The prospect of a bigger Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean is prompting Japan and the United States to expand their own maritime operations. Yet, the Indian navy, South Asia’s principal security provider, is struggling to get its act together, argues Abhijit Singh.
New Delhi’s strategic circles are abuzz with speculation of a defence infrastructure upgrade at India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal. According to media reports, the government is on the cusp of finalising a 10-year plan to create additional infrastructure for troops, warships, aircraft and drones on the islands. This follows news that the Indian navy has commissioned a third naval aviation base on the islands.
The trigger for these developments is China. At the Raisina dialogue in January 2018, Indian naval chief Admiral Sunil Lanba was candid in stating India’s concerns vis-a-vis growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the Admiral claimed, is a resurgent force with a near permanent presence in the northern Indian Ocean. He suggested China’s ongoing naval modernisation is a challenge to the Indian navy in its maritime backyard. With over 80 warships commissioned in the last five years, the PLAN is indeed seen by many as a threat to India’s strategic primacy in South Asia.
For many Indian observers, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative is a strategic precursor to Chinese naval bases in the Indian Ocean. With Beijing stepping up naval shipbuilding in recent years, including aircraft carriers, China’s naval leadership seems intent on increasing its strategic reach. Recent reports suggest that of Beijing’s six planned aircraft carriers, two will be deployed in the Indian Ocean.
The prospect of a bigger Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean is prompting Japan and the United States to expand their own maritime operations. A Japanese helicopter carrier visited Colombo last year, and the United States established a temporary air logistics hub in Sri Lanka. Australia too has revealed plans to up its naval engagement in the region.
Yet, the Indian navy, South Asia’s principal security provider, is struggling to get its act together. Despite the expected force build-up in the Andaman Islands, India’s naval modernisation plans are yet to come to fruition. Submarine plans are moving slowly and its indigenous aircraft carrier programme is facing chronic delays from steadily declining budgets, technological hurdles and bureaucratic holdups.
The bigger challenge for the Indian navy is its inability to keep track of Chinese submarines in the near seas. India’s naval leadership is ramping up surveillance in the sub-continental littorals, with reconnaissance aircraft operating regularly from bases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. But it is not clear if the Indian endeavour is achieving any more success than in the past.
Recent initiatives, such as a round-the-year deployment of “mission-ready warships” near Indian Ocean chokepoints, an information-sharing pact with Japan and a new “fusion centre” in Gurgaon have expanded domain awareness. Still, there is little evidence this has improved the effectiveness of submarine searches. Unfortunately, India’s underwater surveillance capability remains subpar and a rumoured proposal for a wall of undersea microphones in the southern Bay of Bengal seems to have been abandoned.
Meanwhile Beijing’s military aid to Pakistan is sparking fears of a Chinese encirclement of India. With the conclusion of a contract for four Chinese Type 054A ships (armed with the deadly CM-302 SSM anti-ship missiles) at a nominal price of just over $200 million apiece for the Pakistan Navy, Islamabad will acquire an entire line of sophisticated frigates for a fraction of the cost that New Delhi spent on acquiring a fleet of stealth frigates from Russia. A proposal for the supply of eight Chinese Yuan class submarines would further strengthen Pakistan’s underwater prowess, giving it an edge over India.
New Delhi’s continuing wariness about a “maritime Quad” is not helping matters. Despite recent improvements in the Malabar exercises with the United States and Japan, the engagement still does not include Australia, a key partner in the Indo-Pacific. At Raisina, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne made a compelling presentation of her country’s Indian Ocean priorities. But Delhi’s “hedge and engage” approach towards China does not allow for an accommodation of Australia in the Malabar.
India’s approach intrigues Western analysts, with some even describing India as a weak link in the Quad. But Indian policymakers may have good reason to be sceptical. There is lack of clarity over what a naval Quad really means for Indian interests. Unlike Pacific democracies that emphasise a “rules-based order” in Asia, New Delhi sees the Quad as an opportunity to develop its military capabilities. But assistance is not readily forthcoming. Despite talk of converging security interests, neither the United States nor Japan are making any concrete offers to help India improve critical maritime defensive capabilities – in particular anti-submarine warfare.
More importantly, the trigger for a balancing coalition in Asia is still not clear. Regardless of its new logistical hubs in South Asia, China still has not crossed India’s thick “redlines”. Chinese warships have not posed a physical threat to Indian interests or challenged Indian sovereignty in its territorial waters. Neither has any Chinese submarine ventured close to Indian islands with malign intent.
New Delhi, it seems, is reluctant to play its trump card too early. If Beijing overplays its hand in littoral South Asia, Indian policymakers believe that would be a good time to announce a naval Quad. Until then India should respect the Wuhan spirit. The problem is that there’s no way of knowing if Japan, Australia and the United States would then still be interested.
Abhijit Singh is senior fellow and head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. This comment first appeared in East Asia Forum and can be assessed at https://bit.ly/2SN7ES0