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Who will rule the waves?

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — Euphoria in India surrounding the launch of the INS Arihant is not entirely unwarranted. After decades of investment, India finally has the ability to indigenously build and operate a nuclear-powered submarine, a feat accomplished by only five other countries.

Yet, this should not blind India to the fact that it has miles to go before it can catch up with its neighbor, China, which has made some significant advances in the waters surrounding India.

Just a few months back, China’s growing naval capability was on full display when it paraded its nuclear- powered submarines for the first time during celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. Gone is China’s old reticence in admitting such capabilities.

Chinese commanders now openly talk about the need for nuclear submarines to safeguard the nation’s interests, and China’s navy, once the weakest of the three services, is now the focus of the military’s modernization program.

China’s navy is now considered the third-largest in the world behind America and Russia’s navies, and is superior to the Indian Navy qualitatively and quantitatively. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has traditionally been a coastal force, but with the rise in economic might since the 1980s, Chinese interests have expanded with the intent of projecting power into the Indian Ocean.

China is investing far greater resources into the modernization of its armed forces in general, and its navy in particular, than India seems either willing to undertake or capable of sustaining at present. China’s increasingly sophisticated submarine fleet could eventually become one of the world’s largest. Amid a rapid accretion of submarines, ballistic missiles and GPS-blocking technology, some suggest that China will increasingly have the capacity to challenge America.

Senior Chinese officials have indicated that by the end of the decade China will be ready to build an aircraft carrier, considered indispensable to protecting Chinese interests. Such an intent marks a shift away from devoting the bulk of PLA’s modernization drive to capturing Taiwan.

As China’s economic and political prowess rise, there has also been commensurate growth in its Indian Ocean profile. China is acquiring naval bases at crucial choke points not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region. China realizes that its maritime strength will give it the strategic leverage to emerge as the regional hegemon.

China’s growing reliance on bases across the Indian Ocean is a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistic constraints that it faces due to the distance from its own area of operation. China is consolidating power over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with an eye on India, something that comes out clearly in a secret memorandum issued by the director of the General Logistic Department of the PLA: “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only for the Indians. We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account.”

China has deployed its Jin class submarines at a submarine base near Sanya on the southern tip of Hainan Island in the South China Sea, raising alarm in India. The base is merely 1,200 nautical miles from the Malacca Strait and will be its closest access point to the Indian Ocean. The base also has an underground facility that can hide the movement of submarines.

The concentration of strategic naval forces at Sanya will further propel China toward consolidating its control over the Indian Ocean region. The presence of access tunnels on the mouth of the deep water base is particularly troubling for India as it will have strategic implications, enabling China to interdict shipping at three choke points in the Indian Ocean.

As the ability of China’s navy to project power in the Indian Ocean region grows, India is likely to feel even more vulnerable and restricted in its freedom to maneuver despite enjoying distinct geographical advantages. Of particular note is what has been termed China’s “string of pearls” strategy of bases and diplomatic ties, which has significantly expanded China’s strategic depth in India’s backyard. This includes the Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Burma, electronic intelligence-gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, a military agreement with Cambodia, and the buildup of forces in the South China Sea.

Given that almost 80 percent of China’s oil passes through the Strait of Malacca, Beijing is reluctant to rely on U.S. naval power for unhindered access to energy and so has decided to build up its naval power along the sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea. China is also courting other states in South Asia by building container ports at Chittagong in Bangladesh and at Hambantota, Sri Lanka, as well as by helping to build a naval base at Marao in the Maldives.

China will have great difficulty in exerting as much sway in the Indian Ocean as India does. Still, the steps that China takes to protect and enhance its interests in the region will generate apprehensions in India, thus engendering a classic security dilemma between the two Asian giants.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and currently is a visiting professor at IIM-Bangalore.