Written by Vidya Sagar Reddy, The Red Queen’s Navy will discuss the influence of emerging naval platforms and technologies in the geostrategic contours of the Indo-Pacific region. It identifies relevant historical precedents, forming the basis for various maritime development and security related projects in the region.
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”– The Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.
By Vidya Sagar Reddy
China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had put on a display of its skills recently as the carrier group transited the Western Pacific. Liaoning’s excursion, marking Beijing’s core interests, is a political message to the United States and the world as uncertainty grips them. It also marks the beginning of a new episode in the military history of Western Pacific, which has been dominated by American aircraft carriers since the Cold War, especially during the Taiwan Strait crises. Taiwan also believes that Liaoning represents China’s military ability to break through the first island chain.
A recount of Cold War history and Beijing’s narratives of its historical and maritime supremacy in the Western Pacific serves to put this development into a more sober perspective, informing future political and military balance in the region.
China’s civil war led to Communists controlling the mainland territory while the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan. Subsequently, the People’s Republic of China and Republic of China were established on either side of the Taiwan Strait. In the 1950s, the U.S. drew up security and mutual defense treaties with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand as a bulwark of its containment policy against the spread of Communism in Asia. The U.S. also extended its diplomatic and military support to Taiwan while confronting China in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
In the 1950s, China and Taiwan clashed over the control of strategically located islands in the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. deployed its naval assets to the Strait, forcing cessation of hostilities and also signaling its political will to defend Taiwan from military aggression. However, U.S.-China relations improved in the 1970s with the former recognizing the PRC. The diplomatic recognition by the U.S. helped China modernize its industries and expand its economy.
As China’s domestic circumstances and international stature improved, it sought to define its national interests. In 2003, China’s Foreign Minister, Tang Jiaxuan, identified Taiwan as one of China’s “core interests” in his meeting with then U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell. The subsequent official writings use terms such as ‘upholding territorial integrity and national sovereignty’ and ‘reunification’ in an attempt to extend China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. The South China Sea was included in the ‘core interests’ in 2010 and the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea in 2013. China is undertaking reforms and modernizing its military capabilities to attain and defend these core interests.
Admiral Liu Huaqing, called China’s Mahan, was the most influential in lobbying for a blue-water navy for the country. He oversaw the radical modernization of China’s navy in terms of concepts, strategies, and capabilities. He even drew up a timeline for China’s navy to be able to exert sea control within the first island chain by 2000, control second island chain waters by 2020 and project power as a true global navy by 2050. The aircraft carrier is the quintessential military platform that embodies such intentions, particularly for global power projection. The fact that American aircraft carriers operating across the globe, including the Western Pacific, underline this fact to China.
Signaling Capability and Strategic Intent
Liaoning then speaks of Beijing’s political will and ambition to break through the first island chain, which China considers a geographical and political containment of its power. The first island chain is a virtual line drawn from the islands of Japan passing Taiwan and the Philippines and curving at the southern end of the South China Sea between Malaysia and Vietnam. Variations include the line either passing through the west coast or the east coast of Taiwan as well as extension of the line through the Indonesian archipelago to even reach Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. In any case, China is bound to come in contact with its immediate neighbors Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, countries with which it shares a long, complex history of both cooperation and conflict.
China has also shown its knack for picking its moments to send political messages using military means. It took advantage of the world’s fixated attention on the U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958 to resume the bombing of Jinmen and Mazu islands in the Taiwan Strait. China’s armed incursion across the Indian border in 1962 coincides with the Cuban Missile Crisis. At present, the domestic political transition phase of the U.S. had lent Liaoning political space to carry out its objectives in support of Beijing’s core interests. Liaoning’s excursion also occurred just as President Trump signaled possible recalibration of ‘One China’ policy before his inauguration. Carrier operations require significant advance preparation, so while President Trump’s comments may not have triggered the Liaoning’s transit, the Chinese surely planned this December deployment well in advance of the U.S. election to send a message to the U.S. president-elect, whomever it would be.
China has liberally shared photographs and videos of Liaoning’s deck operations, perhaps as an aid to counter the criticism of its minimal experience in carrying out carrier operations in deep seas. Nevertheless, China cannot be expected to master those skills and capabilities inherent to maintaining a carrier strike group as its Asian peer India or the U.S. have acquired over many decades and at considerable costs. Most importantly, before China can earn international prestige, Liaoning or its successors must operate outside the overshadowing Anti-Access/Area Denial protective bubble and sustain their operations to become true power projection assets.
Liaoning operations in December 2016. PLA Navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli is seen shaking hands and speaking to crew members. (CCTV)
Even if it is the intention of China to intimidate its smaller neighbors by parading the Liaoning in the near seas, investing the financial and human resources demanded by an aircraft carrier in the Coast Guard and maritime militia makes better sense. China’s maritime militia deployed on the open seas backed by the Coast Guard and the Navy has emerged as the true instrument of coercion for altering the status quo in the South China Sea, complicating the response mechanisms of disputant countries while the U.S. has yet to officially recognize it as a concentrated force.
Extending the cost-benefit perspective to a wartime situation, it again makes better sense for China to continue investing in its missile capabilities that better serve its sea denial strategy against an adversary advancing over the seas towards its shores. The new classes of China’s destroyers and submarines, owing to their numbers and increasing technological sophistication, are already considered formidable. Even if the carriers are able to extend the reach of China’s military aircraft over the seas, they would tie down some of the aircraft and naval assets for protection against the adversary’s own long-range missile strikes.
In essence, China has made a fine point: it finally possesses a steaming aircraft carrier that has operated without incidents on its first venture over the seas. Beijing successfully highlighted and marked some of its core interests. While Liaoning’s foray into the seas certainly sets a mark in the fluctuating military balance of the Asia-Pacific, China has some decent obstacles to maneuver before it can claim or demand recognition for possessing an aircraft carrier. And given China’s zero tolerance for accidents, it remains to be seen how the cautious approach would help China gain mastery in this domain. As the carrier operations continue and more platforms join the Navy, China will have to determine if these platforms are indeed worth the risk and costs. Even so, China needs to assess the optimum roles that can be assigned to its carriers within the country’s overarching political and military strategies.
Vidya Sagar Reddy is a research assistant in the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative of the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
Featured Image: Liaoning steams with PLA Navy surface combatants. (Andreas Rupprecht, via China Defense Forum)
CIMSEC spoke with Asia-Pacific expert Bonnie Glaser to better understand freedom of navigation, U.S.-China relations under the Trump administration, and recent maritime operations in the region. Listen to the audio or read the transcript below.
Mina Pollmann: Hello, CIMSEC listeners. My name is Mina Pollmann, and as CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations, I have the honor of hosting Bonnie Glaser as our guest for this episode. Bonnie is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy.
Bonnie, thank you so much for joining us.
Bonnie Glaser: Thanks for having me.
Mina: I’d like to focus today on potential areas of conflict between the U.S. and China, specifically in the maritime domain. To lay the groundwork for that conversation, I wanted to ask a couple questions first about your take on the Trump administration and how China is reacting to the new president.
Early speculation of Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy emphasized that it will be “transactional.” Based on the signs so far, such as his meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe, the call with Taiwan’s President Tsai before his inauguration, and the call with Australia’s Prime Minister Turnbull last week, would you agree with this characterization? Is Trump’s approach really that calculated?
Bonnie: Well, as a businessman, it does appear that President Trump is looking to make some “deals” with other countries. We don’t know yet what kinds of “deals” that would be. He has indicated, for example, that the One China policy, which the United States has held for almost 40 years, might be reconsidered unless the Chinese make some concessions in the area of trade. But as far as I know, we haven’t started a dialogue with the Chinese yet. Maybe the Chinese will try to offer some things up in advance, but the Chinese have also told the United States, and they have said so publicly, that the One China policy is nonnegotiable.
I think the premise of the Trump administration is that the Chinese can be influenced. That if the United States pushes back, stands firm in some areas, the Chinese will simply have to accept it. They’ll have to adjust. That is a hypothesis that hasn’t really been tested. Whether we look at the South China Sea or Taiwan or other areas, we don’t yet know whether an effort to try and establish new “redlines” – for example, Secretary of State Tillerson’s suggestion during his confirmation hearings that we might seek to deny China’s access to some of its islands in the South China Sea – will influence China. We don’t know where decisions are going to be made to try to force the Chinese to change their position, or where the Trump administration is going to bargain. We’re still in the very early days of the new administration, and we just don’t know.
Mina: It’s safe to say that unpredictability will be a defining feature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy. In light of this, how can China craft a sustained and constructive foreign policy towards the U.S.?
Bonnie: I think that every country has to deal with a degree of unpredictability when they are talking to the Trump administration and making their own policy decisions. There is not a lot of certainty yet. And it may be that the Trump administration decides to maintain a large degree of unpredictability if it believes that ambiguity serves its interest.
I think as far as the Chinese are concerned, they are trying to convince the Trump administration to limit the ambiguity to areas that do not affect China’s “core interests.” At the top of that list of core interests is sovereignty and territorial integrity – which is why the issue of the One China policy is so sensitive to the Chinese. I think that Beijing is trying to establish the opportunity to have an early, in-depth conversation with President Trump. I think they believe that a Sunnylands-type conversation where they can lay out their interests and try to engage in a one-on-one conversation between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump may help establish some understandings early on. I don’t know whether they will be able to achieve that goal.
Right now, the first potential opportunity for Xi Jinping to talk to Donald Trump is likely to be at the G20 in the first week of July, unless something is arranged before then. But we are seeing phone calls taking place. China’s State Councilor Yang Jiechi spoke with National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. We don’t know what took place in that conversation, but I think that the Chinese are looking for greater certainty in trying to narrow this area of uncertainty and unpredictability.
Mina: Moving on to questions more directly related to the maritime domain – in your commentary with Zack Cooper and Peter Dutton, “Mischief Reef: President Trump’s First FONOP?” last November, you and your co-authors explain how regional observers will judge the Trump administration’s willingness – or unwillingness – to accept risk in response to China’s recent assertiveness based on where and when it conducts its first freedom of navigation operation in Asia. What message would conducting a naval operation that goes beyond “innocent passage” within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef send to China?
Bonnie: To introduce some background here, the Obama administration started conducting freedom of navigation operations around the Spratlys and the Paracels in October 2015 – but this was not the first time. Apparently, as early as 1997, there were some freedom of navigation operations in the Paracels. And it’s important to make the point that the U.S. freedom of navigation program is, in fact, a global one. It goes back to the 1970s, and it is intended to enforce freedom of navigation for all countries in the world, to protect high seas freedoms that all seafaring nations have under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
When the Obama administration resumed these operations, there had been a hiatus for a couple years where they had not been carried out in the South China Sea. They were conducted two times in the Paracels, and two times in the Spratlys. And in all of these cases, with the exception of the last one that was conducted in October 2016, they were what we call “innocent passage.” That means, simply sailing in, in an expeditious and continuous manner, through waters that are 12 nautical miles around a particular feature.
Now, this is complicated by the fact that in the Paracels, the Chinese drew base points and baselines in 1996. They drew what’s called “straight baselines,” connecting these 28 base points. Under UNCLOS, only an archipelagic state that is composed of islands can draw these straight lines legally. China is a continental state. And it illegally drew straight baselines, and inside these baselines essentially claimed an “internal sea.” Under UNCLOS, if you have a legal internal sea, another country cannot sail inside those waters without getting permission first. The Chinese, contending that they have this legal right, demanded that the United States and other countries ask for permission before entering this internal sea. And the Chinese believe that they have a right under UNCLOS to demand that every country sailing in their territorial sea – whether it be coastal or around one of their land features – get prior permission. The United States has a different interpretation, and some countries require notification but not permission, so there are different interpretations of what the provisions are under UNCLOS.
So, with that background, in the last freedom of navigation operation in October of 2016, the USS Decatur crossed these illegal straight lines, and they conducted a maneuvering drill for the first time out of the four FONOPs publicized during the Obama administration. This is an exercise that is demonstrating high seas freedoms, and of course the Chinese objected to that. This was not “innocent passage” – simply sailing in a continuous and expeditious manner. Why is this important? If the United States simply sailed through these straight baselines through the Paracels and conducted innocent passage, that would signal an acceptance of China’s unlawful straight baselines.
The reason why Peter Dutton, Zach Cooper and I are advocating conducting a FONOP around Mischief Reef is because the July 2016 ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal under UNCLOS found that Mischief Reef is a low-tide elevation. That essentially means its part of the seabed – so no country can have sovereignty over it, and it exists inside the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. So indeed it belongs to the Philippines.
Mischief Reef is one of the three land features that the Chinese have built out into a massive island, creating military installations, including a 10,000-foot runway, hardened aircraft shelters, anti-aircraft missiles, and other capabilities. So if the United States were to conduct freedom of navigation around Mischief Reef – because Mischief Reef is not within 12 nautical miles of any other feature which would affect how the FONOP be legally conducted – simply conducting innocent passage around these 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef would once again lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. And of course China has illegally occupied the feature to begin with. This means the United States, with any FONOP around Mischief Reef, would have to conduct some military activity to not lend credibility and legality to China’s claims. The U.S. could fly a helicopter, conduct an exercise of another kind, circumnavigate the feature, loiter within – those are the kinds of options the U.S. has.
The risks here are that the Chinese might respond. Perhaps the Obama administration did not conduct this particular FONOP because they were worried the Chinese might respond or interfere with that kind of freedom of navigation operation. The Chinese could interfere by sending fighter aircraft and flying very low and dangerously, or they could use maritime militia or even naval vessels to try and interfere and block the United States or force the United States to leave the area. This could potentially lead to a confrontation or even an accident. And it appears, based on the nature of the FONOPs the Obama administration did conduct, one of the factors in the decision making process was that the Obama administration wanted to minimize any potential for confrontation with China. I think they were risk-averse.
And I think the Trump administration will approach this issue a little differently. They might be willing to incur more risk. And by demonstrating to China they are less risk-averse, they hope to strengthen deterrence. Now, this is still a logic that is yet to be played out – as to what the Trump administration’s approach will be, and how the Chinese will respond. But this will be, from the Chinese perspective, a test of U.S. intentions and operations in the South China Sea. They will be looking to see whether the Trump administration is going to act differently than the Obama administration did. And the Trump administration will be looking to see how the Chinese respond to what they do. This is a critical test of where the U.S.-China relationship will go going forward.
Mina: Moving to a different part within the same region, on January 11, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier sailed north through the Taiwan Strait after completing exercises in the South China Sea. Is this meant as a signal? If so, what specifically was it a response to? What message is it meant to convey?
Bonnie: Well, first we should note that the Liaoning aircraft carrier first went through the Taiwan Strait as part of an exercise in 2013, so this was not the first time. And preparing to conduct an exercise with an aircraft carrier – given the fact that the Chinese do not have much experience – a lot of work and preparation went into that. And the Liaoning was operating in the South China Sea, there were flight operations that were going on – the Chinese were trying to build their capabilities.
My guess is that the preparations were underway maybe five, six months in advance. So it’s doubtful that this exercise was substantially modified in reaction to anything that was happening in international politics at the time. That’s my view. But nevertheless it is a useful signal and can be played that way.
The Liaoning, heading back to Hainan Island from its exercises, really had three options to head back to China, if they did in fact consider changing routes. They could have gone through straits in Japan, or in the Philippines, or through the Taiwan Strait. They may or may not have decided initially to go through the Taiwan Strait, but my guess is that they simply were exploiting the opportunity to present it as a signal to Taiwan. The reason would be that the Chinese are more concerned about Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. She had a conversation with Donald Trump when he was just elected, on the phone. That was the first time ever a Taiwanese president has spoken on the phone with an American president-elect and that was made very public. And then President Tsai traveled through the United States. In fact, when this transit took place, President Tsai was in Central America and she passed through the U.S. and the Chinese are concerned about the potential for more cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, the possibility that President Trump could be emboldening Taiwan to challenge China’s claim to sovereignty. That would be a reason why they might have done that.
I should note, however, that the Liaoning sailed on the Chinese side of the midline between Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and did not cross that centerline. As I understand it there were no flight operations that were conducted as it was transiting the Taiwan Strait. If that had happened it would have been seen as far more provocative. And finally, I would add that, three times prior to that transit through the Taiwan Strait, bomber flights took place around the South China Sea and also circumventing Taiwan. In my view, those bomber flights, combined in some cases with other aircraft, were probably intended to send a very direct warning signal to Tsai Ing-wen. And I view those with greater concern than the transit by the Liaoning through that Strait.
Mina: Historically, China has tested incoming U.S. administrations with assertive operations. Do you think an assertive operation in the maritime domain – looking beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, considering possible contingencies even in the East China Sea – is likely? If so, what form might this take and is there anything the U.S. can do to deter it? How could the U.S. respond?
Bonnie: It has been suggested, and I believe, many observers believe that China has tested incoming administrations. In 2001, in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, there were aggressive intercepts that were being conducted by a Chinese pilot that ultimately resulted in a collision with an EP3 aircraft and led to a forced landing on Hainan Island. And in 2009, there was an early incident with a U.S. oceanographic vessel called the Impeccable, with various types of Chinese vessels harassing the Impeccable, and tried to convince the United States to reduce the intelligence, surveillance ,and reconnaissance operations around China and to move those operations further away from China’s coast.
So, one possibility is that the Chinese do try to test the Trump administration. My guess is that given the fact that the Trump administration has signaled early on that it is going to get tough against China, and the fact that they have tried to introduce a lot of unpredictability into future U.S. policy towards China, the Chinese likely see that there is a very high risk in testing the Trump administration – because they could force this new administration to become even tougher. They could even cause an early confrontation.
So far, it is remarkable how restrained, how disciplined the Chinese have been not just in their behavior, but in their rhetoric as well. There have been very carefully worded statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Chinese Defense Ministry reiterating China’s principled positions on various issues. But there have not been very strong threatening statements or actions form the Chinese. I think that they recognize that if President Trump is potentially seen as weak, he may overreact, and this could create an outcome that the Chinese don’t want to see.
There’s also the potential that in the past, some of these “tests” that took place in the George W. Bush administration and the Obama administration, took place at a time pre-Xi Jinping, when the Chinese civilian control over all of the activities of the military were probably not as firm as they are today. That’s not to say the military might not do things in some areas that are not completely decided by the civilian leadership. There are still some issues in civil-military relations in China. But, it is clear that the coordination between the civilians and the military, and the instructions by Xi Jinping to operators in the aircraft and military vessels – particularly the instruction to avoid an incident with the United States – is quite clear. In the past, where some of these incidents have taken place, there was speculation that maybe the top Chinese leaders did not endorse that particular action at that particular time – I think that is less likely to take place.
Mina: Thank you so much for your time today, and I’m really excited to get this out to all of our listeners. This was such an insightful conversation. Thank you, Bonnie.
Bonnie: Thanks for having me.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum, and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.
Mina Pollmann is CIMSEC’s Director of External Relations.
By Felix Seidler, Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany / German blogger.
Nothing has been as over-hyped since August 2011 as China’s aircraft carrier program. After the former Soviet carrier Varyag, fully refurbished by the Chinese and renamed Liaoning, took its first “test drive”, thousands of blog posts, press pieces, and scholarly articles argued about possible regional and global implications. Is this single ship a regional or even global threat? What about the balance in the East and South China Seas?
Stay calm, people. After a few tests, China’s Navy – the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – has shown it is in fact still years away from having an operational aircraft carrier, let alone integrated carrier strike group.
Moreover, if a navy wants to have a single operationally available aircraft carrier at any one time, it needs at least two, and better still three carriers in rotation: the one in operational status, one in the shipyard, and one in training and work-ups. According to these numbers, it is unlikely that the PLAN will be able to sustain a “blue water” carrier presence before 2020 based on projected shipbuilding schedules.
Even the first flights of a J-15 Shark from Liaoning’s deck were more PR event than step towards a credible carrier force. It’s one thing to launch a single fighter under controlled and planned conditions. Conducting dozens of flight movements per hour in wartime requires a significant increase in capabilities and training. To reach this, China must still walk a long road.
Eye on India
However, while most observers were busy with Liaoning, Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier, India’s INS Viraat, has largely been left out of the discussion (sorry, Thailand, but your never-operating carrier is not a serious asset). The first reason why India’s carrier must be taken more seriously than China: operational experience. India has been operating its current carrier since 1987 (the now-decommissioned INS Vikrant began service in 1961), and already has in place the necessary supply chains and logistics that the PLAN lacks. China’s maritime “Long March” could take longer than Mao’s to gain all the experience India already has. And while both China and India could turn to Russia for potential assistance, only the latter would likely receive carrier support – whether logistics or training – from the U.S., France, or the U.K.
Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Indian commanders already conduct serious exercises with their helicopter and fighter pilots integrated with their carrier crews. China, due to the lack of capacity (i.e. a carrier at sea) has not yet started the most crucial parts of its carrier training. Russian experts warn it may take the Chinese another decade to learn how to “efficiently” run carrier operations. Meanwhile, India’s next carrier INS Vikramaditya (former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov), due the benefits of Russian support, is already training in Arctic waters and is expected despite delays to enter service in late 2013 or 2014. The indigenously built INS Vikrant is slated to be commissioned in 2015. In consequence, whenever the PLAN’s first carrier is operational, India will have at least two well-trained counterparts (Viraat is set to decommission in 2020). Furthermore, India will generally be able to maintain one operational carrier off-shore while China, at least initially, will not.
New Delhi and The Three Carrier Big Boys
Beside Russian support – generous, but not free – India participates in joint exercises with the navies of the other two “Carrier Big Boys,” the U.S. and France. The PLAN is far from such trials and, beyond search and rescue (SAR), these navies by policy will not conduct full-scale combat training with a Chinese carrier, their possible future foe.
For instance, in April 2012, the U.S. and India conducted the 15th joint naval Exercise Malabar; which also included warships from Australia, Japan, and Singapore. Training with the U.S. means that India has the opportunity to look at and, thereby, learn from the skills of the world’s best carrier-operating navy. However, Indians pilots have not yet been reported taking off from U.S. carriers. Also unprecedented but not improbable, India’s carrier officers, pilots, and crews could hone their skills training side-by-side with the world’s best counterparts. This is something Chinese sailors are probably never going to experience. China’s fighter pilots had to travel to Brazil for portions of their carrier flight training.
Moreover, the U.S. is joined by France in using their carriers as political means of improving strategic ties with India. In 2011 the French Navy sent its carrier Charles de Gaulle, accompanied by surface vessels and a nuclear sub, to India for a joint exercise. Of course, this was also an advertisement for the French carrier-capable Rafale fighter, which India has since purchased. Operating combat-proven (Libya), NATO-interoperable fighters from carriers is surely a positive. Meanwhile, the competition is mostly working with slight improvements on copied Soviet and Russian designs. While China is developing a flat-top capable stealth fighter (the J-31), it will take years before it reaches full operational capabilities and production. In response to the threat of a Chinese carrier with J-31s, India could opt for the F-35C or a carrier-capable version of the Russian T-50 PAK FA. The U.S. and Russia would probably sell everything to New Delhi to keep a resurgent India in their camp.
Given all these advantages there can be no doubt that India’s already operating carriers deserve much higher esteem than China’s refurbished test-object in Dalian shipyard. However, it’s time to put the carriers into the geo-strategic context.
India’s Lasting Geo-strategic Advantage
For all its current carrier edge over China, India will not become a U.S.-like carrier superpower; but nor does it need to. Look at the Indian Ocean on the map and you’ll see the world’s most important sea-lanes running in front of the Indian military’s ports and air bases. Some of the most critical geostrategic hotspots and maritime chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, and the Gulf of Aden are nearby. For example, from its Andaman and Nikobar bases, India could easily block the northern entry of the Malacca Strait in the event of conflict.
By comparison, the PLAN has natural access only to the Malacca Strait, and to reach it must traverse the South China Sea, which can easily be filled with the subs and vessels of neighboring nations’ and the U.S. Navy. Thus, due to geography, the PLAN would have a far more difficult time exerting control on, or re-opening, access to the chokepoint than the Indian Navy. The Indian Navy would have a good deal easier job of accessing the South China Sea than the PLAN the Indian Ocean. Additionally, India has no “island chains” from which opposing forces can launch strikes, and therefore does not need to concentrate on Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) and instead can focus on freedom of action.
The Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game
Finally, in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game – how I like to describe what is going to happen in the map at top over the next 50 years – the better cards are in India’s hand.
As mentioned, India has the geographic edge. New Delhi’s maritime lifelines cannot easily be blocked. And, if someone tried, India’s carriers, surface vessels, subs, and air bases are within striking distance of the chokepoints. Furthermore, India has the better demography, with a younger (average) population base than China’s, which is “getting older before it gets rich.” This is important, because the Achilles Heel of the PLAN’s carrier program is the development of the Chinese population. Changes in society and government could reverse Beijing’s decisions in the carrier case. In 2060, India is expected to be the third or second largest economy in the world. Hence, it will have the money and the technology to sustain its number of carriers at an even higher rate than present.
With this in mind, whoever worries in the U.S. or Europe about these Chinese carriers, which could patrol the Indian Ocean’s SLOCs, should remember that India will be there too. So will other countries, like Australia. It’s time to recognize that of the two Indo-Pacific neighbors only one can as yet legitimately claim to be a global maritime power.
Besides, it won’t all come down to naval power in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Great Game. Of course, as the U.S. military recognizes, it must incorporate Air-Sea, but Space and Cyber must play integral roles too. Remember, all ships and fighters are worth nothing without satellite communications and a working cyber infrastructure. Therefore, wordy though it is, an Air-Sea-Space-Cyber-Battle is the way ahead (or perhaps Air-Sea+?); perhaps not only for the U.S., but for those developing their influence in the Indo-Pacific too.