The importance of a strong Navy for India has been acknowledged since Independence but this has not been translated into practice. India is a peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean and has a coastline of 7,000 km. It lies astride the main sea lines of communication, westwards towards the Arabian Sea and eastwards towards the Bay of Bengal and South China Sea. It lies at the centre of the new strategic ocean space of the Indo-Pacific, dominating the maritime routes which connect the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. But this locational advantage can only be sustained and expanded upon through the maintenance of a strong Navy relative to the naval forces deployed in the Indian Ocean by other major powers.
Currently, there is a renewed focus on India’s land frontiers due to the heightened military threat from China. However, in terms of overall strategy, India needs to hold the line at its contested land borders, while it expands its presence in the maritime domain, where it has the locational advantage that it lacks on its land borders. China is attempting to tie us down on land so that it can prevent, or at least slow down India’s expansion in a domain that favours the latter. Our response should be to double down on expanding our Navy because we enjoy an edge over China but this is a diminishing asset.
China’s growing influence
A few years back, the Indian Navy planned a fleet of 200 ships by 2027, which would include three aircraft carriers. Its current strength is 137 vessels, with only one aircraft carrier in service. This figure has been revised downwards to 170 by that date. China has a 355-vessel fleet. In the last decade, its navy has added as many vessels as India’s total naval strength. It is already larger than the US navy. While the Chinese navy’s focus is on the western Pacific Ocean, its objective is to deploy a navy which will have a dominating presence globally.
Maintaining a strong naval presence in the Indian Ocean is an integral component of this global strategy. Towards that end, China has also established naval port facilities at a number of Indian Ocean locations. These include Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri Lanka. It is developing the deep-water port at Kyaukphyu on Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast. While these are billed as commercial facilities, they can easily be put to military uses. It has established a military base, including naval facilities, at Djibouti in Africa.
In 2015, I came across an interesting 16-character mission statement for the Chinese navy: ‘Select locations meticulously, make deployments discreetly, give priority to cooperative activities and penetrate gradually.’
If we observe the Chinese naval developments over the past few years, one can see how seriously and methodically this overall directive is being implemented.
Navy doesn’t stand where Army, Air Force do
The resources allocated to the Indian Navy have been increasing over the past several years but have never been anywhere near the allocations to the Army and the Air Force. The maximum percentage of the annual defence budgets allocated to the Navy has ranged between 14% and 17%. The National Security Advisory Board, which I had the privilege of chairing between 2013-15, had recommended that this percentage should rise to at least 30% by 2030. This now seems unlikely. There is a view that without a major shift in our national security strategy, our Navy is likely to lose even its current, but slender edge, in a decade. We will end up constrained by China, both on land and at sea.
While India may still possess a significant naval capability, its overall maritime capability is abysmal. There has been a complete neglect of shipbuilding. The few existing shipyards cater almost entirely to the Navy. China has the world’s largest shipbuilding industry, constituting 40% of the world total. The output of Indian shipyards in global terms is a miniscule 0.045%. Only 10% of Indian-flagged ships have been built in Indian shipyards. Some of the world’s largest ports are located in China. The port of Shanghai is the largest in the world and handles 514 million tonnes of general cargo and 43.3 million units of container traffic yearly. India’s largest port — Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust at Nhava Sheva — handles only 68.5 million tonnes of general cargo and 5.5 million units of container traffic annually. The contrast is glaring. It should also be noted that despite years of effort, 25% of India’s containerised ocean-going cargo must be trans-shipped through international ports of Colombo (48%), Singapore (22%) and Port of Klang in Malaysia (10%). India may be a naval power; it certainly does not qualify as a maritime power.
India must be a credible power, both vis-à-vis its adversaries and its friends and partners. It should synergise its maritime development plans with its naval expansion plans. For example, it should build its shipbuilding industry to cater to both civilian and military requirements. It should leverage its close and friendly relations with Japan and South Korea, each commands 25% of the global shipbuilding and possesses cutting-edge technologies, to establish a modern shipbuilding industry in India. This should be a priority in the Prime Minister’s atmanirbharta mission and should be supported with the kind of incentives included in the PLI scheme.
It ought to be announced that by 2030, 30% of defence allocations will go to the Navy and the target of a 200-ship fleet will be achieved by that date, if not by 2027. Among the armed forces, the Navy is unique in having a well-respected Design Bureau. This should be given a bigger role in fleet planning and technology development. The US had offered to collaborate with India in the design and construction of its planned aircraft carrier. This offer should be taken up in earnest as a contribution to capacity building.
India must not lose its edge in the Indian Ocean. Its value as a Quad partner would also be enhanced by its ability to maintain this edge.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. Views are personal.
This article was originally published in The Tribune and has been republished here with permission.