An Ocean in Focus | Eleven Media Group Co., Ltd

The Statesman / ANN

India, the largest country and dominant power in the Indian Ocean Region, overwhelmingly controls the air and sea lines of communication here. The Chinese muscle-flexing has already pushed India to forge closer maritime ties with USA, Japan and Australia in the Quad and into active engagement with Vietnam in a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership‘. India must increase its sphere of influence, and a secure base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a prerequisite for that.

Indian and Chinese troops may have started the deescalation and disengagement in Ladakh, but no one would be fooled into believing that things will be alright between the two neighbours any time soon.

China probably has realised that it had committed a mistake and underestimated India’s strength, resolve and response. The Galwan killings have galvanised India into a boldness China had least expected.

The ‘strategic restraint’ that has defined India’s carefully calibrated response in all previous Chinese transgressions has now irrevocably been replaced by a muscular response.

The gloves are off not only on the LAC but also in other arenas, and any Chinese participation in the Indian economy or technology has to pass tight scrutiny regardless of whether India becomes Atmanirbhar or not. If the standoff was meant to teach India a lesson for moving closer to the USA, it has backfired completely.

Bilateral ties will now adjust to the new normal of a perpetual no-war nopeace relationship, and new flashpoints will continue to erupt between the neighbours. Indeed, the Great Chinese Game may now move into the sea which may be the site of the next flashpoint. India’s stubborn refusal to join Mr Xi Jinping’s pet BRI, its ever closer economic and military cooperation with the US and other adversaries of China to form the Quad, its intransigence at Doklam and repudiation of China’s hegemony in Asia, its audacity in banning Chinese apps and possible exile of Huawei altogether from India ~ the Dragon is unlikely to take all these lying down.

It knows that any reduction in the present asymmetry in economic and military powers with India could be a potential threat to the Grand Chinese dream of becoming the sole global superpower. Under intense pressure from the international community, it may be licking its wounds now, but will certainly retaliate soon enough.

This time the theatre of conflict may shift to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) in the Indian Ocean, which incidentally has our only joint Theatre Command ~ the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), where the assets and manpower of all wings of our armed forces are under one operational commander. Though the infrastructure and resources need significant augmentation at the ANC, India can outmatch China here if it plays its cards well.

Soon after becoming President in 2012, Mr Xi Jinping had unequivocally declared to the world his intention to restore China to its past glory and turn it “into an invincible force with wisdom and power”. China was done with biding its time and hiding its strength, now was the time to show off. And showing off has no limits ~ from dotting the South China Sea with Chinese missiles and airfields, debt-trapping half the world through BRI and entwining the world in a digital Silk Route through Chinese tech-giants such as BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) and Huawei.

The Chinese dream is now to become the world’s manufacturer through “Made in China 2025” ~by gathering global data through AI and its intimidating 5G-infrastructure spread across the globe to increase efficiency and reduce cost, and finally to become the global standard-setter for manufacturing and technology ~ to fulfil the ultimate vision of “Chinese Standards 2035”.

Any country that dares to challenge this grand Chinese Dream will be annihilated. Thus in May 2020, when India was aspiring to lure away some of the global manufacturers located in China which were reeling from the pandemicstruck supply-chain disruption, the Chinese official mouthpiece Global Times mocked: “Tensions between China and the US are not an opportunity for India to attract relocating industrial chains, because the South Asian country is not prepared to receive such a manufacturing shift given its poor infrastructure, lack of skilled labour and stringent foreign investment restrictions.”

Next month, it warned India of military pressure from two or even three fronts (meaning Pakistan and Nepal) and advising it not to repeat past mistakes (meaning 1962). China will seize every opportunity to distract India from focussing on its economy ~ through border incursions, through its friends Pakistan and now Nepal, through every conceivable and inconceivable means. In his seminal work, “The influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783” published in 1890, the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan had argued that sea power was superior to land power to strengthen a country and to spread its influence, implying naval control over major trade routes.

Powerful countries were quick to adopt this strategy that ultimately led to the naval arms race among European nations, Japan and USA, and now China. “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean controls Asia. The ocean is the key to the seven seas”, Mahan wrote. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has systematically increased capability, scope and extent of naval operations since early 2000.

Initially designed to secure energy transportation and marine safety, by 2015, PLAN’s naval strategy has morphed into safeguarding the security of China’s overseas interests, maintaining strategic deterrence and carrying out nuclear counterattacks if necessary, to protect overseas Chinese interests and assets. Promoting and supporting the BRI is now central to PLAN’s strategy.

Its ambitions and capabilities have grown in the last decade in tandem with increased military engagements and visibility in the IOR, as evident from the ever-swelling numbers of outbound naval port calls and joint military exercises – like the one with Russia and Iran last year, and submarines and warships forays. India, the largest country and dominant power in the IOR, overwhelmingly controls the air and sea lines of communication here.

The Chinese muscle-flexing in the IOR has already pushed India to forge closer maritime ties with USA, Japan and Australia in the Quad and into active engagement with Vietnam in a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. India must increase its sphere of influence, and a secure base in the ANI is a prerequisite for that. It has increased its naval strength and engagement with the establishment of ANC, but faces challenges to further expansion on account of resource constraints and bureaucratic inefficiencies preventing rapid modernization to counter Chinese aggression, but China knows, as Tom Miller pointed out in his “China’s Asia Dream”, that it cannot challenge the combined might of the Quad navies.

Though PLAN has so far avoided any direct entanglement with the Indian navy, its bilateral and multilateral exercises with Pakistan Navy off the Makran coast have increased both in number and frequency in recent years. Instead of direct confrontation, Chinese IOR strategy is to surround India with a network of military and commercial facilities ~ the so-called “String of Pearls” ~ across the IOR.

Apart from acquiring Hambantota port from a debt-trapped Sri Lanka on a long-term lease, China has built a sophisticated military base in Djibouti. Satellite pictures taken in May this year revealed a fullfledged naval base with the capability to berth China’s Liaoning Aircraft Carrier. Spread over 250000 sq. feet and capable of hosting 10000 troops in its underground facilities, Djibouti is key to China’s IOR ambitions.

Satellite images also suggest militarisation of the Gwadar port and huge construction and reclamation activities at the Maldivian island of Feydhoo Finolhu in India’s backyard, which was leased to China in 2016 by the previous Abdulla Yameen government, with its size increased nearly threefold. Satellite imagery further suggests a military base is being built in Koh Kong province of the southwestern coast of Cambodia ~ a beneficiary of huge Chinese largesse.

A $10 billion China-Myanmar Economic Corridor is in progress to give China access to the Indian Ocean through Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal port Kyaukphyu, though Myanmar has been peeved at Chinese arming of rebel insurgents in the northern Rakhine and Shan states. Reports last year suggested that China was helping Bangladesh build a naval base at Cox Bazaar and even building one at Vanuatu in the Pacific, close to Australia.

Now China is arming the Pakistan Navy by committing to supply 8 diesel submarines, 4 stealth frigates and other naval platforms worth $7 billion by 2021-22 to boost its strength of 9 frigates and 5 submarines.

However, with 140 warships, India is well-placed to outmatch the combined naval strength of Pakistan and China in the IOR, but is no match as far as total Chinese naval strength is concerned: India only has 10 destroyers against China’s 33, 14 frigates against China’s 54, 11 Corvettes against China’s 42, 12 diesel electric submarines against China’s 50 and 2 nuclear submarines against China’s 10.

As against India’s lone aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya and under-construction INS Vikrant, China has two aircraft carriers, with two more under construction, and it might just be a matter of time before a Chinese Aircraft Carrier appears in the IOR, which may, like Galwan, provoke unforeseen and dangerous consequences if China decides on another misadventure to teach India a lesson.


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