India’s Ladakh Crisis & China’s grand plan to dominate Eurasia – III
by Ramtanu Maitra on 26 Nov 2020 0 Comment

What China Fears Most: Indian Naval Muscle


China’s aggressive posture in the Himalayas, pushing India to invest more and more on its land army, is a decoy to prevent India from developing a strong naval force. At a time of conflict, a much-stronger Indian Navy could cause serious disruption to China’s principal trade route, the one that brings in the bulk of China’s oil and gas from the Persian Gulf. What worries China most is that India has a clear geographical potential to turn the Indian Ocean into an Indian Lake, and that could effectively choke China’s supply lines in a time of conflict. But to do so, New Delhi needs to have a very mobile and well-equipped Indian Navy.


Decades ago, prominent U.S. Sinologist John Garver argued that in the event of a conflict between the two countries, India might be tempted to escalate from the land dimension, where it may suffer reverses, to the maritime dimension, where it enjoys substantial advantages, and employ those advantages to restrict China’s vital Indian Ocean trade. (Could India Blockade Chinese Trade in the Indian Ocean?: Dr. David Brewster: The Maritime Executive: July 12, 2020) India’s development of the Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) off Port Blair on the Andaman Islands (also known as the Bay Islands) located midway between the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait, is a case in point. FENC is part of a well-laid plan. According to Indian naval officers, FENC has a chain of small anchor stations and three main bases. As for models, it is not unlike Russia’s Black Sea base and the U.S. naval base in Hawaii.


Larger than the former U.S. base in the Philippines at Subic Bay, FENC will spread from Narcondam island in the northern Andaman Sea to Indira Point, the southernmost point of Indian territory and about 80 kms from Rondo Island of Indonesia. Car Nicobar will serve as the vital link for various FENC stations. (India Bids to Rule the Waves: From the Bay of Bengal to the Malacca Strait: (Ramtanu Maitra: Additional reporting by Sudha Ramachandran: Asia Times: Oct. 19, 2005) The Indian Air Force has also set up at least four bases, the most important of which are the bases at Car Nicobar and INS Baaz located in Campbell Bay, the southernmost island in the Andamans. INS Baaz sits less than a hundred nautical miles from the Strait of Malacca, through which almost 80 percent of China’s oil passes.


India’s geographical advantage along China’s vital trade route has always been one of Beijing’s major concerns. China needs to somehow secure a vast area extending from coastal China, through Southeast Asia, into the Indian Ocean, and all the way to the Saudi peninsula and African littoral. China views the region as an integral part of its broader geo-economic and geostrategic vision. And China is moving right ahead by giving its navy more muscle and securing port access in the Indian Ocean coastal countries.


That is why China has been spreading money around in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and Djibouti: the sole objective is to secure long-term access to their Indian Ocean ports. China is also apparently eager to invest in Iran’s Chabahar port area, where India’s presence is significant. In addition, China is rapidly developing its submarine capability, which should be of concern for India. The PLA Navy’s submarine fleet, which is “heavily geared towards anti-surface and land-attack missions,” is also slated to grow. (The Subsurface Dimension of Sino-Indian Maritime Rivalry, in India and China at Sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean: Iskander Rehman: Oxford University Press, 2018).


Both conventional and nuclear-powered submarines of China have undertaken patrols in the Indian Ocean and made port calls at “friendly” countries. In wartime, Chinese submarines might slip through the Sunda Strait or Lombok Strait, located between the chain of Indonesian islands that separate the Pacific and Indian Oceans. One advantage of these straits over the Malacca Strait, which runs past Singapore, is that they would deliver the submarines to the deep water of the eastern Indian Ocean, and from there they could take less obvious routes to their targets. (Chinese Navy Submarines Could Become A Reality in Indian Ocean: Forbes: HI Sutton: June 26, 2020)


China’s control over the Myanmar ports of Akyab, Cheduba and Bassein could throw a counterchallenge to FENC. China is developing all these naval ports with facilities to handle ships considerably larger and more sophisticated than the Myanmar Navy currently possesses. As of now, in an emergency, China could enforce a sea denial on India by using its warships stationed in Coco and other islands leased from Myanmar.


China’s Vulnerability


Because of its vastness and its bays, the Indian Ocean, which comprises more than one-fifth of the world’s total sea area, offers China the critical sea trade routes to the Middle East, Africa, Australia and South Asia. It also provides access to the oil- and gas-rich Middle East region through one of its bays, the Arabian Sea. The Indian Ocean is not only host to vital international trade routes, the region contains a number of the world’s most important strategic chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz—a strait between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman—and Malacca, through which 32.2 million barrels of crude oil and petroleum are transported per day, more than 50 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade (Center Stage for the 21st Century: Rivalry in the Indian Ocean: Robert Kaplan, March 16, 2009).


But it is significant that, while a large part of its trade passes through the Indian Ocean, China does not have direct access to that body of water. China’s  principle access to these essential routes is through the Malacca Strait, the narrow waterway connecting the Andaman Sea (Indian Ocean) and to the South China Sea (Pacific Ocean) that is one of the world’s busiest channels. Nearly 100,000 vessels pass through it annually, accounting for about one-quarter of the world’s traded goods. Oil shipments through the Strait of Malacca supply both China and Indonesia, two of the world’s fastest-growing economies. This strait is the primary chokepoint in Asia, with an estimated 16.0 million b/d flow in 2016, compared with 14.5 million b/d in 2011. Crude oil generally makes up between 85 percent and 90 percent of total oil flows per year, and petroleum products account for the remainder. (World Oil Transit Chokepoints: U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA): July 25, 2017)


To a small extent, China has met its growing energy demand by bringing in oil and gas from distant lands through land-based pipelines. Separate crude oil pipelines from Russia and Kazakhstan illustrate efforts to increase overland supply. Construction of the 440,000-b/d Myanmar-China oil pipeline, which bypasses the Strait of Malacca, transporting crude oil from Kyuakphyu in Myanmar to Kunming, China, is yet another measure undertaken by China. However, these land-based pipelines can serve only as supplemental supply routes. China is, and will remain, heavily dependent on the sea lanes via the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Hormuz to bring in the bulk of its oil. (2016 China Military Power Report: U.S Department of Defense: China’s Energy Strategy)


Despite threats posed by Pakistan vis-à-vis the state of Jammu and Kashmir and China’s aggression along the Himalayas, there is an understanding in India that the Indian Navy needs to develop a lot more muscle. Although discreetly building its submarine capabilities, New Delhi must take other strategic steps to ensure the Indian Navy’s dominance of the northern Indian Ocean. To date, a lack of adequate funds has been cited as one of the main reasons why the Indian Navy is not getting built up the way it should.


Lack of funds has also meant that the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands will remain underutilized, allowing China to strengthen its deterrence capacity in the Indian Ocean. While India has built a tri-service theater command on the islands aimed at protecting its strategic interests in the Strait of  Malacca (New Tri-Service Commands: Prakash Katoch: Indian Defence Review: Aug. 22, 2015), New Delhi continues to place limited assets on the island, forcing it to act as a logistical facility in support of planning and coordination of the navy’s deployments in East and Southeast Asia rather than as a true joint command that can deepen collaboration and cohesion among India’s three military services.


Developing a true combined services command can build on India’s acquisition of the P-8 platform (a variant of the Boeing P-8 Poseidon that India has procured), as well as potential acquisition of the Sea Guardian drones (U.S. Looks Forward to Completing Sea Guardian Deal with India: Press Trust of India: July 14, 2018), and advance its ability to conduct surveillance and maximize its maritime domain awareness. (A Rising India in the Indian Ocean Needs a Strong Navy: Aman Thakker: CSIS: 2018)




Despite an aggressive posture in Ladakh that will help it advance westward a few kilometers and ongoing deceptions to prevent withdrawing to its old position, there is no indication that China plans to go to war with India. There are principally two reasons for this. First, the Chinese PLA troops are much inferior fighters compared to the Indian troops operating at that high altitude. Losing a high-profile war to the Indians is not what China can afford at a time when it is trying to establish itself as a dominant global power. China is also aware that seizing land from India by using force, as it did in 1962, is a thing of the past. Moreover, unlike in 1962, China is no longer an isolated country. It has spread its interest and investment far and wide to almost every corner of the world. Beijing is aware of the consequences of waging such a war.


And in addition, since Washington took note of Beijing’s intent to dominate the world by sweeping aside the system that was set up by the West in the post–World War II rearrangement of the world order, China’s plate is full. In the Indo-Pacific region itself, the key area for China’s growth and security, there are a few issues that could burn China’s blueprint of global dominance, at least in the short and medium term.


Among them are: China’s claim to about 85 percent of the South China Sea and its virtual occupation of the Spratley and Paracel (Xisha and Ninsha, to China) islands in the surrounding waters, ignoring the unsettled international disputes and some ASEAN nations’ valid claims to those islands; the re-emergence of Taiwan’s latent desire not to become a part of mainland China; and the formation of Quad—an agreement of sorts between the navies of  the United States, Japan, Australia and India, bringing the mighty U.S. Navy to the Indian Ocean’s northern fringes to prevent it becoming a Chinese Lake.


The second reason China cannot afford to indulge in a war is because of its adoption of a technology-driven growth path, which the Chinese behemoth Huawei calls “the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, and massive big data applications to supply chain management transportation, health care and other fields.” (You Will Be Assimilated: David P. Goldman: Bombardier Books) China’s plan is anchored in successfully developing a large number of corporate behemoths—such as Huawei, Alibaba, China Mobile, Tencent Holdings, China Unicom and China Telecom—that operate across the world and have developed a complex global supply chain which makes China a hugely successful trading nation.


Xi Jinping’s grand project, One Belt, One Road, dips heavily into this global connectivity that China has developed through the behemoths and leading construction companies, such as China State Construction Engineering Corp. Ltd., China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd., China Communications Construction Group Ltd. and Shanghai Construction Group Co. Ltd. Most of these are among the world’s leading companies in their individual sector. A war with India could seriously harm these huge Chinese enterprises, thus threatening China’s future growth.


Since China’s initiation of a war over Ladakh is hardly believable, India should stand tough and yield nothing in the North, while building up its strength in the Indian Ocean and its bays. Simultaneously, India needs to expand its diplomatic wings to build up a stronger bilateral economic relationship with China, with no strings attached.


There are reasons why India must adopt such a policy: To consider an economic decoupling with China is not only an absurd proposition for India, but it would hurt India a lot more than it would hurt China. The Indian economy is about a fifth that of China, while the population sizes of these two countries are almost identical. India’s infrastructure, manufacturing, transport industry, construction sector and telecommunication capabilities, among other sectors, lag China badly.


If India is indeed serious about “atmanirbharata” (self-reliance) in all essential economic sectors, it would be self-defeating not to develop mutually beneficial cooperation with China to achieve that objective. That Chinese products in certain sectors continue to rule the roost in India (and now have abruptly come under attack) is not so much the fault of China, but rather the outcome of the kind of unfocused growth that has gone on in India for decades.



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