Originally Published 2016-05-24 09:41:22 Published on May 24, 2016
Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean: Are they a real threat?

For the nth time in the past few years — the Naval Headquarters at New Delhi has been alarmed. The frequency of Chinese submarines operating in and around the Indian Ocean region specifically near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have caused deep concern due to their increasing frequency.

Since both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea have emerged as frequent hunting grounds of Chinese submarines depending on the scenario, they could well lie waiting at choke points or off Indian harbours to operate against the Indian Naval fleet.

As per recent media reports three to four sightings after every three or four months are not unusual. The fact that the PLA submarines as well as bigger amphibious troop carrying docking ships and aircraft have started using the Indian Ocean as their new operating grounds, an aspect that is neither new nor sensational, is really but a foregone conclusion for anyone willing to see past indicators.

In such forays of the PLA(N) a combination of various factors like ingenuity, uniqueness, apart from the usual sustenance and reach capabilities were all witness when their nuclear submarine, presumably a Shang class was deployed to be part of the anti -piracy patrol operating off the Gulf of Aden from December 13, 2014, to February 14, 2015.

The use of a nuclear powered submarine for anti- piracy patrols went against the grain of submarine operations and hence was essentially an instrument of strategic signalling. The fact that these submarine deployments took place at a time when Somalian piracy incidents were on decline to negligible levels, leading other navies to reduce their levels of anti-submarine patrols helped in creating a sense of fear and unease amongst the Indian Ocean littorals not unlike the current feelings amongst the littorals of the South China Seas.

It is since that time that the alarm bells in Indian Naval establishments haven’t stopped ringing loudly. Other indicators that have helped in increasing the apprehensions have also been in evidence including the docking of Chinese submarines at Colombo port and the visit of the Yuan class submarine to Karachi. The message was clear, that the PLA(N) had come of age and that nuclear submarines like the earlier Xia class, that were constrained in their ability to operate beyond the nearby South China Seas were of a bygone era. The newly constructed Shang or Jin class were far superior technologically as this deployment had proved. Thus, it is also a reaffirmation of the Chinese prowess in creating high tech platforms, as well as in power projection and projecting “blue water” capability in distant waters.

Since both the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea have emerged as frequent hunting grounds of Chinese submarines depending on the scenario, they could well lie waiting at choke points or off Indian harbours to operate against the Indian Naval fleet. The Indian Navy strongly suspects that they have in all probability been carefully recording hydrological data and type of sea bottom in the area since such information is considered vital for submarines that quietly wait at the bottom of the sea.

It has often been suggested that these deployment patterns of Chinese submarines are providing fresh impetus for the USN and Indian Navy to come closer in areas such as Anti-submarine warfare. It must be noted that substantive maritime cooperation between these two countries essentially commenced with the Malabar series of exercises which started in 1992 (admittedly they became more regular after 1998) . While the political fortunes and even the defence cooperation indicators between the countries went through various troughs and crests — the navy to navy cooperation maintained its own upward trajectory through this time, somewhat independent of the other trajectories. With coordinated ASW exercises forming one of the core aspects of Malabar, such “closeness” is definitely not new since with each Malabar exercise the complexity of such exercises has only grown steadily over the years.

With the geo political scenario in South China Sea heating considerably due to aggressive posturing by the Chinese and creation of artificial islands — it is strategically logical that the fast modernising PLA(N) shift its focus to the adjoining Indian Ocean not only as a means of power projection but as a means of securing the vulnerable sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through the IOR. A fallout of these efforts have resulted in an overseas Chinese base for the first time, in Djibouti and the growth of “pearls” in the string of pearls policy. Apart from “managing” Gwadar in Pakistan and undertaking basing agreements with Seychelles, creating outposts on the Comoros Islands, the Chinese have also started work on a new commercial port in Mozambique. While all these have enhanced the Chinese footprints, its basic logistical network in the area remains spread out and at a considerable distance from its home port in mainland China. Thus, there are inherent strategic hurdles beyond which the Chinese will prefer or be incapable of enhancing their image in this region.

It must be remembered that with the possible exception of Pakistan, many of the countries that have ports and that may play host to PLA(N) bases, such as Sri Lanka, would come under intense pressure from neighbouring India to refuse access to China’s naval forces. This in turn would entail a Chinese reticence to deploy high value strategic targets like aircraft carriers and their groups in the region as they would be vulnerable in such a scenario.

Apart from this factor, the PLA (N) can hardly expect to match the capacity and the overwhelming influence of the Indian Navy in their strategic backyard while it would be a distant area of operation for the Chinese.

The deployment of maritime assets in the IOR would detract the Chinese from the core issues of reunification with Taiwan and the turbulent South China seas, entailing a negative effect on the internal politics and on the local populace.

Lastly, if China exports overtly aggressive actions in the IOR, as has been the case in the South China Sea, its actions would naturally hasten the coming closer of many littorals including India to the US camp — proving to be counterproductive and a strategic failure.

However, despite these strategic limitations India needs to develop credible response strategies mostly in the form of enhancing its maritime underwater capability which seems to be moving at a snails pace. Saddled with an ageing underwater fleet, with most submarines having crossed their designed half life or even their designed lifetime — Navy’s long term perspective plan to enhance its underwater fleet to 24 submarines in the 30 years period lies in doldrums. The much delayed project of acquiring Scorpene submarines, currently under construction has given rise to unforeseen hurdles with the first of the lot, likely to enter service , without a credible torpedo making it a toothless tiger.

Secondly, the much touted futuristic P75I submarine project has seen minimal movement as efforts to project it as a Make in India project continues. Hence, at this juncture the substantial expansion of the underwater fleet in future seems rather bleak.

In conclusion it may be stated that visible patterns of deployment of Chinese submarines along with other ships is likely to increase in the Indian Ocean. However, despite the increasing frequency, it is most unlikely that any of these ships will display aggressive behavioural patterns. But paradoxically, the Chinese have a penchant for sending mixed strategic signals and it would not be a unusual if any of these warships and submarines display aggressive behaviour to indicate that they are the new “resident power” in the region. This is the worst case scenario that India and the other littorals need to be guarded against.

This commentary originally appeared in Indian Defence Review.

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