring instead to learn from their design.

 

With President Hu Jintao publicly pressing for rapid naval modernization and the 2006 defence White Paper disclosing that “the navy aims to gradually extend its strategic depth”, naval expansion and greater missile prowess are now at the core of China’s force modernization. Since 2000 alone, China has built at least 60 warships. Its navy now has a fleet of 860 vessels, including at least 60 submarines.

 

China’s naval objectives are manifold, including to:

 

·                           safeguard its vast sea frontiers and a 877,020-square-kilometre exclusive economic zone (EEZ);

 

·                           help shift the balance of power in Asia in its favour;

 

·                           strengthen its deterrent capabilities;

 

·                           underpin political, commercial and energy interests through a sea-based power projection force capability;

 

·                           prevent the rise of peer competition from Japan and India, even as it seeks to position itself as a militarily strong and economically dynamic peer competitor to the US;

 

·                           thwart efforts by an outside power to set up new military bases or tie-ups around China’s periphery; and

 

·                           control vital sea-lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific Oceans through a “string of pearls” strategy.

 

Rising naval power arms China with the heft to pursue mercantilist efforts to lock up long-term energy supplies, assert control over transport routes, and assemble a “string of pearls” in the form of listening posts and special naval-access arrangements along the great trade arteries. As India’s navy chief, Admiral Suresh Mehta, has said, “Each pearl in the string is a link in a chain of the Chinese maritime presence”.

 

In fact, a 2003 article in the Liberation Army Daily had asserted that the contiguous corridor from the Taiwan Straits to the Indian Ocean’s western rim constitutes China’s rightful offshore-defence perimeter. And a recent paper published by the Chinese Institute for International Strategic Studies points to the inevitability of Beijing setting up naval bases overseas, including in the Indian Ocean rim.

 

To the east, a rising frequency of Chinese naval patrols indicates that Beijing is seeking to extend its strategic perimeter deep into the Pacific Ocean. What is being subtly suggested by Chinese analysts today — that the Western Pacific is China’s maritime zone of influence — could set the stage for an intensifying strategic competition with another naval power, Japan.

 

Just as China’s land-combat strategy has evolved from “deep defence” (luring enemy forces into Chinese territory to help garrotte them) to “active defence” (a proactive posture designed to fight the enemy on enemy territory, including through the use of forces stationed in neighbouring lands or seas), a shift in its sea-warfare posture has emerged, with the emphasis on greater reach and depth and expeditionary capability.

 

And just as Beijing has used its energy investments in Central Asia as justification to set up at least two offensively configured, armour-heavy mechanized corps — with Xinjiang as their springboard — to fight deep inside adversarial territory and secure strategic assets, China’s growing oil imports from the Persian Gulf and Africa have come handy to rationalize its growing emphasis on the seas.

 

China is determined to build a blue-water naval force before 2025. Chinese warships inducted in recent years have already been geared for blue-sea fleet operations. As Beijing accelerates its construction of warships and begins to deploy naval assets far from its EEZ, Chinese naval power is set to grow exponentially.

 

China is also planning to deploy a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (known as SSBNs). It has already developed its new Jin-class (Type 094) SSBN prototype, with satellite pictures showing one such submarine berthed at the huge new Chinese naval base at Sanya, on the southern coast of Hainan Island. The Sino-Russian gap in nuclear naval forces is narrowing, but within the next 25 years, China could have more nuclear assets at sea than Russia.

 

Against this background, it is no surprise that the Chinese navy is extending its operations to the Indian Ocean — a crucial international passageway for oil deliveries and other trade. The extending role is also manifest from the projects China has launched in the Indian Ocean rim, including the building of a port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the modernization of Bangladesh’s Chittagong port, and the construction of a deep-water commercial port and naval base for Pakistan at Gwadar, situated at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz — the only exit route for Gulf oil. Beijing is eyeing Gwadar as a naval anchor.

 

In addition, the Irrawaddy Corridor between China’s Yunnan province and the Burmese ports on the Bay of Bengal is set to become a key economic and strategic passageway involving road, river, rail and harbour links. Commercial satellite imagery shows that China already operates signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection facility on the Great Coco Island.

 

India, with its enormous strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, is in a position to pursue a sea-denial strategy, if New Delhi were to adopt a more forward-thinking naval policy. Just the way India has come under a terrorist siege from Pakistan-based jihadists by doing little more than adopt defensive measures, it will confront — if it retreats to a defensive position — the Chinese navy in its backyard, completing the Chinese encirclement of the country.

 

To safeguard its long-term strategic interests, India has to start exerting naval power at critical chokepoints. That entails arming the Indian navy with the teeth and authority to guard the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean.

 

(c) The Asian Age

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