India and China are celebrating 70 years of diplomatic ties this year, which is an occasion that merits commemoration, but belies growing strategic tensions in their bilateral relationship. Currently, both countries are engaged in a military standoff in eastern Ladakh over unresolved boundary issues along their 4,056 km long international border. Back in 2017, a similar standoff between the two nations near the Doka La Pass lasted 73 days. Such confrontations accentuate the fractious trajectory of their strategic dynamics and exacerbate Sino-Indian competition in other arenas, including the maritime sphere.
Strategic consolidation in the maritime domain has become a common trend for both China and India over the past decade. Extending from the Western Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific, Asia’s waters are dotted with naval deployments. While India has made the Indian Ocean one of its strategic priorities, China has initiated a concerted campaign to secure its sovereignty over the waters of the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Beijing has been particularly assertive in these efforts, at times in contravention of international maritime law. But as China has expanded its area of naval operations into the Indian Ocean, policymakers in New Delhi have become particularly wary of Beijing’s power projection. As security dynamics between the two nations enter a new phase of discord, it is important to trace the course of their maritime interactions to gain insight into what the future may hold for Asia’s two biggest naval powers.
Sino-Indian Maritime Dynamics
As Beijing’s maritime security interests intersect with India’s, there has been a linear escalation in the interactions between the two naval forces, leading to benign competition between them in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Sino-Indian conflict has historically been restricted to the land domain. However, as both Beijing and New Delhi have opened their economies to global commerce, their dependency on sea-borne trade has exponentially increased. Both have come to realize the importance of naval power in enabling them to secure their sea lines of communication (SLOC), their primary concern being undisrupted energy access from the Middle East. To this end, both nations have outlined ambitious force modernization plans to develop a “blue-water navy” that can operate at longer distances from their homeland for sustained periods of time. As Beijing’s maritime security interests intersect with India’s, there has been a linear escalation in the interactions between the two naval forces, leading to benign competition between them in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The Malaccan Dilemma
As early as 1985, Chinese naval planners began deploying squadrons for routine port calls in the Indian Ocean. 1 Over the years, this has evolved into Chinese naval taskforces engaged in security missions. In fact, in September 2019, India’s naval chief Admiral Karambir Singh asserted that at any given time on an average, about seven to eight Chinese ships operated in the area. This escalation of Chinese naval presence has been gradual and can be linked to China’s security dilemma over its access to SLOCs west of the Strait of Malacca. The “Malaccan Dilemma,” first touted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003, was predicated around a crisis scenario in which China would be denied access to its trade and energy routes in the IOR. Since then, Beijing has stepped up its diplomatic, trade, and naval efforts to secure a foothold in the Indian Ocean. According to some estimates, around 40 percent of Chinese trade passes through the choke point every year.
China’s Indian Ocean Outreach
To address the “Malaccan Dilemma,” President Hu Jintao in 2004 initiated the policy of “new historic missions,” which entailed Chinese naval forces being deployed in the far seas for military operations other than war. The deployment of Chinese naval forces to the Gulf of Aden in 2008 for anti-piracy operations marked an inflection point in Sino-Indian maritime dynamics. It signaled Beijing’s intention of building a robust presence in the IOR to safeguard its interests. Since then, China has increased its footprint in the IOR by weaving together a patronage network in the Indian Ocean littoral countries. China has undertaken massive port development projects in countries such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, under its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, accompanied by bountiful transfers of naval equipment and technology. All this has affected India’s strategic calculus, triggering fears of encirclement in what it considers its backyard.
Shifting the Status Quo
Notably, these Chinese endeavors resulted in three significant developments that have challenged the status quo in the Indian Ocean maritime theater. The first was the frequent deployment of Chinese submarines for “anti-piracy operations” in the region. This highly unusual move made Indian strategists wary of Beijing’s bona fide intentions in the IOR. The second was the inauguration of China’s first overseas naval base in Djibouti in 2017, which made concrete the prospect of a Chinese logistical support network in the region. The third is that, since 2015, Chinese research vessels have routinely plied the area collecting data and improving China’s knowledge of the hydrography, topography, and bathymetry of the waters. Such civilian missions help improve China’s operational knowledge of the IOR, while making it increasingly difficult for Indian forces to monitor Chinese activities in the region. India naval strategists fear these missions are aimed at augmenting Chinese subsurface maneuvers to counter India’s theatrical superiority.
India’s Naval Posture
In the backdrop of their strategic competition and both countries’ efforts to arm themselves with the latest technology, Sino-Indian maritime rivalry raises concerns about an impending altercation between them in the high seas of the Indian Ocean.[…] In a likely scenario of a maritime confrontation between them in the region, their naval power will be well-matched.
India’s biggest strategic advantage lies in its central position in the Indian Ocean, and its familiarity with the operating environment of the IOR. The Indian Navy has always maintained that its primary focus of operations is providing security for the Indian Ocean – protecting the homeland against external actors and maintaining sea control over the various SLOCs and chokepoints of the IOR. Thus, considering China’s increased presence, India has recalibrated its bearings and sought to improve its maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the IOR. It has adopted a more vigilant constabulary role using anti-submarine warfare equipment. Beginning in 2017, India initiated a new pattern of mission-based deployments in various areas of the IOR, conducting patrols around key SLOCs all year round. Taken together, these moves have amplified the Indian Navy’s operational awareness of the region.
India has also initiated closer maritime cooperation with nations that are likewise cautious of China’s naval expansion. On the sidelines of the 2017 East Asia Summit in Manila, India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, took part in consultative discussions, reinvigorating the once abandoned Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. What came out of that summit and subsequent discussions, which have since been elevated to the ministerial level, was a loose framework for how to manage issues pertaining to the maritime commons and the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The brainchild of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Indo-Pacific essentially represents a realignment of the strategic backdrop against which the maritime security dynamics of Asia are set, reimagining the Indian and the Pacific Ocean as a unitary maritime theater. The United States has also supported this alignment by means of strategic and diplomatic outreach in the region via the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. Washington and New Delhi have correspondingly cultivated a closer maritime security relationship, cementing strategic cooperation via a logistics exchange agreement in 2016 and an information sharing agreement in 2018.
Comparing China and India’s Naval Capabilities
In the backdrop of their strategic competition and both countries’ efforts to arm themselves with the latest technology, Sino-Indian maritime rivalry raises concerns about an impending altercation between them in the high seas of the Indian Ocean. China and India have progressively strengthened their naval capabilities over the years, investing in high value platforms such as nuclear-powered submarines, aircraft carriers, and autonomous unmanned vessels. Beijing and New Delhi have also made sustainable efforts to develop their C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) capabilities by launching their own navigation satellites. However, as Figure 1 & 2 below indicate, there is a growing gap between the blue-water naval capabilities of the two nations, with China clearly ahead. Yet, it is also important to note that China’s primary focus of naval strength has been in its near seas surrounding the first island chain. The Indian Ocean, while important, is a secondary focus for Beijing. Comparatively, India has not engaged China with a counter-theater presence in the Western Pacific and has focused its efforts instead on amplifying its naval defense of the IOR. The tri-services base at the Andaman & Nicobar Islands serves as an important component of this effort. In a likely scenario of a maritime confrontation between them in the region, their naval power will be well-matched.
Figure 1: India and China’s Net Naval Capabilities in 2010
Source: Chapter Seven: South and Central Asia (2010), The Military Balance, 110:1, 335-376; Chapter Eight: East Asia and Australasia (2010), The Military Balance, 110:1, 377-440
Figure 2: India and China’s Net Naval Capabilities in 2020
Source: Chapter Six: Asia (2020), The Military Balance, 120:1, 220-323.
Anticipating Future Conflict
In September 2019, a Chinese research vessel was forced to retreat by Indian forces for operating inside the exclusive economic zone of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands without prior permission. The incident reminded both sides of the delicate intricacies surrounding maritime engagement in the open seas. Specific confidence-building mechanisms and crisis management protocols are nearly non-existent between the two navies. Save for statutory procedures guiding interactions on the high seas, Sino-Indian maritime interactions remain unregulated. As both countries’ naval forces come in contact more frequently, tensions loom on the horizon. China and India have been engaged in a competitive embrace with one another for a while now. Both sides realize the importance of a cooperative bilateral relationship but are unwilling to cede any strategic ground. In the likelihood of a situation where Beijing gains an upper hand in the continental realm, strategists in New Delhi might be tempted to implement access-denial measures against Chinese naval assets in the region, to tilt the strategic balance back in India’s favor. While a confrontation along their international border could be isolated, a similar scenario in the maritime domain is likely to have multifaceted implications far beyond New Delhi and Beijing.
Editors Note: As India and China mark 70 years of diplomatic ties, SAV contributors look back at Sino-Indian economic, political, and strategic relations since 1950 and analyze trends to watch for in the years ahead. The full series can be viewed here.
Image: SpokespersonNavy via Twitter