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Why we should heed navy chief's warning on China

By Harsh V Pant
August 26, 2009 17:28 IST
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Outgoing Chief of Naval Staff and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, drew a lot of criticism recently when he suggested that India neither has the 'capability nor the intention' to match China's military strength 'force for force.'

But he was merely stating the obvious ground reality given that China's GDP is more than thrice that of India and India's annual defence expenditure is less than half of China's. Much of the criticism was unwarranted as Admiral Mehta was probably trying to wake the Indian political class out of its slumber by forcing it to think more clearly about the implications of China's rise for India.

His was a warning about China which is rapidly moving towards the consolidation of its national power and if India does not move proactively it will find it almost impossible to catch up with China.

Towards this end, he suggested that India not only has to achieve higher rates of economic growth but it also needs to build ties with other major global powers and undertake significant reforms in the defence sector.

These steps are necessary as it is clear that if India has to protect its national interests, it will have to challenge China's growing might in its vicinity.

One should look at the euphoria in India surrounding the launch of INS Arihant in this context. Though that euphoria is not entirely unwarranted as 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, it should not blind India to the fact that it has miles to go before it can catch up with 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 as part of the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army.

Gone is the reticence of the yore when China was not ready to even admit that it had such capabilities. Chinese commanders are now openly talking about the need for nuclear submarines to safeguard the nation's interests and the Chinese navy, once the weakest of the three services, is now the focus of attention of the military modernisation programme that is being pursued with utmost seriousness.

China's navy is now considered the third-largest in the world behind only the US and Russia and superior to the Indian Navy in both qualitative and quantitative terms. China's navy has traditionally been a coastal force and China has had a continental outlook to security. But with a rise in its economic might since the 1980s, Chinese interests have expanded and have acquired a maritime orientation with an intent to project power into the Indian Ocean.

China is investing far greater resources in the modernisation 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 be one of the world's largest and with a rapid accretion in its capabilities, including submarines, ballistic missiles and GPS-blocking technology, some are suggesting that China will increasingly have the capacity to challenge America.

Senior Chinese officials have indicated that China would be ready to build an aircraft carrier by the end of the decade as it is seen as being indispensable to protecting Chinese interests in the oceans. Such an intent to develop carrier capability marks a shift away from devoting the bulk of PLA's modernisation drive to the goal of capturing Taiwan.

With a rise in China's economic and political prowess, there has also been a commensurate growth in its profile in the Indian Ocean region. China is acquiring naval bases along the crucial choke-points in the Indian Ocean not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region.

China realises that its maritime strength will give it the strategic leverage that it needs to emerge as the regional hegemon and a potential superpower and there is enough evidence to suggest that China is comprehensively building up its maritime power in all dimensions.

It is China's growing dependence on maritime space and resources that is reflected in the Chinese aspiration to expand its influence and to ultimately dominate the strategic environment of the Indian Ocean region. China's growing reliance on bases across the Indian Ocean region is a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistical constraints that it faces due to the distance of the Indian Ocean waters from its own area of operation.

Yet, 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 an ocean of 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 in the southern tip of Hainan island in the South China Sea, raising alarm in India as 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, making them difficult to detect.

The concentration of strategic naval forces at Sanya will further propel China towards a consolidation of its control over the surrounding 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 in the Indian Ocean region, allowing China to interdict shipping at the three crucial chokepoints 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 despite enjoying distinct geographical advantages in the region.

China's growing naval presence in and around the Indian Ocean region is troubling for India as it restricts India's freedom to manoeuvre in the region. Of particular note is what has been termed as China's 'string of pearls' strategy that has significantly expanded China's strategic depth in India's backyard.

This 'string of pearls' strategy of bases and diplomatic ties include the Gwadar port in Pakistan, naval bases in Myanmar, electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, funding construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, a military agreement with Cambodia and building up of forces in the South China Sea.

Given that almost 80 per cent of China's oil passes through the Strait of Malacca, it is reluctant to rely on US naval power for unhindered access to energy and so has decided to build up its naval power at 'choke points' 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 in Bangladesh at Chittagong and in Sri Lanka at Hambantota as well as helping to build a naval base at Marao in the Maldives.

Given the immense geographical advantages that Indian enjoys in the Indian Ocean, China will have great difficulty in exerting as much sway in the Indian Ocean as India can. But all the steps that China will take to protect and enhance its interests in the Indian Ocean region will generate apprehensions in India about her real intentions, thereby engendering a classic security dilemma between the two Asian giants.

Tensions are inherent in such an evolving strategic relationship as was underlined in an incident earlier this year when an Indian Kilo class submarine and Chinese warships, on their way to the Gulf of Aden to patrol the pirate-infested waters, reportedly engaged in rounds of manoeuvring as they tried to test for weaknesses in others' sonar system.

The Chinese media reported that its warships forced the Indian submarine to the surface which was strongly denied by the Indian Navy.

Unless managed carefully, the potential for such incidents turning serious in the future remains high, especially as Sino-Indian naval competition is likely to intensify with the Indian and Chinese navies operating far from their shores.

If Admiral Mehta's warning that India is long way off from catching up to China can generate the requisite debate in the Indian political establishment about the rise of China and its implications for Indian strategy, he would have done his bit for the nation.

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

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Harsh V Pant