China at the Line of Actual Control is not the only thing India needs to worry about. According to recent media reports, China is growing its military presence in the Indian Ocean too. Satellite pictures in May this year suggest China’s military base at Djibouti is being modernised. The facility, set up in 2017 as a logistics support unit, is being upgraded into a full-fledged naval base with a 1,120-feet pier that can berth Chinese warships, including the Liaoning aircraft carrier. This follows China’s expansion of an artificial island in the Maldives, a development with seeming strategic overtones, leading some to claim that China is encroaching on India’s sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, the rumour mills are abuzz that China is on a drive to militarise Gwadar port in Pakistan. Recent satellite pictures show anti-vehicle berms, security fences, sentry posts and elevated guard towers inside the port, fuelling speculation of the construction of a military facility. There are also reports that China is helping Bangladesh build a naval base at Cox Bazaar, including wharfs, barracks, ammunition depots, and a naval ship repair yard.
It is the People’s Liberation Army’s Djibouti base that most vividly demonstrates China’s Indian Ocean ambitions. With an estimated area of nearly 250,000 square feet, China’s Djibouti compound is no ordinary military base. Replete with outer perimeter walls, watchtowers and underground quarters capable of hosting an estimated 10,000 troops, the facility is a veritable military garrison. China insists the project is a “support facility” meant mainly for anti-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa, but analysts claim the base is capable of supporting other key missions such as intelligence collection, non-combat evacuation operations, peacekeeping operations support and counter-terrorism.
Rising threat to India
When China first began deploying warships off the coast of Somalia for anti-piracy patrols a decade ago, Indian analysts believed China’s maritime security interests were primarily commercial, and that the People’s Liberation Army Navy or PLAN’s forays were driven mainly by the need to protect Beijing’s trade and energy interests. That view is fast changing. Many now see China’s rapid regional expansion as part of a broader effort to embed Beijing into the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean.
China’s growing maritime deployments – including submarines and intelligence ships – demonstrate Beijing’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) littorals. Many say the presence of a Chinese research vessel in India’s exclusive economic zone in September last year foreshadows greater Chinese projection of power into the Indian Ocean, feeding fears of a strategic encirclement.
Ruefully, despite recognising the pressing challenge China poses, India hasn’t been able to respond forcefully. Even as it has sought to expand regional presence through mission-based naval patrols, the Indian Navy hasn’t quite matched the PLAN’s operational tempo in the Indian Ocean. Critical gaps in combat capability — in particular, conventional submarines, anti-submarine helicopters, and minesweepers — and constantly shrinking budgets have constrained the Navy’s ability to push back the Chinese.
Sea-denial won’t work
One way to deter China, some suggest, is through a sea-denial complex in the Andaman Islands. The Indian Navy has been developing the Andaman and Nicobar as a strategic outpost to monitor rival naval activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean, and also invested in the development of an integrated surveillance network. Strengthening anti-access capabilities in the Andamans, analysts say, could help protect India’s tactical leverage in the regional seas.
Yet, sea-denial assets in India’s strategic eastern islands would be of little value when most Chinese naval deployments are in areas outside Indian territorial waters. Modern-day trading nations regard the oceans as a shared global common, with equal opportunity rights for all user states. Consequently, unless a sea-space is a site of overlapping claims or a contested enclave in a geopolitically troubled spot, no coastal state ever actively denies another the use of the high seas.
The second reason a sea-denial strategy is unlikely to work is that India’s most pressing maritime challenge — the Pakistan-China nexus – doesn’t yet involve a physical threat to Indian assets. The Chinese navy has cleverly avoided any entanglement with Indian warships in the regional seas, while expanding its engagement with the Pakistan navy, participating in a number of bilateral and multilateral exercises off the Makran coast. Defensive measures in the Eastern Indian Ocean would not thwart Chinese plans for deployment at Karachi or Gwadar, or impede China-aided modernisation of the navies of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand.
Pressure in the Pacific
What the Indian Navy instead needs is a strategy of distant power projection. By employing a plan for sustained presence in the Western Pacific — a space Beijing dominates and is highly sensitive about – the Navy could materially influence the maritime balance in Asia, forcing Beijing to scale down its military presence in the Indian Ocean.
To be sure, a counter-pressure strategy in the Pacific will be hard to implement. For one thing, India’s official maritime strategy deems Southeast Asia a secondary theatre of interest. For another, New Delhi’s neutral status vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes and continuing deference for China’s regional sensitivities encourages the Navy to limit its ‘security provider’ activism to the Indian Ocean. Yet, as Beijing applies greater pressure on the LAC in the north, India might have little option but to respond in a space China considers a maritime backyard.
In attempting to shape security dynamics in the Pacific, the Indian Navy must then meaningfully leverage logistics support agreements (one was signed with Australia last week) and capitalise on close naval ties with the United States, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.
In the long run, sustained naval presence in China’s sphere of maritime influence may be the only effective means of conveying Indian resolve to Beijing.
The author is a Senior Fellow and Head of Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal.