China’s got big naval plans and India should definitely be worried

 Chinese, PLAN, Jiangkai, Linyi, frigate

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy Jiangkai class frigate Linyi

After commissioning its first aircraft carrier, a refitted Soviet-era vessel called the Liaoning, in 2012, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) launched its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong or CV-001A, this week. This first 70,000 tonne indigenously-produced aircraft carrier of China is likely to be operational by 2020. This is widely viewed as a major step for the PLAN as it underscores China’s efforts towards indigenous design and construction of aircraft carriers.

If the present trends continue, the PLAN is on its way to emerging as the world’s second largest navy by 2020.

The new carrier is part of an ambitious expansion of the Chinese navy, which, according to some estimates, is projected to have a total of 265-273 warships, submarines and logistics vessels by 2020. That compares with 275 deployable battle force ships presently in the US Navy, which also operates 10 aircraft carriers, has 62 destroyers to China’s 32, and 75 submarines to China’s 68.

China’s Emergence as a Serious Naval Power

As a rising power, China’s military advancement is to be expected. Beijing wants to project power far beyond its shores, so a blue water navy is a prerequisite for Chinese ambitions. It is entangled in maritime disputes all around its periphery from the East to South China Sea. Chinese naval presence is growing in the Indian Ocean and the larger Pacific.

Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has launched defence reforms which are taking away resources from land to air and naval power. And the Chinese defence ministry has been articulating the need for PLAN to gradually shift its focus from “offshore waters defence” to “open-seas protection.” Though PLAN still remains no match to the American Navy with its 10 carriers , it is posing a real challenge to regional powers.

For far too long, most western and regional observers continued to discount the possibility of China emerging as a serious naval power.

China’s interests do not need PLAN to invest in aircraft carriers, they suggested. But Chinese interests turned out to be much the same as other maritime powers. In a short span, China will have two operational carriers with many more being planned.

Chinese experts openly point out the need for at least three aircraft carriers operating in each East and South China Sea. PLAN is ramping up the construction of nuclear powered submarines, very significant for the short- to medium-term priorities of China. China does lack trained manpower to build its submarines, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, replenishment ships and light craft. But that too is being rectified with single-minded purpose.

China is constructing its first overseas military base in Djibouti ostensibly to provide rest and rehabilitation for the Chinese troops taking part in escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. But its real purpose is to project Chinese naval power in the Horn of Africa. There is also the Gwadar port closer to India.

Aircraft carriers are symbols of power, a signal that PLAN has arrived as a force to be reckoned with. While directly taking on the US is still some way off, the focus will likely be on its immediate periphery. In South China Sea, for example, a carrier’s entry can have a major impact on regional deterrence. For regional powers, therefore, some serious challenges have emerged. Much as the PLAN has tried to counter the superiority of the US Navy by focusing on anti-ship capabilities, especially submarines and anti-ship missiles, other regional powers will also have to think along similar lines to manage China’s growing naval prowess.

PLAN’s Plan Should Worry India

Given the challenge that China poses to Indian interests, PLAN’s growing lethality should be a serious worry for India. The Indian Navy too is working on its carrier battle groups but delays and shoddy planning continue to mar Indian aspirations.

India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, the 40,000-tonne INS Vikrant was launched in 2013 but its commissioning has been delayed to 2020. And it will be another decade before the second indigenous carrier, the 65,000-tonne INS Vishal, will be up and running. As a result, the 44,570-tonne INS Vikramaditya will be the only one for India for the next few years.

Chinese official media took a swipe at Indian efforts recently when it argued that “New Delhi is perhaps too impatient to develop an aircraft carrier. The country is still in its initial stage of industrialisation, and there will be many technical obstacles that stand in the way of a build-up of aircraft carriers.”

“New Delhi should perhaps be less eager to speed up the process of building aircraft carriers in order to counter China’s growing sway in the Indian Ocean, and focus more on its economy,” it said.

The larger question that the Indian Navy needs to ask is whether it should really prioritise aircraft carriers over its other requirements. India, like China, wants to be a blue water navy and assert its primacy in the Indian Ocean. But the short- to medium-term challenge emerging from China’s potent rise means that India needs to find ways to mitigate that threat with some urgency. Waiting for a decade to get a carrier battle group up and running is perhaps not the most sensible of options.

This commentary was published in The Quint.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Harsh V. Pant

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