China flexes naval muscle in Indian Ocean

By Premvir Das

(May 08, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Chinese Navy celebrated its 60th Anniversary by hosting an International Fleet Review at Qingdao. More than 40 warships participated in this ceremony, including those from India and other foreign navies, at which the Chinese displayed the best of their naval power, the submarines and an amphibious assault ship attracting the most attention.

Chiefs of navies from many countries, including India, were present at this event. All told, it was a grand affair, as most such naval pageants are. Yet, more need not be read into this spectacle than is warranted.

Two decades ago, the Royal Malaysian Navy held a similar review at Penang with about the same participation of foreign warships and dignitaries.

India, itself, held an international review in 2001 at which 21 ships of foreign navies were present along with about 40 of its own. So, there is nothing earth-shattering in what happened at Qingdao.

Yet, there is something afoot in the maritime environment which needs recognition. Some years ago, the Chief of Logistics of the Chinese Navy had observed that the Indian Ocean was not India’s Ocean.

This is actually quite true, just as the East and South China Seas are not Chinese waters and the Sea of Japan does not ‘belong’ to Japan. But there is a definite and logical geographic linkage.

This does not mean that there is any sense of ownership; only that there is an inherent interest in what goes on in these waters. This concern is both at the strategic level and more proximate.

India has widespread economic interests, largely related to the sea, which extend from the Gulf countries on one end to those of South East Asia on the other and extending southwards towards the island nations of Mauritius and Seychelles.

As the major regional maritime power, it has a responsibility both in maritime security and in maritime governance, including the safe movement of sea-borne commerce.

It is for this reason that it is involved in cooperation with maritime forces of friendly countries both in the east and the west. The presence of its warships off Somalia is not India specific, just as it is not off Seychelles; these deployments are to safeguard its own interests and those of other littoral countries.

There are ships of several other countries engaged in this task as well, both from within the region and external to it. The latest to join this cooperative effort are warships of the Chinese Navy.

Until some years ago, the Chinese Navy, despite operating nuclear-powered submarines, some fitted with nuclear warhead missiles, was essentially a coastal force. Thereafter, as China grew economically and as a major power, this small ‘defensive perimeter’ was extended to what was termed ‘the first island chain’ which required credible operating capability in the waters up to and including Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.

The next step was to enhance this coverage to the ‘second island chain’, an expanse of water going up to Guam in the Pacific.

In its modernisation, the Chinese have placed special emphasis on the enhancement of naval power through platforms capable of operating at long distances away from home, consistent with its growing stature.

The foray in the Gulf of Aden is to be seen in this context. As a cooperative measure, it is a step to be welcomed. If there is more to this deployment, then it is a matter of concern.

The deployment of ships to enable a continuing presence is not easy. Logistics can be ensured to some extent with ships replenishing from suitable vessels or even ‘friendly’ ports but that itself cannot be enough. The breakdown of machinery and equipment off and on are inevitable and repairs to warships often require dedicated support.

A constant and credible presence is possible only if base facilities are available, preferably, dedicated bases, such as the USA has at Diego Garcia. These are not available to China as of now.

Three port development projects are presently in motion in this region with Chinese assistance, in Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. There are fears that some of these might be made available for basing Chinese naval forces.

This is easier said than done; political and diplomatic pressures on these countries from those who have leverage will make it very difficult.

However, as a possibility, it cannot be ruled out. So, the prospect of the Chinese Navy becoming an Indian Ocean player is a real one. For India, this is not a comfortable thought. For ships of the two navies to exchange port visits and otherwise interact at high level is positive as also cooperative engagement at sea, but a permanent naval presence has a different dimension. With the induction of aircraft carriers in a few years, as seems likely, the situation will become more ominous.

India needs to take note of developments of strategic interest in its area. The Indian Navy’s modernisation plans must recognise the capabilities that are being created and respond to them. The force level of ships and submarines has been languishing, the former just holding and the latter, falling. Acquisitions must be hastened, both from abroad and by building at home.

And, just as the Chinese are busy focussing on technology, so must the Indian forces. Considerable time has been lost in developing maritime power of the type that is needed even as others have rapidly changed profile; further delay can act to our serious detriment.

(The writer is a retired Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, India)

-Sri Lanka Guardian

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