India needs a better PLAN in the Indian Ocean

By Abhijit Singh

At a recent press conference in New Delhi, India‚Äôs Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman surprised reporters by¬†stating¬†that she saw ‚Äėno tension between the navies of India and China in the Indian Ocean‚Äô. In response to a question about a perceived ‚Äėtussle‚Äô for supremacy in the Indian Ocean, Sitharaman downplayed the Chinese People‚Äôs Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) threat in India‚Äôs near-seas, choosing curiously not to elaborate on the matter.

Indian Naval Ships Kamorta, Sahyadri and Shakti, are seen docked in Changi Naval Base during a visit to Singapore, 20 May 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Feline Lim).

Not everyone in India‚Äôs security circles would agree with the Minister‚Äôs assessment. Over the past few years, China‚Äôs rapidly expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean has created anxiety in India‚Äôs strategic community, where many believe China‚Äôs naval activism has¬†shrunk¬†New Delhi‚Äôs space for operational manoeuvre. Not only has China made inroads into India‚Äôs traditional sphere of influence in maritime South Asia; Beijing has also leveraged its naval anti-piracy deployments for geopolitical gains by promoting partnerships with regional states and advancing a ‚Äėbenevolent China‚Äô narrative.

More importantly, Beijing has raised its strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean. It is odd that China‚Äôs anti-piracy contingents now¬†comprise¬†guided-missile frigates, advanced destroyers and special operations forces ‚ÄĒcontingents suited more for high-impact ‚Äėpresence operations‚Äô than anti-piracy missions. Since the¬†inauguration¬†of China‚Äôs first overseas military facility in Djibouti, the PLAN‚Äôs bid for strategic access in the Indian Ocean‚Äôs critical littorals has been amply evident.

For New Delhi, the bigger¬†challenge¬†has come from Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean. In recent years, Chinese anti-piracy contingents have invariably been accompanied by a PLAN submarine. In the name of counter-piracy operations, Chinese submarines have gathered critical information about the Indian Ocean‚Äôs operating environment and have spent an inordinately long time¬†scouring¬†the South Asian seas. The PLAN has been assisted in its endeavours by the Pakistan Navy, raising further concerns in India about an evolving China‚ÄďPakistan axis in the Indian Ocean. China‚Äôs reported deployment of a¬†submarine¬†in July 2017, at the height of the month-long stand-off between the Indian Army and the People‚Äôs Liberation Army in the Doklam plateau, so upset New Delhi that India‚Äôs naval leadership felt compelled to order permanent¬†surveillance¬†of the Indian Ocean‚Äôs critical sea lanes and choke points by ‚Äėmission-ready‚Äô warships.

In its attempts to maintain a favourable balance of naval power in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has drawn close to Washington and Tokyo. The trilateral India‚ÄďUS‚ÄďJapan Malabar exercises have¬†grown¬†in scope and complexity with the addition of more combat drills, but New Delhi has been strangely¬†reluctant¬†to expand the tent to accommodate the Royal Australian Navy. It is possible India might consider entering into other¬†trilateral arrangements (possibly with France and Australia) before assenting to a large naval coalition in the Indian Ocean.

To New Delhi‚Äôs credit, it has¬†stepped up¬†its game in the Western Indian Ocean ‚ÄĒ the focal point of China‚Äôs investment and infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region. After signing logistical pacts with Oman and France, India has strengthened maritime ties with Mauritius, Seychelles, Mozambique and Madagascar. A visit by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to East African island states in April 2018 demonstrated New Delhi‚Äôs resolve to rise to the challenge posed by China in the Western Indian Ocean littoral.

Meanwhile, there are indications that Beijing may have been less than straightforward about its Belt and Road Initiative. The developmental blueprint is inherently ‚Äėdual-use‚Äô in character: Chinese-constructed commercial facilities are often structurally upgradable for military use (as witnessed in October 2014 when a PLAN submarine docked at a Chinese-constructed facility in Colombo), and the terms of agreement for port operations are almost always skewed in favour of Chinese state-owned companies.

New Delhi knows China is being smart with its influence projection in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has ensured that its warships do not threaten Indian interests in the Indian Ocean. PLAN ships have not challenged India’s sovereignty in its territorial waters and have maintained a safe distance from the Andaman and Nicobar islands. China has limited its ventures to its Belt and Road Initiative partner states, who are eager to benefit from Beijing’s economic and military assistance.

Yet there is no escaping the sense in New Delhi of a ‚Äėslow choke‚Äô of Indian equities in the Indian Ocean. In order to manage the India‚ÄďChina rivalry at sea, some analysts have¬†proposed¬†an ‚Äėincidents at sea‚Äô agreement with objectives similar to the US‚ÄďUSSR ‚ÄėINCSEA‚Äô pact of 1972. While such an arrangement could indeed de-escalate a crisis arising from an accidental encounter at sea, it is not entirely clear how it would help in clarifying suspicions about strategic intent. The Indian Navy would be happy to sign up to a ‚Äėcode of conduct‚Äô if it were to also apply in the Western Pacific, where there is an equal possibility of an India‚ÄďChina skirmish. But that, presumably, will not be acceptable to China.

As things stand, the Indian Navy is intent on emphasising its pre-eminent status in the Indian Ocean. Even so, the task of constantly patrolling the South Asian seas is imposing a heavy burden on naval frontline assets. The sheer magnitude of the task has led Admiral Sunil Lanba, head of the Indian Navy, to observe that even though Indian warships were monitoring the pattern and periodicity of extra-regional deployments, it is clear the People’s Liberation Army Navy is here to stay in the Indian Ocean.

It is possible the Admiral was acknowledging the putative India‚ÄďChina ‚Äėreset‚Äô in¬†bilateral relations¬†and the attendant need for cooperative engagement with the PLAN. Or maybe he was subtly cautioning his subordinates that they needed to do more to counter the¬†China threat¬†in India‚Äôs strategic backyard.

Abhijit Singh is Senior Fellow and Head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.

Source: East Asia Forum

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