Chandigarh: Indian strategists, navalists and senior defence officials like to believe the recent round of exercises between the Indian and United States navies in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) could ‘unnerve’ the Chinese army occupying the country’s territory in Ladakh and facilitate its withdrawal.
The 72-hour long ‘passage exercises’ off the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago on July 21 featured four warships from either side, including a US Navy (USN) carrier-battle group, led by the nuclear-powered USS Nimitz. These basic manoeuvres, according to a USN press statement, involved ‘maximizing training and interoperability, including air defence’. Explaining the significance, the USN statement says, “Naval engagements such as these exercises improve the cooperation of US and Indian maritime forces and contribute to both sides’ ability to counter threats at sea, from piracy to violent extremism. These engagements also present opportunities to build upon the pre-existing strong relationship between the US and India and allow both countries to learn from each other. ”
The Indian Navy, for its part, issued an anodyne tweet which merely recorded the exercises.
The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is transiting through IOR. During the passage, #IndianNavy units undertook Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with #USNavy.
Indian Navy had also conducted similar PASSEXs with #JMSDF and #FrenchNavy in recent past.@USNavy@SpokespersonMoD @MEAIndia pic.twitter.com/ntj5gFFNqC
— SpokespersonNavy (@indiannavy) July 20, 2020
Backed by a pliant media, which resolutely echoes South Blocks briefings, navalists and military planners in New Delhi look upon this drill as a warning shot across China’s bows to ‘coerce’ it into ending its nearly three-month long military face-off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). They anticipate it would miraculously help restore the status quo ante of the respective army deployments prevailing along the LAC in April.
These security mandarins also genuinely believe that by shifting focus to the maritime domain, where they maintain India can leverage the ‘asymmetry’ between the two nuclear-armed military’s that seemingly favours the Indian Navy (IN), Beijing can be ‘pressured’ into conflict resolution.
This conviction stems partly from confidence – not entirely baseless – in the IN’s wider and comprehensive operational experience in the IOR compared to that of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), but more from the emergence of the incipient quadrilateral alliance between the Indian, US, Japanese and Australian navies.
Ostensibly aimed at ensuring free and open sea lanes of communication in the IOR, the ‘Quad’ in reality is aimed at exploiting China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’ in order to deter Beijing’s hegemonic militarism.
First enunciated in 2003 by the then Chinese president Hu Jintao, the Dilemma refers to the vulnerability of the strategically located Malacca Strait to enemy navies.
Over 80% of Beijing’s oil and hydrocarbon imports from West Asia traverse the Malacca Strait, the shortest shipping channel between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In Beijing’s view, there is a risk of alliances like the Quad strategically choking and monitoring all traffic through this Strait, thereby paralysing China, at least for now.
The closest alternative for China, in the event of such a blockade, to transport its energy requirements would be the Sunda Strait, but its width and depth make it unsuitable for large tankers to transit. Other possibilities like the Lombok and Makassar Straits are lengthier routes, that could incur additional annual shipping costs of $84-250 billion to traverse, according to Singapore’s Rajaratam School of International Studies.
Indian navalists also believe that other regional navies from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam too could support the Quad to similarly contain an expansionist Beijing, by impeding China’s Malacca lifeline. Most of these countries have unresolved maritime or trade disputes with China and good defence, security and diplomatic relations with India.
But to effectively operationalise the Quad, and the supplementary putative maritime alliances, raises one fundamental question: how many of these navies, including the USN would be willing to militarily thwart China at India’s behest? For, despite Delhi’s optimism over an anti-China multi-lateral alliance of maritime democracies and the imminence of the Quad conducting joint exercises later this year as a warning signal to Beijing, there is widespread scepticism in military circles over its outcome in containing Beijing. As one senior military official jocularly declared, the US is more than willing to fight to the last Indian to deter the Chinese.
Former Indian Navy chief of staff Admiral Arun Prakash, though supportive of the Quad, is of the view that there is a need for the US to recast, along with its partners, its Indo-Pacific strategy which in recent years has “had no impact of China’s unfolding hegemonic master plan”.
He recently declared in the Indian Express that US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s latest ‘bombastic statements’ regarding China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea served only to highlight America’s helplessness. “Having failed to deter China from creating and fortifying artificial islands (in the South China Sea) in open defiance of the UN Tribunal’s verdict, all that the US has been able to demonstrate is the hollow symbolism of US warships conducting freedom of navigation sailing through Chinese-claimed waters” lamented Adm Prakash.
The former navy chief was referring to China’s land reclamation projects in the disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea for military use, and the recent deployment of surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets on the nearby, disputed Paracel Islands. China unilaterally claims an area known as the “nine-dash line” in this region, and has backed its claim with island-building and patrols, expanding its military presence there, although it insists its intentions are peaceful.
Meanwhile, other strategic analysts too dismissed the 21 July IN-USN exercises as symbolic and designed merely to send an irksome signal to Beijing. “However satisfying the imagery-warships cutting a swath through blue waters and jet fighters screaming off the aircraft carrier decks, the exercise is still a paper deterrence” said Nayan Chanda, founder editor of YaleGlobal Online and a long-time Asia watcher. While the foreign vessels would head home, he noted, the powerful Chinese navy and its thousands of armed fishing militia and coastguard vessels, will stay.
Once again this raises the niggling question: which country will operationalise its warships alongside the Indian Navy’s to chastise China into hegemonic restraint?
>Earlier, the same four navies of the impending Quad – led by the IN and the USN, which also included Singapore – had riled China in September 2007 after taking part in the annual ‘Malabar’ round of exercises in the Bay of Bengal. Beijing considered it an incipient anti-China military grouping, and its strong protests to India resulted in it being summarily disbanded.
But eight years later, growing Chinese hegemony in the IOR and the South China Sea resulted in India once again inviting the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) in October 2015 to be part of the Malabar exercises, alongside the USN.
But even then, Prime Miniser Narendra Modi struck a conciliatory tone. Speaking at the Shangri La Dialogue at Singapore as recently as 2018, he sought to reassure China that India did not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of ‘limited members’ . He went on to state that Asia and the world would have a better future when India and China worked together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests. Regrettably, the PLA’s occupation of Indian territory in Ladakh in early May, has spoiled the party.
In short, the message is stark and unambiguous: the Quad is no magic bullet to deal with a bellicose China and its ambitions. The reality is that India will need to counter China, even in the maritime arena, by itself and not look over its shoulder to others for collaborative military backup.
How the Indian and Chinese navies stack up
There is, meanwhile, little doubt that the IN is more experienced than the PLAN in operating in the IOR, but unlike the opposing armies that fought the 1962 border war, in which India came off worse, the IN has never clashed with the PLAN, even tenuously, to determine its supremacy or efficacy.
Both navies have placed carriers at the centre of their maritime force development plans, using elements of Russian technology, but each starting from a different base level of experience and adopting their own path to achieve their respective capability.
China is relatively new to carrier operations and has had to start from scratch, with no aircraft, vessel, training pipeline, or operational experience to rely on. In contrast, India inducted its first carrier, INS Vikrant (ex-HMS Hercules) in 1961 and generations of naval officers maintain that its institutional maturity, experience, and knowledge give it a decisive edge over rival navies, including the PLAN.
Other officers however, caution against such assertiveness. “Past performance is no guarantee of future success” said a two-star IN officer, declining to be named. It would be a mistake, he warned, to underestimate the PLAN’s ability to master the basics of carrier aviation within a shorter timescale given the advances in technology over the last two decades.
China can also reasonably claim an unrivalled focus and ability to marshal strategic resources to build more vessels and aircraft swiftly. The two comparative force levels also favour the PLAN, which has commissioned 117 assorted major warships over the past decade, including two aircraft carriers. 33 destroyers, 54 frigates, 42 corvettes, 50 diesel-electric and 10 nuclear-powered submarines. The PLAN has another two carriers under construction, as well as landing platform docks to augment its expeditionary capabilities.
Last December, China commissioned Shandong, its second 66,000 tonne carrier, capable of embarking 44 fighters and rotary platforms, two years after it was launched. In comparison, the IN’s first 40,262 tonne indigenously designed and built carrier INS Vikrant, was launched in 2013, and is scheduled to join service in 2022, following delays of over six years. The debate over an add-on carrier remains unresolved.
Contrastingly, the IN that has a major locational advantage in the IOR, operates around 140-150 warships that include one refurbished Russian aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers, 14 frigates, 11 corvettes, 15 diesel-electric submarines and two nuclear-powered submarines, one of which is on lease from Moscow.
And, last December, the IN chief of staff, Admiral Karambir Singh warned of further stasis. At his annual press conference he said the navy’s share of the defence budget had dropped from 18% in Fiscal Year 2012–13 to 13% in FY 2019–20, compelling the service to cut its goal of fielding 200 warships by 2027 to 175 in accordance with its 15-year Maritime Capability Perspective Plan from 2012. He candidly added that the IN’s expectation of operating even these reduced asset numbers was “optimistic”.
Meanwhile, China is readying a credible two-front threat even in the IOR, by boosting the Pakistan Navy’s (PN’s) assets. From 2021, China is poised to begin supplying the PN eight Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines with air independent propulsion for enhanced underwater endurance – four of which will be built at Karachi – four Type 054A multi-role stealth frigates, and other assorted platforms and weaponry worth $7 billion. Unlike the Quad, senior Indian military planners believe that the PLAN-PN affiliation has an assured offensive motivation that could pose the IN facing force erosion an added challenge in the coming years.
Analysts believe that these Chinese platforms are likely to be ‘gifted’ to Pakistan that is a vital cog in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the pivot of President Xi Jinping’s assertive agenda. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or the CPEC is key to the BRI’s success and involves building a 2,390 km long road and rail network across Pakistan, interwoven with oil and gas pipelines across the country.
But this elaborate, work-in-progress grid is aimed principally at connecting Pakistan’s Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea with China’s western Xinjiag region. This will ensure delivery, within days, of China’s oil and gas requirements from West Asia, which presently take four to six weeks to transport by sea. In turn, this link would, over the next few years, mitigate China’s Malacca Dilemma considerably, thereby diminishing the Quad’s coercive pressure point against Beijing.
Once fully operational, Gwadar will most certainly host PLAN warships and submarines, endangering vital Indian, US and other Western interests in the Persian Gulf and further threatening the Indian Navy in the Arabian Sea. Pakistan has reportedly ‘handed over’ Gwadar to China for 40 years, but little is publicly known of their secretive arrangement.
In conclusion, what is brewing at the LAC, and emerging alongside between the Indian and Chinese navies in the IOR can best be explained as a Mexican Standoff – an expression that came into being during the 19th century US-Mexican war. It specifies an enduring and financially draining confrontation with tremendous collateral damage, but one that allows neither party to achieve victory.
Note: This story has been edited to clarify the nature of the Indian Navy exercises with the USS Nimitz group and added details from the USN statement and the IN’s tweet.