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Chinese Maritime Strategy for the Indian Ocean

China’s Defense & Foreign Policy Week

By David Scott

Chinese maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean reflects a couple of simple inter-related planks; espousal of a “two ocean” navy and espousal of the Maritime Silk Road. 2017 has witnessed important consolidation of each maritime plank. Each plank can be looked at in turn.

“Two Ocean” Navy

In expanding naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, China is pursuing a “two-ocean” (战略, liang ge haiyang) strategy. This is the manifestation of China’s new strategy of “far-seas operations” (远海作战, yuanhai zuozhan) endorsed since the mid-2000s, to be achieved through deployment and berthing facilities across the Indo-Pacific, in part to meet energy security imperatives and thereby achieve “far seas protection” (远海护卫, yuanhai huwei) and power projection by the Chinese Navy. This shift from “near sea” to “far sea” is the decisive transformation in Chinese maritime thinking; “China’s naval force posturing stems from a doctrinal shift to ocean-centric strategic thinking and is indicative of the larger game plan of having a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean.”1 This naval force posture has brought Chinese naval operations into the eastern and then western quadrants of the Indian Ocean on an unprecedented scale in 2017.

In the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean, February 2017 witnessed the Chinese cruise missile destroyers Haikou and Changsha conducting live-fire anti-piracy and combat drills to test combat readiness. Rising numbers of Chinese surface ship and submarine sightings in the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean were particularly picked up in India during summer, a sensitive period of land confrontation at Doklam – e.g. Times of India, ‘Amid Border stand-off, Chinese ships on the prowl in Indian Ocean,’ July 4; Hindustan Times, ‘From submarines to warships: How Chinese navy is expanding its footprint in Indian Ocean’, July 5. This Chinese presence included Chinese surveillance vessels dispatched to monitor the trilateral Malabar exercise being carried out in the Bay of Bengal between the Indian, U.S., and Japanese navies, which represents a degree of tacit maritime balancing against China. Chinese rationale was expressed earlier in August by the Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s South Sea Fleet, Capt. Liang Tianjun, who said that “China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” but that China would also not “be obstructed by other countries.” India is increasingly sensitive to this presence (Times of India, ‘Chinese navy eyes Indian Ocean as part of PLAs plan to extend its reach,’ 11 August) in what India considers to be its own strategic backyard and to a degree India’s ocean for it to be accorded pre-eminence. In contrast, China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean lends maritime encirclement to match land encirclement of India.

In the western quadrant of the Indian Ocean, another first for Chinese deployment capability was in August when a Chinese naval formation consisting of the destroyer Changchun, guided-missile frigate Jingzhou, and the supply vessel Chaohu conducted a live-fire drill in the waters of the western Indian Ocean. The reason given for the unprecedented live fire drill was to test carrying out strikes against “enemy” (Xinhua, August 25) surface ships. The “enemy” was not specified, but the obvious rival in sight was the Indian Navy, which was why the South China Morning Post (August 26) suggested the drill as “a warning shot to India.” Elsewhere in the Chinese state media, Indian concerns were brushed off (Global Times, ‘India should get used to China’s military drills,’ August 27). Finally in a further development of Chinese power projection, in September a “logistics facility” (a de facto naval base) for China was opened up at Djibouti in September, complete with military exercises carried out by Chinese marines.

The Maritime Silk Road

At the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, the Congress formally wrote into the Party Constitution the need to “pursue the Belt and Road Initiative.” The “Road” refers to the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative pushed by China since 2013, with the “Belt” referring to the overland land route across Eurasia. The MSR is a maritime project of the first order, involving geo-economic and geopolitical outcomes in which Chinese maritime interests and power considerations are significant. May 2017 saw the high-level Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing, focusing on the maritime and overland Silk Road projects. A swath of 11 Indian Ocean countries participating in the MSR were officially represented, including Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia (President), Iran, Kenya (President), Malaysia (Prime Minister), the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan (Prime Minister), Singapore, and Sri Lanka (Prime Minister).

Major nodes and hubs of China’s One Belt, One Road project. (ChinaUSfocus.com)

On 20 June 2017, China unveiled a White Paper entitled Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. This vision document was prepared by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). It was classic win-win “pragmatic cooperation” involving “shelving differences and building consensus. We call for efforts to uphold the existing international ocean order.” This ignored China’s refusal to allow UNCLOS tribunal adjudication over its claims in the South China Sea.

The MSR presents a vision of interlinked ports and nodal points going across the Indian Ocean. The significance of the MSR is that China can expect to be involved in a three-fold fashion. Firstly in infrastructure projects involved in building up the nodal points along these waters that was alluded to in the Vision document by its open aim to “promote the participation of Chinese enterprises in such endeavors” and which could “involve mutual assistance in law enforcement.” Secondly, Chinese merchant shipping is growing greater in numbers, and thirdly, deploying naval power to underpin these commercial interests and shipping.

This pinpointing of ports across the Indian Ocean reproduces the geographical pattern of the so-called String of Pearls framework earlier mooted in 2005 by U.S. analysts as Chinese strategy to establish bases and facilities across the Indian Ocean – a chain going from Sittwe, Chittagong, Hambantota, and Gwadar. China of course consistently denied such a policy, but its drive during the last decade has been to establish a series of port use agreements across the Indian Ocean, now including infrastructure and facilities agreements at Mombassa and Djibouti.

Chinese penetration of ports around the Indian Ocean rim gathered pace during 2017. September saw Myanmar agreeing to a 70 percent stake for the China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) in running the deep water port of Kyauk Pyu. The port is the entry point for the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline. CITIC is a state-owned company, and so represents deliberate central government strategy by China. In July Sri Lanka agreed to a similar 70 percent stake for the China Merchant Port Holdings (CMPH) in the Chinese-built port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease. CMPH is another state-owned company, and so again represents deliberate central government strategy by China.

Gwadar, nestled on the Pakistan coast facing the Arabian Sea, has been a particularly useful “pearl” for China. Built with Chinese finance, it was significant that its management was taken over by the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) for a 40 year period in April 2017. This is deliberate strategy on the part of the Chinese government, given that COPHC is another state-run entity. The Chinese Navy has started using Gwadar as a regular berthing facility, in effect a naval base established for the next 40 years. Gwadar is also strategically significant for China given its role as the link between maritime trade (i.e. energy supplies from the Middle East) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is set to improve infrastructure links between Pakistan and China.

From a strategic point of view, China’s use (and control?) of Gwadar and Kyauk Pyu will enable China to address its present vulnerability, the so-called Malacca Dilemma, whereby Chinese energy imports coming across the eastern Indian Ocean into the Strait of Malacca, could be cut either by the U.S. Navy or the Indian Navy.

It is significant that although India has been invited to join the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, India has avoided participation. Its absence at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in May 2017 was conspicuous. The official explanation for this Indian boycott was China’s linking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (which goes through Kashmir, a province in dispute between India and Pakistan) to the MSR initiative. In practice, India is extremely wary of the whole MSR initiative. Geographically, the MSR initiative surrounds India, and geopolitically Indian perception tends to be that it is but another Chinese way to encircle India. China of course denies any such encirclement strategy, but then it would deny such a policy anyhow.

The geo-economics of the Maritime Silk Road present China with interests to gain, maintain, and defend if need be. How can China defend such interests? Ultimately, through the Chinese Navy.

A More Powerful Navy

Chinese maritime strategy (a “two ocean” navy) is not likely to change, what will change is China’s ability to deploy more powerful assets into the Indian Ocean. This was evident at the 19th Party Congress. The formal Resolution approving Xi Jinping’s Report of the 18th Central Committee included his call to “build a powerful and modernized […] navy.” 2017 has seen Chinese naval capabilities accelerating in various first-time events.

One indicator of capability advancement was the unveiling in June at Shanghai of the Type 055 destroyer, the Chinese Navy’s first 10,000-ton domestically designed and domestically-built surface combatant. The Chinese official state media (Xinhua, June 28) considered this “a milestone in improving the nation’s Navy armament system and building a strong and modern Navy.” The Type 055 is the first of China’s new generation destroyers. It is equipped with China’s latest mission systems and a dual-band radar system

Chinese Navy’s new destroyer, a 10,000-ton domestically designed and produced vessel, is launched at Jiangnan Shipyard (Group) in east China’s Shanghai Municipality, June 28, 2017. (Xinhua/Wang Donghai)

So far aircraft carrier power has not been deployed by China into the Indian Ocean. China has converted one ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag and inducted it into the navy in 2012 as the Liaoning. But China is already deploying “toward” the Indian Ocean where in January 2017 the Liaoning led a warship flotilla into the South China Sea, including drills with advanced J-15 aircraft. This was the first Chinese aircraft carrier deployment into the South China Sea, and constituted a clear policy to project maritime power. This projection was partly in terms of demonstrating clear superiority over local rival claimants in the South China Sea, and partly to begin matching U.S. aircraft carrier deployments into waters that China claims as its own, but which the U.S. claims as international waters in which it could undertake Freedom of Navigation Exercises.

A crucial development for China’s aircraft carrier power projection capability is the acceleration during 2017 of China’s own indigenous construction of aircraft carriers. This will deliver modern large aircraft carrier capability, and enable ongoing deployment into the Indian Ocean. China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier Type 001A, probably to be named the Shandong, was launched in April 2017 at Shanghai, with mooring exercises carried out in October at Dalian. Consequently, this new aircraft carrier is likely to join the Chinese Navy by late 2018, up to two years earlier than initially expected, and is expected to feature an electromagnetic launch system. It is expected to be stationed with the South China Sea Fleet, thereby earmarked for regular deployment into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. This marks a key acceleration of China’s effort to build up a blue-water navy to secure the country’s key maritime trade routes and to challenge the U.S.’s dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea as well as India’s position in the Indian Ocean.

Countervailing Responses

The very success of China’s Indian Ocean strategy has created countervailing moves. In reaction to China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative, India has pushed its own Mausam and Cotton Route projects for Indian Ocean cooperation, neither of which involve China; and alongside Japan has also started espousing the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor (AAGC), which again does not involve China. U.S. espousal of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (IPEC) connecting South Asia to Southeast Asia is also being linked up to the Indian and Japanese proposals. With regard to China’s “two-ocean” naval strategy, the more it has deployed into the Indian Ocean, the more India has moved towards trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan. Australia beckons as well in this regional reaction to China, as witnessed in the revival of “Quad” discussions between Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. officials in 12 November 2017. This countervailing security development includes trilateral MALABAR exercises between the Indian, Japanese, and U.S. navies, in which their exercises in the Bay of Bengal in July 2017 showed a move of venues (and focus of concern about China) from the Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, and with Australia likely to join the MALABAR format within this “Quad” development. China has become a victim of its own maritime success in the Indian Ocean, thereby illustrating the axiom that “To every action there is an equal and opposed reaction” – which points to tacit balancing in other words.

David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn since 2017. He can be contacted at davidscott366@outlook.com.

References

1. Kupakar, “China’s naval base(s) in the Indian Ocean—signs of a maritime Grand Strategy?,” Journal of Strategic Anaysis, 41.3, 2017

Featured Image: Pakistan’s Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Zakaullah visits Chinese ship on visit to Pakistan for participating in Multinational Exercise AMAN-17 in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 12, 2017. (China.org.cn)

The ‘Indo-Pacific’ Concept: Retrospect and Prospect

The following article originally featured at the National Maritime Foundation and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.                

By Gurpreet S. Khurana

Since 2010, the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific’ has gained increasing prevalence in the geopolitical and strategic discourse, and is now being used increasingly by policy-makers, analysts and academics in Asia and beyond.1 It is now precisely a decade since the concept was proposed by the author in 2007. Although the Australians have been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ earlier, it was the first time, at least in recent decades, that the concept was formally introduced and explained in an academic paper. The said paper titled ‘Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation’ was published in the January 2007 edition of Strategic Analyses journal of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.2

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ combines the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Western Pacific Region (WP) – inclusive of the contiguous seas off East Asia and Southeast Asia – into a singular regional construct. There are some variations based on specific preferences of countries. For instance, the United States (U.S.) prefers to use the term ‘Indo-Asia-Pacific’, to encompass the entire swath of Indian and Pacific oceans, thereby enabling the U.S. inclusiveness for it to maintain its relevance as a resident power in this important region. Nonetheless, the fundamental ‘idea’ of ‘Indo-Pacific’ is accepted nearly universally. It has been argued that the concept of the Indo-Pacific may lead to a change in popular “mental maps” of how the world is understood in strategic terms.3

It may be conceded that there are some fundamental and distinct differences between the IOR and the WP in terms of geopolitics – including the geo-economics that shape geopolitics – and even the security environment. If so, how did the concept of ‘Indo-Pacific take root? It is a conceptual ‘aberration’? What was the underlying rationale behind the use of the term? This essay seeks to examine these pertinent issues. Furthermore, based on current trends, the analysis presents a prognosis on the future relevance of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept.

Indian Ocean-Western Pacific Divergences

Undeniably, the IOR and the WP differ substantially in nearly all aspects, ranging from the levels of economic development of countries and their social parameters, to the security environment. Unlike the IOR, the WP has been beset by major traditional (military) threats. Such insecurity is based on historical factors, mainly flowing from the adverse actions of dominant military powers, particularly since the advent of the 20th century – for instance, Japan; and now increasingly, China – resulting in heightened nationalism and an attempt to redraw sovereign boundaries, including ‘territorialization’ of the seas. The military dominance of these powers was a consequence of their economic progress, beginning with Japan, which later helped the other East Asian economies to grow through outsourcing of lower-end manufacturing industries – the so-called ‘Flying Geese Paradigm.’4

In contrast, the recent history of the IOR is not chequered by onslaught of any dominant and assertive local power. Why so? Despite being rich in natural resources – particularly hydrocarbons – the IOR countries were severely constrained to develop their economies. Not only did the colonial rule of western powers last longer in the IOR, but also these countries were too diverse in all aspects, and were never self-compelled to integrate themselves economically; and therefore, lagged behind East Asia substantially in terms of economic progress. As a result, many of these countries could not even acquire adequate capacity to govern and regulate human activity in their sovereign territories/maritime zones, let alone developing capabilities for military assertion against their neighbors. Therefore, the numerous maritime disputes in the IOR remain dormant, and have not yet translated into military insecurities. (The India-Pakistan contestation is among the rare exceptions, and is based on a very different causative factor.) The IOR is plagued more by non-traditional security issues, such as piracy, organized crime involving drugs and small-arms, illegal fishing, irregular migration, and human smuggling.

The Rationale

The broader rationale behind the prevalence of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept is the increasing developments in the area spanning the entire ‘maritime underbelly’ of Asia, ranging from the East African littoral to Northeast Asia. This is best exemplified by the launch of the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) in 2004 to counter the sea-borne proliferation of WMDs and their delivery systems. The PSI focused on the maritime swath stretching from Iran and Syria to North Korea.5 These developments led strategic analysts to search for a suitable common regional nomenclature to be able to communicate more effectively. The term ‘Asia’ was too broad and heterogeneous; and ‘continental’ rather than ‘maritime.’ The term ‘Asia-Pacific’ – which traditionally stood for ‘the Asian littoral of the Pacific Ocean’ – was inadequate.6 The ‘Indo-Pacific’ – shortened from ‘Indian Ocean–Pacific Ocean combine’ – seemed more appropriate.

The coinage of ‘Indo-Pacific’ has much to do with the increased eminence of India with the turn of the 21st century. It began in the 1990s with India’s impressive economic growth, and later, its nuclear weaponization. In 2006, Donald Berlin wrote that the ‘rise of India’ is itself a key factor in the increasing significance of the Indian Ocean.7 Also, India could no longer be excluded from any overarching reckoning in the Asia-Pacific; be it economic or security related. For example, India was an obvious choice for inclusion in the ASEAN Regional Forum (in 1996) and the East Asia Summit (in 2005). Even for the PSI (2004), President Bush sought to enroll India as a key participant through PACOM. However, even while India is located in PACOM’s area of responsibility, ‘technically’, it does not belong to the Asia-Pacific. During the Shangri, La Dialogue 2009, India’s former naval chief Admiral Arun Prakash highlighted this contradiction, saying,

I am not quite sure about the origin of the term Asia-Pacific, but I presume it was coined to include America in this part of the world, which is perfectly all right. As an Indian, every time I hear the term Asia-Pacific I feel a sense of exclusion, because it seems to include north east Asia, south east Asia and the Pacific islands, and it terminates at the Malacca Straits, but there is a whole world west of the Malacca Straits…so my question to the distinguished panel is…do you see a contradiction between the terms Asia-Pacific, Asia, and the Indian Ocean region?” 

The ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept helped to overcome this dilemma by incorporating ‘India’ in the affairs of ‘maritime-Asia,’ even though the ‘Indo-’ in the compound word ‘Indo-Pacific’ stands for the ‘Indian Ocean’, and not ‘India.’

Since long, the IOR had been a maritime-conduit of hydrocarbons to fuel the economic prosperity of the WP littoral countries, which was another significant linkage between the IOR and the WP, and provided much ballast to the rationale of ‘Indo-Pacific.’ In context of China’s economic ‘rise’ leading to its enhanced military power and assertiveness, this linkage represented Beijing’s strategic vulnerability, and thereby an opportunity for deterring Chinese aggressiveness. Ironically, China’s strategic vulnerability was expressed by the Chinese President Hu Jintao himself in November 2003 through his coinage of the “Malacca Dilemma,” wherein “certain major powers” were bent on controlling the strait.8 The reference to India was implicit, yet undeniable. In his book ‘Samudramanthan’ (2012), Raja Mohan says, “India-China maritime rivalry finds its sharpest expression in the Bay of Bengal, the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait…” which demonstrates the interconnectedness of “the two different realms (of) Pacific and Indian Ocean(s).”9

The Genesis

Against the backdrop of strengthening India-Japan political ties following the 2006 reciprocal visits of the two countries’ apex leaders, Indian and Japanese think tanks had intensified their discussions on strategic and maritime cooperation. At one of the brainstorming sessions held at the IDSA in October 2006, the participants took note of China’s strategic vulnerability in terms of its ‘Malacca Dilemma,’ and sought to stretch its sense of insecurity eastwards to the IOR with the objective of restraining China’s politico-military assertiveness against its Asian neighbors.

Besides, Japan itself was vulnerable due to its rather heavy dependence on seaborne energy and food imports across the IOR, and thus sought an enhanced maritime security role in the area in cooperation with India. During the discussions at IDSA, a clear concord was reached that the IOR and the WP cannot possibly be treated separately, either for maritime security, or even in geopolitical terms. It was during that event that the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept was casually discussed, which led to the publication of the January 2007 paper in Strategic Analyses (as mentioned above). Interestingly, a few months later in August 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed the Indian Parliament, speaking of the “Confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans” as “the dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity” in the “broader Asia.”10

In 2010, the U.S. officially recognized ‘Indo-Pacific’ for the first time. Speaking at Honolulu, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about “expanding our work with the Indian Navy in the Pacific, because we understand how important the Indo-Pacific basin is to global trade and commerce.”11

In 2012, the Australian analyst Rory Medcalf wrote that he was convinced that the “Indo-Pacific (is) a term whose time has come.” A year later in 2013, Australia released its Defence White Paper, which carried the first government articulation of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept.12 Soon thereafter, Rory Medcalf endorsed India’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific construct stating that “Australia’s new defense policy recognizes India’s eastward orientation.”13

China was initially circumspect of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ coinage. As the Australian writers Nick Bisley and Andrew Phillips wrote in 2012,

…Viewed from Beijing, the idea of the Indo-Pacific…appears to be to keep the U.S. in, lift India up, and keep China out of the Indian Ocean… (which is why), the Indo-Pacific concept has…received a frosty reception in China…14

In July 2013, Chinese scholar Zhao Qinghai trashed the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept on the basis of his interpretation of it being an “India too” geopolitical construct.15 Notwithstanding, not all Chinese scholars have been dismissive of the concept. In June 2013, Minghao Zhao wrote,

“…And it is true that a power game of great significance has unfolded in Indo-Pacific Asia. The U.S., India, Japan, and other players are seeking to collaborate to build an “Indo-Pacific order” that is congenial to their long-term interests. China is not necessarily excluded from this project, and it should seek a seat at the table and help recast the strategic objectives and interaction norms (in China’s favor).”16

Interestingly, in November 2014 the Global Times, an official Chinese English-language daily, carried a commentary cautioning India on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept. It said that the Indo-Pacific concept has not been endorsed by the “Indian government and scholars,” but scripted by the United States and its allies “to balance and even contain China’s increasing influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean,” and who have made India a “linchpin” in the geo-strategic system. Paradoxically, however, the commentary was titled “New Delhi-Beijing Cooperation Key to Building an Indo-Pacific Era.”17

Prognosis

It emerges from the foregoing that the current prevalence of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept is premised upon – and necessitated by – the growing inter-connectedness between the IOR and WP, rather than any similarities in their characteristics. This leads to another pertinent question: What would be the relevance of the concept in the coming years?

According to preliminary indicators, the relevance of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept may be enhanced in the future due to the strengthening linkages between the IOR and the WP. Events and developments in one part of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ are likely to increasingly affect countries located in the other part. Furthermore, over the decades, the growing trade and people-to-people connectivity between the IOR and WP countries may benefit the IOR, and slowly iron out the dissimilarities in terms of economic and human development indices.

China’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ (MSR) and India’s outreach to its extended eastern neighborhood through its ‘Act East’ policy could contribute substantially toward the economic integration of the IOR and the WP. Indonesia’s putative role is also noteworthy. It is an archipelagic country that straddles the ‘Indo Pacific’ with sea coasts facing both the IOR and the WP. Possessing substantial potential to become a major maritime power, Indonesia is likely to be a key player in the process of melting the IOR-WP divide, and thereby reinforcing the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct.

Over the decades, the current dissimilarities between the IOR and the WP in terms of the security environment may also diminish, if not vanish altogether. Greater economic prosperity in the IOR is likely to be followed by increasing stakes in the maritime domain, besides the ability to develop naval capabilities. The hitherto ‘dormant’ maritime disputes in IOR could become ‘active.’ Furthermore, the MSR could be accompanied by China’s invigorated efforts toward naval development to fructify its ‘Two-Ocean Strategy.’18 China’s intensified naval presence in the IOR could lead to increased likelihood of acrimony due to its politico-military involvement in regional instabilities and maritime disputes. It may also cause the PLA Navy to increase its activities in the maritime zones of IOR countries, and have unintended encounters at sea with the naval forces of other established powers, leading to enhanced maritime-military insecurities. In such a scenario, the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept would be essential to manage the regional developments and integrate China into the established norms of conduct in the IOR.

In the broader sense, as India’s leading strategist Uday Bhaskar avers, “In the global context, the Pacific and the Indian oceans are poised to acquire greater strategic salience for the major powers of the 21st century, three among whom – the China, India and the U.S. – are located in Asia.”19 Indeed, a holistic treatment of the Indian-Pacific Ocean continuum would be required to assess the evolving balance of power in Asia, and to address the fault-lines therein, with the overarching aim of preserving regional and global stability.

Captain Gurpreet S. Khurana, PhD, is Executive Director at the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, the Indian Navy, or the Government of India. He can be reached at gurpreet.bulbul@gmail.com.

Notes and References

[1] ‘Indo-Pacific: Strategic/ Geopolitical Context’, Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Pacific

[2] Gurpreet S Khurana, ‘Security of Sea Lines: Prospects for India-Japan Cooperation’, Strategic Analysis (IDSA/ Routledge), Vol. 31 (1), January 2007, p.139 – 153

[3] David Brewster, ‘Dividing Lines: Evolving Mental Maps of the Bay of Bengal’, Asian Security, Vol. 10(2), 24 Jun 14, p.151-167, at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14799855.2014.914499

[4] Shigehisa Kasahara, ‘The Asian Developmental State and the Flying Geese Paradigm’, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Discussion Paper No. 213, Nov 2013, at http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/osgdp20133_en.pdf

[5] ‘Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI)’, Arms Control Association, 2 Jun 2007, at https://www.armscontrol.org/taxonomy/term/21

[6] Japan and Australia promoted the term ‘Asia Pacific’ in the 1970s and 1980s to draw them closer to the United States and the economically burgeoning East Asia. India was far, geographically, from the region, and politically, economically and strategically remained uninvolved for inherent reasons. See D. Gnanagurunathan, ‘India and the Idea of the ‘Indo-Pacific’’, East Asia Forum, 20 Oct 12, at http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2012/10/20/india-and-the-idea-of-the-indo-pacific/

[7] Donald L Berlin, ‘India in the Indian Ocean’, Naval War College Review, Vol.59(2), Spring 2006

[8] Ian Storey, ‘China’s Malacca Dilemma’, China Brief (The Jamestown Foundation), Vol. 6(8), 12 Apr 2006, at https://jamestown.org/program/chinas-malacca-dilemma/

[9] C Raja Mohan. Samudramanthan: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: October 2012)

[10] Confluence of the Two Seas”, Speech by H.E. Mr. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan at the Parliament of the Republic of India, August 22, 2007, Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) website, at http://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/pmv0708/speech-2.html

[11] Remarks by Hillary Rodham Clinton, US Secretary of State, ‘America’s Engagement in the Asia-Pacific’, US Department of State, 28 Oct 10, at http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/10/150141.htm

 [12] ‘Defending Australia and its National Interests’, Defence White Paper 2013, Department of Defence, Australian Government, May 13, at http://www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/2013/docs/wp_2013_web.pdf

[13] Rory Medcalf, ‘The Indo-Pacific Pivot’, 10 May 13, at http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-indopacific-pivot/1113736/

[14] Nick Bisley (La Trobe University, Australia) and Andrew Phillips (University of Queensland, Australia), ‘The Indo-Pacific: what does it actually mean?’, East Asia Forum, 06 Oct 12, at http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2012/10/06/the-indo-pacific-what-does-it-actually-mean/

 [15] Zhao Qinghai, ‘The Concept of “India too”(“Yin Tai”) and its implications for China’(translated from Mandarin “印太”概念及其对中国的含义), Contemporary International Relations (现代国际关), No. 7, 2013, 31 July 2013,at http://www.ciis.org.cn/chinese/2013-07/31/content_6170351.htm

 [16] Minghao Zhao, ‘The Emerging Strategic Triangle in Indo-Pacific Asia’, 4 Jun 13, at http://thediplomat.com/china-power/the-emerging-strategic-triangle-in-indo-pacific-asia/

[17] Liu Zongyi, ‘New Delhi-Beijing Key to Building an <Indo-Pacific Era>’, Global Times, 30 November 2014, at http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/894334.shtml

[18] Robert D. Kaplan, ‘China’s Two Ocean Strategy’ in Abraham Denmark and Nirav Patel (eds.) China’s Arrival: A Strategic Relationship for a Global Relationship (Centre for New American Strategy: Sep 2009), p.43-58, at https://lbj.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/file/news/CNAS%20China’s%20Arrival_Final%20Report-3.pdf

[19] C Uday Bhaskar. ‘Pacific and Indian Oceans: Relevance for the evolving power structures in Asia’, Queries, Magazine by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), No. 3(6), Nov 11, p.123-128

Featured Image: Composite rendering of the Eastern Hemisphere of Earth, based on data from Terra MODIS, Aqua MODIS, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, Space Shuttle Endeavour, and the Radarsat Antarctic Mapping Project, combined by scientists and artists. (NASA/ Wikimedia Commons)

India and Japan — A Yen for a Closer Maritime Engagement

The following article originally appeared in South Asia Defence and Strategic Review and is republished with permission.

By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, AVSM & Bar, VSM, IN (Retd)

Japan is very much the flavor of the current Indian season. Especially when juxtaposed against China, Japan is acknowledged by New Delhi as being one of the most significant maritime players in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, Japan’s steadily deteriorating and increasingly fractious relationship with China is a prominent marker of the general fragility of the geopolitical situation prevailing almost throughout the Indo-Pacific. Within this fragile environment, New Delhi is seeking to maintain its own geopolitical pre-eminence in the IOR and relevance in the Indo-Pacific as a whole by adroitly managing China’s growing assertiveness. In this process, Japan and the USA (along with Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, and Indonesia) collectively offer India a viable alternative to Sino-centric hegemony within the region. However, before it places too many of its security eggs in a Japanese basket, it is important for India to examine at least the more prominent historical and contemporary contours of the Sino-Japanese relationship. As India expands her footprint across the Indo-Pacific and examines the overtures of Japan and the USA to seek closer geopolitical coordination with both, it is vital to ensure that our country and our navy are not dragged by ignorance, misinformation or disinformation, into the law of unintended consequences.

Map of Sea of Japan.

The influence of China, with its ancient and extraordinarily well-developed civilization, upon the much younger civilization of Japan1 has been enormous. Even the sobriquet for Japan — the Land of the Rising Sun — is derived from a Chinese perspective, since when the Chinese looked east to Japan they looked in the direction of the dawn. As Japan began to consolidate itself as a nation, between the 1st and the 6th Century CE, it increasingly copied the Chinese model of national development, administration, societal structure and culture. And yet, for all that, there is also a history of deep animosity between the two countries, which manifested itself across of whole range of actions and reactions. At one end was China’s disapproval of Japan attempting to equate itself with the Middle Kingdom (as when Japan Prince Shotoku, in 607 CE, sent a letter to the Sui emperor, Yangdi, “from the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun rises to the Son of Heaven in the land where the sun sets.”) At the other, lay armed conflict. Over the course of the past two millennia, Japan and China have gone to war five times. The common thread in each has been a power struggle on the Korean Peninsula. Even their more contemporary animosity dates back to at least 1894 — during the Meiji Restoration in Japan. It is true that, much like India and Pakistan, relations between China and Japan have witnessed periods of great optimism. For instance, Sino–Japanese relations in the 1970s and early 1980s were undeniably positive and ‘historical animosity’ was not a factor strong enough to foster tensions between the two nations at the time. However, it is also true, once again like India and Pakistan, that these periods of hope have been punctuated by a mutuality of visceral hatred. In the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, China, which was mired in political conflict and civil war, suffered eight months of comprehensive defeats leading, amongst other indignities, to the occupation of Taiwan by Japan. The historical echoes of this horrific conflict and its humiliating aftermath for China resonate to this day.

The most prominent Sino-Japanese contributor to contemporary geopolitical fragility is the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands dispute. This is an extremely high-risk dispute that could very easily lead to armed conflict, especially in the wake of Japan’s nationalization of three of the islands in September 2013. Reacting strongly to this unilateral action by Japan, China established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on 23 November, 2013, encompassing (inter alia) these very islands. This, in turn, was immediately challenged by the USA, Japan, and South Korea. Within days of the Chinese declaration, military aircraft from all three countries flew through China’s ADIZ without complying with the promulgated ADIZ regulations.  Perhaps because of the robustness of this response, China has not been enforcing this ADIZ with any great vigour, but has not withdrawn it either. It is appreciated that this is a long-term play, because China would acquire strategic advantage by asserting a maximalist position, then seeming to back down, while preserving some incremental gain — akin to a ‘ratchet’ effect.  This is an example of ‘salami slicing’ — of which much has been made in a variety of Indian and Western media.

China’s increased military activities in this maritime area have certainly caused a fivefold rise in the frequency with which Japanese fighter jets have been forced to scramble in preparedness against Chinese aircraft intrusions into Japanese airspace over the East China Sea (ECS). Japanese aircraft have moved up from 150 scrambles in 2011 to a staggering 1,168 scrambles in FY 2016-17. (The Japanese FY, like that of India, runs from 01 April to 31 March.)  Given that fighter pilots are young, aggressive, and trained to use lethal force almost intuitively, this dramatic increase in frequency of scrambles causes a corresponding increase in the chance of a miscalculation on the part of one or both parties that could result in a sudden escalation into active hostilities.  

Even more worrying is the prospect that once China completes her building of airfields on a sufficient number of reefs in the Spratly Island Group, she would promulgate an ADIZ in the South China Sea. Should she do so, the inevitable challenges to such an ADIZ would probably bring inter-state geopolitical tensions to breaking point.

All in all, the increased militarization and current involvement of the armed forces of both countries in the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands have grave implications for geopolitical stability. To cite a well-used colloquialism, “once you open a can of worms, the only way you can put them back is to use a bigger can.” In the case of the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands, both Japan and the PRC have certainly opened ‘a can of worms’ and now both are looking for a bigger can. Thus, both countries are jockeying for geopolitical options with both the USA as well as with other geopolitical powers that can be brought around to roughly align with their respective point of view. Japan’s alliance with the USA and its active wooing of India and Australia with constructs such as Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond is one such ‘larger can.’   

Yet, Japan’s geopolitical insecurities in its segment of the Indo-Pacific are not solely about the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. Japan’s apprehension in 2004-05 that China’s exploitation of the Chunxiao gas field (located almost on the EEZ boundary line — as Japan perceives it) was pulling natural gas away from the subterranean extension of the field into the Japanese side of the EEZ boundary brought the two countries to the brink of a military clash. While the situation has been contained for the time being, it remains a potential flashpoint. Across the Sea of Japan /East Sea lie other historical and contemporary challenges in the form of the two Koreas, a Russia that appears to be in a protracted state of geopolitical flux, and of course, the omnipresent elephant in the room, namely, the People’s Republic of China.

Closer home, Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) is present and surprisingly active in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as well. Its interest in maintaining freedom of navigation within the International Shipping Lanes to and from West Asia in general, and the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden in particular, are well known features of Tokyo’s ‘energy security’ and ‘security-of-energy’ policies. Off the Horn of Africa at the southern tip of the Gulf of Aden, the ‘war-lord-ism’ that substitutes for governance in Somalia is a source of strategic concern at a number of levels. Although rampant piracy and armed-robbery have been checked for the time being, only the most naive optimism can indicate anything but continued strategic instability in and off Somalia — at least for the foreseeable future. The JMSDF’s deployments on anti-piracy missions, involving two destroyers and two long-range maritime-patrol (LRMP) aircraft, have been ongoing since 2009 and will continue through 2017. However, such deployments are at the cost of the JMSDF ORBAT (Order of Battle) within the ECS and the Sea of Japan — areas where, as has already been described, Japan faces far more serious and immediate threats than in West Asia. If India was to explicitly offer the protection of its Navy specifically to Japanese merchantmen in and around the Gulf of Aden, this might free the JMSDF warships and LRMP aircraft from this maritime space and permit them to be redeployed in the ECS to contain and counter China’s naval as well as ‘grey zone’ operations (the latter involving predominantly paramilitary maritime forces). Of course, within the north Arabian Sea, the JMSDF has commitments to the USA-led Coalition Task Force (CTF) 150 (in and off the Persian Gulf) as also to CTF 151 (in and off the Gulf of Aden), which would also have to be factored. These notwithstanding, a specific Indian commitment of Indian naval anti-piracy protection to Japanese trade is likely to go down very well with both Tokyo and Washington, and is something that the Indian Navy with its present warship resources could certainly manage.

As is the case with India, Japan, too, is engaged in a series of ongoing efforts to reduce its energy-vulnerabilities. For both India and Japan, this has brought centrality to the environs of the Mozambique Channel, a sadly neglected chokepoint of the IOR, but one that now offers a great deal in terms of strategic collaboration and coordination between Tokyo and New Delhi. To the northwest of this sea passage, Tanzania is engaged in an intense rivalry with Mozambique over newly discovered offshore gas fields in both countries. Tanzanian offshore discoveries off its southern coast, between 2012 and 2015, have raised the official figure of exploitable reserves to as much as 55 trillion cubic feet (tcf). As a comparator, India’s recoverable reserves are 52.6 tcf. The story in Mozambique is even more promising. Since 2010, Anadarko Petroleum of the US, and Italy’s Eni, have made gas discoveries in the Rovuma Basin in the Indian Ocean that are estimated by the IMF collectively to approximate 180 tcf, equivalent to the entire gas reserves of Nigeria. When developed, these gas reserves have the potential to transform Tanzania and Mozambique into key global suppliers of liquefied natural gas. Indeed, once gas production hits its peak, Mozambique (in particular) could well become the world’s third-biggest liquefied natural gas exporter after Qatar and Australia. Obviously, India and Japan, not to mention China, are deeply interested in this LNG as it will allow each country to ‘wake up’ — at least partially — from their common ‘Hormuz Nightmare’ vis-à-vis the sourcing of LNG from Qatar. Where India is concerned, LNG from Rovumo will additionally negate any Chinese-Pakistani interdiction-possibilities ex-Gwadar. In fact, just as the Gulf of Guinea on the western coast of Africa is a vastly preferred source of petroleum-based energy for Europe and the USA precisely because there are no chokepoints along the route from source-to-destination, a somewhat-similar situation would prevail for India, Japan, and China were they to source their energy from East Africa and the Mozambique Channel.

It is therefore  encouraging to note that by April 2015, an Indian consortium comprising the ONGC, IOL, and BPC had purchased a combined 30 percent stake in Anadarko’s ‘Rovuma’ fields at a cost of US $6.5 billion to be amortised over a four year period. Japan and South Korea, too, — both growing partners of India — have invested with both Anadarko and Eni: the Japanese energy company Mitsui now holds a 25 percent stake in Anadarko’s concession and Korean Gas Corp (Kogas) holds a 10 percent stake in Eni’s concession. Unsurprisingly, China, too, is a major player and the ‘China National Petroleum Company’ (CNPC) has bought into the Italian firm ‘Eni’ to the tune of US $ 4.2 Billion, for a 28 percent stake. Once this LNG begins to be shipped eastwards, the Indian Navy could once again be the guarantor of Japanese Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) at least from Mozambique to the SCS, if not all the way to Japan.

Another important driver for Japanese strategic maritime interest in the IOR is food security. Often given insufficient attention by Indian analysts, this is, nevertheless a significant factor in Japan’s geopolitics. Even though Japan is amongst the world’s richest countries, her food self-sufficiency ratio is remarkably low compared to other industrialized nations. In particular, Japan’s high cereal import dependency rate and low food self-sufficiency rate make her particularly vulnerable. As of 2015, Japan was producing only about 39 percent of the food it consumed reflecting a major decrease from the 79 percent in 1960, and the lowest food self-sufficiency ratio among all major developed countries. Moreover, Japan depends on a very small number of countries for the majority of its food imports — 25 percent come from the USA alone, while China, ASEAN and the EU account for another 39 percent  — and all of it travels by sea. In order to reduce her consequent geopolitical vulnerability and diversify her SLOCs, Japan has invested in agricultural projects (the purchase, from relatively poor nations abroad, of enormous tracts of farmland upon which food is grown and shipped back to Japan). This activity, which has serious ethical issues associated with it, is considered by ethical activists to be ‘land grabbing’, especially as it takes callous advantage of the need for cash-strapped African nations for money, leading the governments of these countries to deny their own (often impoverished) people the agricultural produce of their own land. Nevertheless, ‘farming abroad’ has emerged as a new food supply strategy by several import-dependent governments, including Japan. Where Japan is concerned, several of its large-scale investments are concentrated in Mozambique, causing Japan to concern herself with the geopolitical stability of this portion of the Indian Ocean and the International Sea Lanes (ISLs)/SLOCs leading to Japan. This drives the noticeable fluctuation between Japan’s commitments to contribute to international development policies and the more narrow-minded pursuit of its national interests and intensified efforts to strengthen its position in international politics in relation to China. For New Delhi, however, this represents yet another opportunity to leverage Indian naval capability to commit itself to keeping Japanese ‘Food SLOCs’ open and safe.  

Zooming in to India’s immediate maritime neighbourhood, Japan’s willingness to partner with vulnerable countries in planning activities, and also provide for and engage in preventive and curative measures with regard to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), holds great promise for an active India-Japan partnership under a joint IONS-WPNS rubric. The benefits that would accrue from such an initiative have very substantial and substantive strategic implications.

With Pakistan remaining a constant spoiler and a global sponsor of terrorism, India’s hugely improved relations with Bangladesh offer additional opportunities for New Delhi to coordinate its own maritime strategic gameplay with that of Japan. Japan, for instance, is poised to provide a viable alternative to the now abandoned Chinese-sponsored Sonadia Port project in Bangladesh, by way of the development of a coal-based 1,200 MW power plant as well as a new deep-water port at Matarbari in Cox’s Bazaar, just 25 km away from Sonadia.

India’s own maritime engagement with Japan is being driven along at a brisk pace by a strong mutuality of interests, and a number of institutional mechanisms at both Track-1 and Track-2 levels are now functional. At the Track-1 level, maritime engagement per se is provided focus through the ‘India-Japan Maritime Affairs Dialogue,’ which was established in January 2013. Spearheaded by India’s MEA (Disarmament and International Security Affairs [DISA] Division) and Japan’s Foreign Policy Bureau, the dialogue covers a wide ambit, including, inter alia, maritime security including non-traditional threats, cooperation in shipping, marine sciences and technology, and marine biodiversity and cooperation. However, the bilateral maritime-security engagement is probably the most relevant to the Indian maritime interest under discussion, namely, the obtaining and sustaining of a favourable geopolitical position. It is vital to bear in mind that, contrary to many Indian pundits who examine geoeconomics in isolation, geoeconomics is a subset of geopolitics, as is geostrategy. To reduce it a simple equation, Geopolitics = Geoeconomics + Geostrategies to attain geoeconomic goals + Geostrategies to attain non-economic goals + Interpersonal Relations between the leaders of the countries involved.

Within the Indian EEZ, India-Japan-USA maritime-scientific cooperation is already in evidence in one of the most exciting and promising areas of energy, namely, gas hydrates. Gas hydrates, popularly called ‘fire-ice,’ are a mixture of natural gas (usually methane) and water, which have been frozen into solid chunks. In 1997, in recognition of the tremendous energy-potential in gas hydrates, New Delhi formulated a ‘National Gas Hydrate Programme’ (NGHP) for the exploration and exploitation of the gas-hydrate resources of the country, which are currently estimated at over 67,000 tcf (1,894 trillion cubic meters [tcm]). Once again, as a comparator, India’s exploitable reserve of conventional LNG is a mere 52.6 tcf. The two exploratory expeditions (NGHP-01 and NGHP-02) that have thus far been mounted have been in conjunction with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (J AMSTEC). They have yielded extremely encouraging results that border on the spectacular, confirming the presence of large, highly saturated, accumulations of gas hydrates in the Krishna-Godavari (KG) and Mahanadi Basins that are amongst the richest in the world. Production of even 10 percent from this natural reserve would be sufficient to meet the country’s vast energy requirement for a century or more — a cause of considerable optimism for energy-starved India and Japan. The 2015 edition of the ‘India-Japan Science Summit’, too, has reiterated the intent of both countries to continue joint surveys for gas-hydrates within India’s EEZ, using the Japanese drilling ship, the Chikyu.    

Military interaction with Japan is progressing at the policy level through the Japan-India Defense Policy Dialogue, while operational-level engagement proceeds under the aegis of the Comprehensive Security Dialogue (CSD) and Military-to-Military Talks (initiated in 2001). Naval cooperation is by far the most dynamic and is steered through the mechanism of annual Navy-to-Navy Staff Talks.

Tokyo and New Delhi are also actively expanding their defense trade and the acquisition by India of Japanese ShinMaywa US-2i amphibious aircraft remains very likely. Japan is also looking to undertake the construction of maritime infrastructure in the Andaman and Nicobar (A & N) Islands. An eventual aim could well be to integrate a new network of Indian Navy sensors into the existing Japan-U.S. “Fish Hook” Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) network to monitor the movement of Chinese nuclear-powered submarines.

As Satoru Nagao of the Tokyo Foundation, writing in the ORF’s publication  Line in the Waters succinctly puts it, “Tokyo and New Delhi have an important role to play to advance peace and stability and help safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region. Since Asia’s economies are bound by sea, maritime democracies like Japan and India must work together to help build a stable, liberal, rules-based order in Asia.” 

Clearly, there is a mutual yen for a closer maritime engagement.

Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan retired as Commandant of the Indian Naval Academy at Ezhimala. He is an alumnus of the prestigious National Defence College.

[1] Chinese civilizational framework prevailed throughout the East Asian region, but the Japanese version of it was distinctive enough to be regarded as a civilization sui generis.

Featured Image: Group photograph on board INS Shivalik with Japanese Naval Seadership at Port Sasbo, Japan on 24 Jul 14 (Indian Navy)

The Quest for India’s Supercarrier

This article originally featured on CSIS cogitAsia and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Tuneer Mukherjee

The recent decommissioning of the aircraft carrier INS Viraat leaves an enormous gap in the Indian Navy’s power projection capabilities. India’s sole remaining aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya will now serve at the vanguard, as evidenced this year by the ongoing Exercise Malabar and the earlier held TROPEX (Theater Readiness Operational Exercise). TROPEX reflected a shift in the mindset of Indian strategists from focusing exclusively on maneuvers for protection of the immediate littoral to combat concepts fixated around a larger maritime theater. It was a departure from considering Pakistan its main adversary and suggested an increasingly significant emphasis on China as the primary strategic threat. The Indian Navy’s plans to establish two carrier task forces affords it a limited window to finalize the design for its second indigenous aircraft carrier given the protracted schedule required to construct and operationalize a carrier battle group.

In the past decade, there has been a general change in strategic thinking in both Beijing and New Delhi. Policymakers have realized the importance of having dynamic maritime capabilities. This reflects a major doctrinal shift in the grand strategy of the two nations, which have usually revolved around developing traditional continental forces aimed at countering threats along their land borders.

In this regard, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) has increased investment in naval forces and has established dominance over its regional waters. The PLA-N is asserting its naval power in the South China Sea and is simultaneously holding live-fire exercises in the open seas from the southeast Indian Ocean to the eastern Pacific. These actions threaten the overarching security situation in the wider maritime theater, and countries in the region are growing progressively uncertain about China’s intentions. The capabilities of most navies in the wider maritime theater are paltry in comparison to the PLA-N — and China plans to continue its naval build up. Given this escalating security dilemma, the Indian Navy is the only resident power in South Asia that has the resources and capabilities to counter the emerging strategic imbalance in the maritime theater. The Indian Navy had previously taken a defensive approach and concentrated resources on developing credible anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, as the immediate concern for the strategists in New Delhi was Chinese submarines roaming in their backyard.

Despite a change in thinking, the commitment of the Indian Navy to see its new maritime doctrine through from defense white papers to the open waters hangs in doubt, given the history of bureaucratic delays, inefficient procurement, and ineffectual financing. The delay in its indigenous aircraft carrier program is a prime example. China is clearly moving ahead of India, with plans to induct its second indigenously produced aircraft-carrier into service before 2020. Meanwhile, India has struggled to meet deadlines for the INS Vikrant, its first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1).

In this race of aircraft carriers, India’s only saving grace could be the follow-on project, INS Vishal (IAC-2). This single supercarrier may push India to a dominant position in the long-term fight for naval superiority with China over the maritime commons of the Indo-Asia-Pacific. Vishal could possibly be the first nuclear powered supercarrier built in Asia. The discussion around the Indian Navy’s maritime strategy is centered around the IAC-2 to such an extent that it has decided to shelve plans to develop an indigenously produced aircraft in favor of procuring a better multi-role fighter aircraft that would suit the capabilities of the Vishal. The Vishal’s main selling point is its proposed nuclear propulsion engine. Russia, India’s long-trusted defense and arms supplier, jumped on board to deliver the aircraft carrier, and the Indian establishment has also sent letters of request to multiple European nations. There is also the possibility that India may shun foreign reactors altogether and built its own indigenous reactor for marine propulsion.

The United States, however, is poised to be the preferred partner in this initiative as it holds the most advanced technology for nuclear propulsion in aircraft carriers, and India has progressively increased its defense cooperation with the United States. Toward this end, India and the United States signed an agreement to share research and technology for an aircraft carrier that fits these requirements. The other area of cooperation in this partnership would be fitting the Vishal with the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (assuming nuclear propulsion), which would allow it to launch heavier aircraft like larger fighters, airborne early-warning aircraft, and refueling tankers.

Ultimately, in the long-term, the future of the Indian Navy will be built around the INS Vishal, and it is imperative that the strategists of New Delhi realize that this single venture will decide the fate of the navy’s ambitious modernization plans. The planning and design for Vishal is still in its initial stages, and this has led to delays in procurement of support vessels that will make up the carrier strike group. The success of this program depends on the Indian establishment shedding its previous inhibitions and adopting a more steadfast attitude to the rise of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean. It requires the government of the day to engage the United States in transferring technology never made available before, even to close allies.

Most importantly, if India is to deploy carrier strike groups to both of its maritime frontiers — the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal — it must develop better manufacturing facilities and realize the costs underlying its most ambitious project yet. The cost of building and maintaining a nuclear carrier strike group will run into the billions and would require a significantly larger allocation of the defense budget to the navy.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has given priority to India’s maritime interests in the entire Indo-Asia-Pacific, and the comments of an Indian minister supporting freedom of navigation and overflight in the disputed waters of the South China Sea supplement this view. India Naval Chief Sunil Lanba has touted India as a “net security provider in the Indian Ocean.” A 65,000-ton supercarrier would give India the ability to achieve it all but, for this to become a reality, New Delhi must shed its traditional lethargy and shake things up.

Aircraft Carrier Capabilities (Present & Planned) – India, China & United States

Name Class Type Displacement(tonnage) Status^ Operator
Vikramaditya Kiev Conventional 45,000 Operational India*
Vikrant (IAC-1) Vikrant Conventional 40,000 Est. 2023 India
Vishal (IAC-2) Vikrant TBD 65,000 Est. 2030 India
Liaoning Kuzentsov Conventional 60,000 Operational China*
Shandong Kuzentsov Conventional 70,000 Est. 2020 China
Type 002 Type 002 Conventional 85,000 Est. 2023 China
CVN (68,69,70)Nimitz

sub-class;
CVN (71,72,73,74,75)
Theodore Roosevelt
sub-class;
CVN (76, 77)
Ronald Reagan
sub-class

Nimitz Nuclear Average- 100,000 Operational United States
CVN 78 Gerald R. Ford Nuclear 100,000 Operational United States
CVN 79 Gerald R. Ford Nuclear 100,000 Est. 2020 United States
CVN 80 Gerald R. Ford Nuclear 100,000 Est. 2025 United States
 *The Russian Federation/USSR was the original manufacturer/operator of the carriers.
^The estimated times are for the year when the carrier is scheduled to be commissioned.

Mr. Tuneer Mukherjee is a former intern at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS and holds a master’s from the American University School of International Service. Follow him on twitter @MTuneer

Featured Image: Indian Navy carrier INS Vikramaditya (Indian Navy photo)