Why India Should Fear China’s Growing Naval Power
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.
At a recent press conference in New Delhi, India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman surprised reporters by stating that she saw ‘no tension between the navies of India and China in the Indian Ocean’. In response to a question about a perceived ‘tussle’ for supremacy in the Indian Ocean, Sitharaman downplayed the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) threat in India’s near-seas, choosing curiously not to elaborate on the matter.
Not everyone in India’s security circles would agree with the Minister’s assessment. Over the past few years, China’s rapidly expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean has created anxiety in India’s strategic community, where many believe China’s naval activism has shrunk New Delhi’s space for operational manoeuvre. Not only has China made inroads into India’s 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 ‘benevolent China’ narrative.
More importantly, Beijing has raised its strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean. It is odd that China’s anti-piracy contingents now comprise guided-missile frigates, advanced destroyers and special operations forces —contingents suited more for high-impact ‘presence operations’ than anti-piracy missions. Since the inauguration of China’s first overseas military facility in Djibouti, the PLAN’s bid for strategic access in the Indian Ocean’s critical littorals has been amply evident.
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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’s 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–Pakistan axis in the Indian Ocean. China’s reported deployment of a submarine in July 2017, at the height of the month-long stand-off between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army in the Doklam plateau, so upset New Delhi that India’s naval leadership felt compelled to order permanent surveillance of the Indian Ocean’s critical sea lanes and choke points by ‘mission-ready’ warships.