For the last half century, the India-China rivalry has played out on land as both countries consolidated their borders as independent states. Recently, this strategic competition has begun to spill into the maritime domain. India has been bolstering its conventional and nuclear sea-based deterrence,1 modernizing its maritime forces through indigenous production and foreign acquisitions and engaging in interoperability exercises with the United States and other partners. China’s expanded ambitions in the Indian Ocean have manifested in regularized deployments of conventional and nuclear submarines in the subcontinent’s littorals, significant investments in infrastructure and port development, and enhanced maritime cooperation with Pakistan. The two countries have managed to avoid dangerous incidents at sea thus far, but the potential for naval friction – and even escalation – cannot be dismissed as both India and China endeavor to project power across the Indian Ocean.
Similar dangers were present during the Cold War. As the Soviet Union began deploying a “blue-water” force in the 1960s, interactions between the U.S. and Soviet navies became more and more common. More interaction led to more friction and greater potential for escalation. The list of alarming incidents grew throughout the 1960s and included collisions and near-collisions, provocative actions such as planes “buzzing” warships, and simulated attacks.
The U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA), which entered into force in May 1972, was intended to address such incidents on the “high seas,”2 thereby reducing the risk of military escalation between the two nuclear-armed superpowers. The INCSEA agreement had no bearing on the “size, weaponry, or force structure” of their respective naval forces. Instead, the objectives were to “enhance mutual knowledge and understanding of military activities; to reduce the possibility of conflict by accident, miscalculation, or the failure of communication; and to increase stability in times of both calm and crisis.” With these objectives in mind, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to avoid interference, simulated attacks, dangerous types of surveillance, and other hazardous naval maneuvers; to use accepted international naval signals; and to provide information about submarine exercises near the other side’s naval assets. The INCSEA agreement served as an important confidence-building mechanism (CBM) because it provided the opportunity for both sides’ naval officers to “effectively communicate their maneuver intentions at sea, [and] talk to each other professionally at annual review sessions.”
As India and China expand their naval presence across the Indian Ocean, incidents of misperception and miscalculation over freedom of navigation and overflight with escalatory potential cannot be discounted. In this context of intensifying rivalry, the lack of a permanent India-China incidents at sea agreement with a regular consultative mechanism is cause for concern. Thus, this essay proposes an India-China INCSEA agreement modeled on the U.S.-Soviet one. The proposal revolves around the need to evolve standard operating procedures (SOPs) and CBMs for the two navies to guard against the potential for military escalation at sea.
I propose that India and China negotiate an incidents at sea agreement with similar objectives and scope as the U.S.-Soviet INCSEA agreement. The primary goals of a prospective India-China incidents at sea agreement would be to prevent or de-escalate any crisis at sea arising either out of an accident, deliberate action, or inadvertent miscalculation. An India-China INCSEA agreement would seek to contribute to the reciprocal understanding of each other’s maritime capabilities and intentions. The agreement would utilize internationally prescribed signals or other mutually agreed-upon signals when ships are within sight of each other. The mere act of negotiating an accord would testify that both the countries intend to arrest any escalatory potential and show that neither is interested in a war despite strategic signaling to assert maritime rights and positions. An annual consultative review of the previous year’s naval incidents would contribute to confidence-building, ultimately fostering a stable-deterrence relationship. It would not attempt to infringe upon weapons development or force structure, as both countries are in the midst of efforts to modernize their navies and would be unlikely to accept such constraints. Though the Indian Ocean is the likely venue of incidents with escalatory potential, the agreement would govern all India-China naval interactions on the “high seas” as redefined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.3
An India-China INCSEA agreement would attempt to prevent the same types of incidents as the U.S.-Soviet agreement. It would also draw inspiration from established mechanisms such as the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and the more recent multinational Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) that provides a set of nonbinding “rules of the road” to prevent an escalation of tensions between different militaries at sea.4 The agreement would, however, place a special emphasis on addressing three areas of potential friction and escalation: 1) Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean and India’s maritime domain awareness (MDA) operations, 2) China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) operations and India’s maritime interests in the South China Sea, and 3) Indian and Chinese naval exercises. The following paragraphs assess these dangers – and the need for an INCSEA agreement to address them – in detail.
The increasing foray of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean has accentuated India’s awareness of the weaknesses of its MDA and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities and an intention to close the gaps in these realms. This can be seen most specifically in the kind of cooperation that India is engineering with the United States, with a common interest in countering China’s increasing influence in the Indian Ocean. India has invested heavily in potent maritime-patrol aircraft fleet, including the American-made P-8I. New Delhi is also reportedly ramping up cooperation with Tokyo to help construct “an undersea network of seabed-based sensors stretching from the tip of Sumatra to Indira Point in the Bay of Bengal.” If this was to become a reality, it would help augment India’s ability to detect Chinese submarines approaching India’s exclusive economic zone. Moreover, India plans to start operating P-8Is from the Andaman and Nicobar islands, a reflection of New Delhi’s elevation of the strategic importance of the Tri-Services Command stationed there. Since the Andamans are geographically close to the critical choke point of the Strait of Malacca, military infrastructure there could be geared toward bolstering India’s surveillance of Chinese vessels entering the Indian Ocean. With increased surveillance comes the need for SOPs for maintaining required distances to avoid conflict by accident or interference with the formations of the other party.
As China has implemented its A2/AD maritime strategy, it has made advances in long-range surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship ballistic missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. These changes were dramatically expressed through the air defense identification zone that China claimed in the East China Sea beginning in 2013. China has also reportedly installed equipment on two of its fortified outposts in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea capable of jamming communications and radar systems. While China’s A2/AD strategy has been targeted toward the United States and its Pacific allies, India has also been augmenting military cooperation with littoral countries in the East and South China Seas. The Indian maritime security strategy for 2015 includes the South and East China Seas and the Western Pacific and its littorals as within India’s secondary areas of maritime interest. Moreover, India has overtly supported freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and has interest in oil blocks offered by Vietnam in the South China Sea. Although crossing any Chinese threshold is still a concern, Indian analysts have been rather categorical in espousing the need for the Indian navy to pursue operations in the seas close to China in response to China’s strategic ventures in India’s near seas. Such developments increase the likelihood of close encounters and incidents at sea between the two countries, and hence the need for an agreement that would, among other things, provide for mutual sharing of information regarding each other’s activities and effectively communicating intentions.
Both India and China are increasing their naval interoperability exercises across the Indo-Pacific waters. This trend underscores the need for both parties to manage maneuvers at sea and refrain from simulating attacks against both military and nonmilitary vessels. The maritime dimension of India’s Act East Policy is most significantly manifested in its naval-to-naval cooperation with Southeast Asian countries like Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia, including bilateral naval exercises in the South China Sea. This is in addition to major multilateral initiatives like the Malabar exercises among the Indian, U.S., and Japanese navies. On the other hand, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy has been engaging in bilateral naval exercises with the Pakistani navy, including in the Arabian Sea. These exercises, either held in India or China’s near seas, tend to be viewed with suspicion. As such, the agreement shall provide for prior notification of maritime exercises involving either of the parties at sea.
Challenges to the Proposal
An India-China INCSEA agreement is possible only when both countries perceive the need for increased security around access to the seas, without feeding into each other’s insecurities. This will be easier said than done, given the long shadow of mistrust between India and China. An unresolved border dispute and overlapping spheres of influence in southern Asia do not bode well for an INCSEA agreement. On the one hand, China’s strategic engagement with Indian neighbors is viewed within India as Beijing’s intention to encircle India. On the other hand, India’s Act East Policy, aimed at increasing engagement with Southeast and East Asian countries, is viewed within China as India’s attempt to increase its influence in China’s vicinity.
Beijing could be disinclined to accord India an elevated status in the South and East China seas by signing on to an INCSEA agreement. China’s perceived vulnerability in the Malacca choke point, through which most of its energy imports pass, and its intention to bypass the “Malacca dilemma” through port and infrastructure development in various Indian Ocean littoral states, has been a major point of competition in India-China relations.5 Compared to the East and South China seas, China’s naval capability is clearly limited in the Indian Ocean. As a result, China has been seen to use the pretext of anti-piracy, counterterrorism, and humanitarian disaster relief to justify its forays into the Indian Ocean waters. New Delhi does not view these justifications with benign intent, nor does Beijing look kindly on India’s geographical advantage in the Indian Ocean and ability to exercise some control over maritime traffic there. The establishment of the Tri-Services Command in the Andaman and Nicobar islands might also be a sore point for China’s far seas ambitions.
The evolving geopolitical and geoeconomic drivers in the region point to increased competition, but this was also the case during the Cold War and it did not preclude the U.S.-Soviet INCSEA agreement. Much depends on whether Beijing and New Delhi both seek ways to ameliorate their competition. New Delhi’s emerging power alignment in the Indo-Pacific is no doubt aimed at counteracting the rise of an aggressive China, most recently seen in the reactivation of the quadrilateral initiative among India, the United States, Japan, and Australia. India in recent times has shown the intention not only to leverage its superior force structure in the Indian Ocean, but also to increase naval power projection into the western Pacific in partnership with like-minded countries. It has signed several white-shipping agreements that will enable sharing of unclassified information with other countries to help augment existing capabilities to develop MDA, and has signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States to increase logistics capability during missions in the Indian Ocean. India’s maritime military exercises with countries in the Indo-Pacific region have certainly generated acute concern from China. For instance, during the 2017 Malabar exercises that involved the navies of India, the United States, and Japan, China reportedly sent a surveillance ship, the Haiwang Xiang, to monitor the trilateral exercise in the Bay of Bengal. Moreover, the Indian navy also recorded an “unusual upsurge” in the number of Chinese warships and submarines entering the Indian Ocean around the same time.
India’s intention to become a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and China’s ability to project a naval presence in the region to safeguard its maritime trade mean that both countries have no reason to decrease their military as well as economic footprints in the region. The Indian navy, in the words of the Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba, has initiated “mission-based deployments” stretching from the Gulf of Aden to the western Pacific on an almost 24/7 basis, and plans to hold theater-level operational readiness exercises on India’s western and eastern seaboards. The Indian maritime security strategy for 2015 emphasizes the significance of improving MDA, and aims to address the twin issues of “reach” and “sustainability” of naval forces and to opt for “leapfrogging” technologies to ensure that a high percentage of assets with contemporary equipment remains capable of combating emergent threats. According to the strategy paper,
“India’s growing maritime interests, across wide geographical spaces, underscores the central importance of adequate power projection in and from the seas, and for sea control capability in ‘blue waters’, to safeguard interests and counter threats before they can bear upon India. The primary means for this will be potent, balanced naval fleets supported by strong, integral and shore-based, maritime air power.”
At the same time, China’s military strategy for 2015 aims to abandon China’s “traditional mentality that land outweighs sea” and attaches importance “to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” The Chinese strategy paper states that,
“In line with the strategic requirement of offshore waters defense and open seas protection, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will gradually shift its focus from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” with “open seas protection,” and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure. The PLAN will enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support.”
Hence, even a cursory examination of these two strategy papers points to the reality that capability developments are on the rise, and force posturing in terms of power projection and muscle flexing at sea will remain a challenge for peaceful and stable waters. In addition, China’s utilization of merchant ships and fishing boats – a “maritime militia” – as a force multiplier during sea encounters and skirmishes is cause for Indian concern. The plausible deniability of involvement by non-PLAN vessels by Beijing might further complicate the negotiation of an INCSEA agreement.
Why the Proposal Is Nonetheless Worth Considering
One reason why this proposal merits consideration is that, unlike the India-China boundary dispute on land, there does not seem to be any historical baggage and fundamental discord between India and China at sea. While some may argue that the absence of serious accidents and mishaps at sea suggests that an INCSEA agreement is not necessary, the counterargument is more persuasive: the best time to negotiate an agreement is before serious accidents and mishaps occur.
The enhancement of India and Chinese maritime capability and power projection can either evolve into an unfettered competition or can be ameliorated to prevent unwanted conflict or escalation. Farsighted leaders could see the wisdom in an agreement that fosters an intergovernmental consultative mechanism to prevent collisions at sea, accidents arising out of close encounters at sea, and conflicts occurring because of miscalculation and misjudgement of maneuvers at sea.
Even in the event of a crisis generated because of deliberate action, an INCSEA agreement could provide a crisis-resolution mechanism to de-escalate tensions. In lesser cases, it could be helpful in clarifying threat perceptions. A forum created by an INCSEA agreement for regular consultations could be useful to discuss threat perceptions emerging out of port calls by ships and submarines in each other’s vicinity.
For instance, in 2011, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had to give an official response to an incident involving the INS Airavat in the South China Sea. After a news report of an alleged confrontation between an Indian naval ship and a Chinese vessel off the coast of Vietnam, the MEA had to clarify that there was no confrontation and that the Indian ship paid a friendly visit to Vietnam without flouting any rules of the right of passage as per the principles of international law. Irrespective of the exact nature of this incident, the fact that the MEA had to issue a public position is a harbinger of future “clarifications.” While Indian ships like the INS Sahyadri visiting East Asian and Southeast Asian coasts was projected as India’s naval diplomacy to counter China’s maritime expansion, Admiral Sunil Lanba openly questions the rationale behind China’s deployment of nuclear- and diesel-powered submarines in the IOR for anti-piracy patrols. China’s port and infrastructure projects in countries neighboring India, especially the Gwadar port in Pakistan and China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti, are viewed within India as “game changers” in terms of China’s power projection in the Indian Ocean.
Although China’s participation at the 2016 International Fleet Review in India – where the PLAN sent two Type 054A Jiangkai-II-class frigates – could be seen as a positive sign in terms of exploring convergences, realpolitik considerations of capability display and battle readiness presently animate such rare maritime interactions between India and China.
The key question raised by this essay is how much the increased offensive and defensive capabilities of the Chinese and Indian navies will result in increased friction. It is naive to expect that India and China will scale down their investments in naval capabilities, but it is not naive to think that both Asian powers would seek to avoid a war at sea or dangerous escalation resulting from accidents.A primordial assumption in strategic analysis is that increased commercial interests require increased military capabilities to secure the former, and that commercial competition is a driver for warfare between major powers. Since the advent of nuclear weapons, however, there have been no major conventional wars between major powers. Friction between major powers can grow with or without trade, as is evident in U.S.-China and U.S.-Russia relations. The former is far safer than the latter. The commercial benefits that can be accrued from far greater commercial ties between India and China could help ameliorate friction, and most of this commerce will occur at sea. Mutual recognition of commercial opportunities might help leaders in both countries to shift from absolute positions to find some bargaining zone to conclude an agreement that prevents incidents at sea. Hence, the challenge for the two countries will remain grounded in the dilemma of managing competition and cooperation.6 India and China have to find ways to advance their national interests at sea while developing cooperative and consultative mechanisms to engineer greater stability in their relations. In this context, the proposal for negotiating a prevention of incidents at sea agreement between India and China is grounded on geopolitical realities and the limitations that they impose on India and China’s behavior.
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a new Stimson Center book, Off Ramps from Confrontation in Southern Asia, and has been republished with permission. The book features pragmatic, novel approaches from rising talent and veteran analysts to reduce tensions resulting out of nuclear competition among India, Pakistan, and China. The full book is available for download here.
Image 1: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia
Image 2: AFP via Getty
- The deterrence in this case is both conventional and nuclear. On the one hand, India gives importance to the sea leg of its nuclear triad and the enhancement of its retaliatory capability. On the other hand, China’s increasing presence in the IOR has emphasized the importance of steps to beef up conventional deterrence. The latter involves power projection through aircraft carriers and enhanced maritime domain awareness through long-range maritime patrol aircrafts that can scan a large expanse of the Indian Ocean and have potent submarine-killing capabilities.
- The 1958 Geneva Convention on the High Seas defined the “high seas” as “all parts of the sea that are not included in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State.” See United Nations, Convention on the High Seas 1958, https://www.gc.noaa.gov/documents/8_1_1958_high_seas.pdf.
- According to this convention, which replaced the 1958 convention, the “high seas” covers “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State, or in the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic State.” The territorial sea of a state is established as “up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles,” and the exclusive economic zone of a state “shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.” (United Nations, United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982, http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/convention_overview_convention.htm.) As both India and China are parties to this convention, there is no reason to suspect they would reject the specifications regarding the “high seas.”
- The principles of CUES that were signed by 21 Pacific nations at the 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014 could be expanded to include Indian Ocean littorals, reflecting the emerging geopolitical salience of the Indo-Pacific. See USNI News, “Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES),” https://news.usni.org/2014/06/17/document-conduct-unplanned-encounters-sea.
- Jan Hornat, “The Power Triangle in the Indian Ocean: China, India and the United States,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 29, no. 2 (2015): 429. Also see James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara, “China and the United States in the Indian Ocean: An Emerging Strategic Triangle,” Naval War College Review 61, no. 3 (2008): 41-60.
- Zorawar Daulet Singh, “India’s Geostrategy and China: Mackinder Versus Mahan?” Journal of Defence Studies 7, no. 3 (2013): 137-146.