By Cmde Ranjit B Rai (Retd)
In March 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi enunciated India’s maritime policy as, “We seek a future for the Indian Ocean that lives up to the name of ‘SAGAR’ — Security and Growth for All in the Region.” In 2016, at the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam, PM Modi spoke of the concept of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ – the world as a family – vividly witnessed on the oceans and added that defending our Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) is vital.
These two mantras in absence of a prescribed National Maritime Strategy have guided the 134 warships and 200 aircraft of the Indian Navy, and 70 large platforms and 44 aircraft of the Indian Coast Guard, to pursue maritime operations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Under these same principles, India has invited the coastal states to become members of the Maritime Fusion Centre established at the Navy’s Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) in Gurgaon, near Delhi, for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) to maintain peace, stability and free and open navigation for trade.
The Indian Navy uses ports in Singapore, Mauritius and Oman for operational turn around (OTR) for its ships and aircraft as the Net Security Provider (NSP) in the IOR and has augmented its MDA capabilities with networked inputs from coastal radars, ships and aircraft like P-8Is connected to the GSAT-8 satellite in cooperation with the US Navy after signing the three foundational agreements namely LEMOA, COMCASA and BECA. MDA is critical to police and pursue naval operations and safe guard the region’s Blue Economy and combat terrorism and piracy.
Despite having limited assets and a reduced share of the Defence Budget (down to 14 per cent from 18 per cent) after the 2014 Doklam and the Ladakh incursion by the PLA and the Covid pandemic since last year, the Navy has maintained an operational tempo with patrols in the IOR and inter-service exercises like Tropex to further jointness – in keeping with PM Modi’s call for synergized power of India’s armed forces. However, orders for replacement of platforms have not been pursued. The Navy actively took part in international exercises like Malabar in the Indo-Pacific, HADR operations and repatriated Indians during the Covid pandemic and acted as first responders to nations affected by natural calamities even on the Eastern seaboard of Africa. The Navy’s framework for effective security bears testimony to the growing bonds between the maritime forces as India has also supplied platforms and set up coastal radar chains for security in the IOR.
India-China Ties Post Ladakh incursion
China’s friendship with Pakistan and its control of Gwadar port in Balochistan province, and the less reported progress on a submarine facility at the Jinnah Naval Base at Ormara, has made the security dynamics in the region complex and the maritime situation in the IOR and Indo-Pacific, which houses the world’s fastest-growing economies, competitive. Military expenditures have increased with more submarines in the region and India has had to take a hard look at its own land and maritime security interests after the PLA transgressed across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh last year.
PM Modi resolutely beefed up the Army and Air Force to deter Chinese aggression as the past CBMs and border agreements holding the peace were overtaken by events like the Galwan clash on April 15 and Operation Snow Leopard launched on August 29 last year when the Indian Army gained control over the dominating heights in the Chushul region. With no immediate threat at sea in the IOR, the Indian Navy has been neglected.
The capabilities of the PLA (Navy) pose a global security risk, especially when there is a strong evidence of fierce competition over natural resources and overlapping claims on strategic hotspots in the South China Sea. It has led to a coalition of the four quadrilateral nations (USA, Japan, Australia and India) to deter the assertive rise of China in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain with its illegal acquisition and conversion of rocks in the South China Sea into Islands. China has made inroads in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) with support to Pakistan and PLA (N) has fortified a logistic base in the Republic of Djibouti. The strategic struggle between a risen China and the US, the reigning superpower, comes with its baggage of security concerns in the waters of the Indo-Pacific and IOR.
China has upgraded the capability of her naval strike-power with 395 ships and 60 submarines with lethal missiles and has been conducting naval exercises in the South China Sea in an explicitly offensive posture. There is a saying, “When elephants fight the soil below gets trampled”. USA and China are the elephants and Indian waters may get muddied as China has ambitious designs to win the Great New Maritime Game in the IOR.
The IOR has been India’s parish, but the strategic balance has altered that. Experts say India is probably at a considerable strategic disadvantage to China in its economy, technology and especially the military. China’s military is supported by Pakistan, dubbed as India’s two-front war dilemma. Only in the Indian Ocean, which includes China’s vital energy routes from the Persian Gulf and Africa, does India have the upper hand. India must pay attention to strategic thinking that suggests the Indian Navy should be strengthened to meet China, notwithstanding the support it will get from Pakistan in its own interior lines (IOR), which will be China’s weak exterior with a long line for logistical support that can be disrupted by the Indian Navy and the Quad’s maritime power and prowess.
The India Navy has the capability to stop China’s designs in the IOR at choke points and one of China’s Achilles heel is called its Malacca Dilemma. India is also establishing outposts in Alagaga in Mauritius, Accession Island in Seychelles and Duqm in Oman and the Comoros islands, all pursued by EAM S. Jaishankar. India will have to make choices about the parameters of the Quad as it could fall into a ‘Thucydides Trap’, a situation when a hegemonic emerging power like China threatens to displace the existing power America and a lesser power may suffer in the process.
The US has always depended on its military allies for success and covets India’s maritime support and has supplied high-end interoperable systems and could ask India to join a military coalition like NATO in the Indo-Pacific. Indian has to bear in mind its relations with Russia, especially for its strategic nuclear submarine programme and military dependence and the S-400 missiles contract, at a time when America’s new Biden administration seems to have taken on both China and Russia.
At the first virtual summit of Quad leaders arranged by US President Joe Biden on March 12 with Prime Ministers Modi, Morrison and Suga, they failed to name China or mention China’s illegal claim on the South China Sea rocks that it has reclaimed with technology and converted into an artificial fortified island to extend its deficient maritime geography. The QUAD leaders stressed the need for free and open navigation in the Indo-Pacific and cooperation on issues like Covid and joint production of vaccines and Climate Change. US Defence Secretary Gen Lloyd Austin visited India for further talks.
India must ponder whether the time is opportune to join a military pact as the global economy, including India’s, has suffered the ill effects of the Covid pandemic and India has expended much in warding off the PLA in Ladakh by beefing up the Air Force at the cost of the Navy. China claims its economy is recovering faster than other nations, and EAM Jaishankar has admitted China’s growth has been explosive and has set conditions to bring about better relations or India will show China a gun for a gun.
World over there is a trend for nations to demand that warships take permission before entering the 12-mile exclusive territorial waters. Nations, including China, permit innocent passage as per UNCLOS Article 24, which has to be continuous and expeditious and not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the state. Stopping and anchoring is only permitted in an emergency. In our neighbourhood, Bangladesh expects a foreign warship or a submarine passing through its territorial sea, to do so only after giving prior notice to the government, implying it may be denied as a sovereign right. India too expects no warship with nuclear weapons to enter Indian jurisdiction.
This is where the size and role of the Indian Navy will matter. The prophecy attributed to Alfred Mahan (1840-1914) is that the future of the world will be decided on the waters of the Indian Ocean in the 21st Century. India’s maritime thinkers KM Pannikar and Rear Admiral Shridharan in their writings emphasized the Sea as India’s Saviour. China has followed Mahan’s strategy on maritime power that made the US rise through a joint maritime based trade and military policy in the 20th century. The PLA Navy with 335 warships has overtaken America’s 295, and China has the world’s largest mercantile fleet, though the US Navy commands superior technology. The Indian Navy has around 134 ships and 200 naval aircraft, many aging. Numbers matter and India can neglect its Navy only at its own peril.
–The contributor is the author of Warring Nuclear Nations–India And Pakistan. The views expressed in the article are solely of the author