Coming to the Indian Ocean, the Chinese Navy: How Should India Respond?

"It’s doubtful any Chinese president worth his salt would place Chinese interests in the East or South China Sea in jeopardy for uncertain stakes in the Indian Ocean."

Chinese submarines prowling South Asia’s briny deep? No longer is this some hypothetical prospect. A nuclear-powered People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type 093 Shang-class attack boat was sighted cruising regional waters last winter. Indian naval proponents long maintained that Beijing would cross a redline if it dispatched nuclear subs to the Indian Ocean. It would set Sino-Indian maritime competition in motion—a seesaw process with unforeseeable repercussions. And just last month, a Type 039 Song-class diesel-electric boat put in an appearance in the region, tarrying at Colombo in company with a submarine tender. The Song was presumably en route to counterpiracy duty in the Gulf of Aden.

And indeed, these undersea patrols set commentators aflutter on the subcontinent. “China’s Submarines in Indian Ocean Worry Indian Navy,” blared a typical headline. Why get exercised over on-again, off-again PLAN forays? For one thing, such enterprises may presage ominous things to come as China’s naval buildup matures—giving commanders forces to spare for extraregional ventures. Sub cruises, then, could constitute early steps onto a slippery slope.

For another, Indians take a proprietary view of the Indian Ocean region. They bridle reflexively at an extraregional military presence in their environs. Such a presence is doubly objectionable when it looks permanent. As foreign-policy pundit extraordinaire C. Raja Mohan observes, even a friendly power like the United States plucks such reflexes when ensconced at strategic locations like the island redoubt of Diego Garcia, to the subcontinent’s south. When a foreign naval presence manifests itself in military bases, that’s a problem.

And yet the tenor of Indian commentary on China’s navy has modulated over the past few years. A decade ago, Indians fretted ceaselessly about encirclement. China, they feared, was assembling a “string of pearls,” a network of Mahanian naval stations dotting the Indian Ocean basin and constricting New Delhi’s freedom of action. Speculation went on and on.

Yet officialdom now appears more comfortable with the strategic setting. For all the chattering classes’ talk about a string of pearls, New Delhi has pursued naval and military modernization at a pace better described as leisurely and methodical, rather than hasty or frantic. The Indian Navy, for instance, is building toward a fleet with enough ships to keep one aircraft-carrier task force combat-ready at any time, factoring in the usual rhythm of at-sea deployment, overhaul, routine upkeep and crew training.

This is not the behavior of a regional hegemon on edge about imminent encroachment from another would-be hegemon. It’s more like prudent action meant to hedge against a future downturn in the threat environment. Former Indian national-security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon captured the prevailing mood a few years back, joking that a string of pearls makes “a pretty ineffective murder weapon as any Clue aficionado will tell you,” referring to the murder-mystery game. No talk of redlines or encirclement for Menon.

Why the relatively laid-back attitude toward a stronger, at-times predatory neighbor? Because India has internalized some basic realities. Sure, Indian economic growth lags China’s by a wide margin. It trails China by other indices of national strength as well.

India nevertheless enjoys sizable advantages when competing in South Asia. Geography, for one. The subcontinent occupies a central position in the region. It juts out into the Indian Ocean, letting Indian mariners and airmen exert some control over maritime traffic crisscrossing the Indian Ocean. India, moreover, holds the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, athwart the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca. And Indian forces enjoy short distances to potential trouble spots. They’re intimately familiar with the physical and cultural terrain in their home region. In all likelihood, furthermore, Indians place more importance on managing what transpires in the Indian Ocean than any external power will. Wanting something more supplies an edge.

And on and on. China may boast the home-team advantage vis-à-vis the United States in East Asia. But it’s the visiting team in South Asia, and must overcome India’s home-field advantage to get its way there. Projecting power into the Indian Ocean is hard for China. Mounting a standing naval presence is even harder. This is the inexorable logic of access and of access denial.

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