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

October 7, 2014 Topic: SecurityForeign PolicyMilitary Strategy Region: IndiaChina

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.

Look at China’s strategic problem in geospatial terms. As American ground-pounders put it, New Delhi is the “interior-line” power confronting an “exterior-line” competitor that’s operating in a distant theater. In effect, India can operate along the radii of a circle centered on the subcontinent. It can shift national power side-to-side to points of impact along the perimeter. New Delhi, moreover, cares more about what happens within that circle than any outsider does. It can concentrate all its power on upholding its interests there. China, by contrast, must range around the circumference of the circle—traversing longer distances and intricate maritime geography.

Concentrating superior strength around a defender’s periphery while operating far from your own shores is no simple matter. It takes resources—and resolve—to surmount the barriers to entry into remote theaters.

Worse from China’s standpoint, India holds outlying islands along the circle. Such forward positions complicate Chinese operations and strategy. New Delhi can exacerbate Beijing’s “Malacca dilemma,” namely its worries about safe merchant and naval transit through the Strait and its approaches, through the simple expedient of emplacing anti-ship cruise missiles on the Andamans and Nicobars. It can fortify the island chain, using it to stretch a “metal chain” across China’s sea communications. Chinese strategists fear such a move. If Malacca constitutes China’s chief gateway to the Indian Ocean and its natural riches, then the Indian armed forces can threaten to bar that gate. In so doing they can help deter or balk mischief on China’s part. Geography may not be destiny. But it’s a boon to Indian strategy.

Political and strategic priorities, furthermore, work against an overbearing Chinese presence in South Asia. A great man once pronounced concentrating power at the decisive place on the map and at the decisive time the highest and simplest law of strategy. Statesmen and commanders break that law at their peril.

In other words, the contender that tries to do everything everywhere, risks accomplishing little anywhere. It spreads itself thin. Such a power’s political and strategic overseers, consequently, should avoid siphoning resources from crucial theaters or endeavors unless a secondary undertaking promises “exceptionally rewarding” results, and unless it can be undertaken without incurring undue risk in the principal theater. In short, they should forego lesser efforts unless they can make the attempt while preserving “decisive superiority” where it matters most. They should keep their priorities in order.

That sets the bar for secondary enterprises high. Needless to say, managing events close to home is Job One for any national leadership—including China’s. It’s conceivable, for instance, that the PLAN could outmatch the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean. But how would Chinese commanders mount preponderant force in South Asia? Chances are, they would find themselves denuding home waters of ships, aircraft and manpower for the sake of a theater where the threat to Chinese interests remains minimal for now, and where any likely gains are unexceptional.

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.

Austere cost-benefit logic, then, argues against trying to stage a PLAN fleet of any magnitude in South Asia. Barring some truly pressing threat in the region, this logic will discourage Beijing from adventures in India’s backyard for some time to come. That could change once the PLA consummates its force buildup, and once China orders affairs in the China seas to its liking. But those are long-term projects for Beijing. Indian leaders know that—and sense that they have leisure to experiment with naval hardware, methods and tactics. Their instincts are correct.

Sure, China could make trouble for India by dispatching a few submarines to South Asia. That assumes Beijing can find regional partners willing to base Chinese forces and invite New Delhi’s wrath. Argentina provided Great Britain a lesson on the potency of undersea warfare during the Falklands War. (And a Royal Navy sub taught a similar lesson to the Argentine Navy.) But making trouble isn’t the same thing as overpowering India on its own turf. Remaining watchful while pressing ahead with its naval buildup represents New Delhi’s most prudent course of action.

To my mind, accordingly, India has its head in the right place vis-à-vis the strategic competition in South Asia.

James Holmes is professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and coauthor of  Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Indian Navy/CC by 2.5 in