One of the more enduring aspects of Indian strategic culture is a strong sense of maritime embattlement. Shortly after independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously attributed India’s past woes at the hands of predatory colonial powers to its maritime weaknesses. During the Cold War, Indian strategists would fret over the potential mushrooming of American submarine pens in Diego Garcia, or over the possible reiteration of the 1971 USS Enterprise incident, when the United States dispatched a carrier task group to the Bay of Bengal in a singularly blunt exercise of naval suasion. More than forty years later, the U.S. presence in the Indian Ocean is no longer viewed by most Indians as a threat. Another, more menacing extra-regional power has stepped in to fill the void, and, in so doing, has ensured the continued survival of the maritime embattlement narrative.
Indeed, a first time traveler to India could be forgiven for believing that India is on the verge of being subjected to a sudden wave of Chinese amphibious landings. Sensationalistic press reports on China’s so-called “string of pearls” abound, and wild stories on secret PLAN submarine bases in the Maldives, or large bases on Burmese islands, are commonplace. In reality, most of China’s ventures in places such as Chittagong, in Bangladesh, or Hambantota, in Sri Lanka, appear to be, for the time being at least, primarily economic in nature. Moreover, Indian observers tend to neglect the profoundly nationalistic pride these projects tend to foster within the host countries themselves.
Last year, after having meandered through the organized chaos of Hambantota, I interviewed the Sri Lankan Ports Authority Manager on site. After enquiring whether Chinese military vessels might, in the future, obtain preferential berthing rights, I was subjected to a withering tirade on the inappropriate nature of my query. While the funding may be in large part Chinese, the port itself is strictly Sri Lankan, I was sternly informed, and acted as a powerful symbol of a reunified country’s future economic potential. (The port is, in fact, named the Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, in honor of Sri Lanka’s president, whose grinning, mustachioed face is a ubiquitous presence throughout the country, from billboard to bank note.)
While one can’t discount the possibility in the future that these nodes may acquire a more overtly military dimension, the relentless onslaught of Indian media attention on the “String of Pearls” has created an unfortunate, and rather paradoxical, effect. First of all, it renders the debate over the nature of China’s future naval presence in the Indian Ocean somewhat less intelligible and more inchoate. Second, it makes it seem as though the Indian government’s attitude towards China’s alleged creeping expansionism is purely reactive and bereft of any clear strategic direction.
Let us imagine, thereby succumbing to the worst kind of strategic pessimism, that in the course of the next two decades China does move towards establishing some kind of a genuinely threatening naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region.
This could take several distinct forms:
— A gradual upsurge in Chinese submarine incursions into the Indian Ocean, with the option of secretly forward deploying wolf packs of Chinese submarines in friendly deep-water ports such as Gwadar.
— An extension of China’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) complex from East to West in order to provide some form of a shore-based protective shield to its surface vessels or to target India’s ships and coastal infrastructure.
— Simply by increasing the rotation and stationing of its naval assets-surface or subsurface – in the friendly pearls aforementioned.
If one, or all of these evolutions were to occur, would India be prepared for such a contingency? And more importantly, does the Indian Navy have some kind of a concrete, actionable China Strategy in place for the Indian Ocean?
But if it does, you will be hard pressed to find it outlined in detail in any of the official documents released by the Indian Navy over the past decade or so, whether it be the two iterations of its Maritime Doctrines (released in 2004 and 2009) or in its Maritime Strategy (published in 2007). All three documents are highly didactic in tone and somewhat aspirational in nature. Their goal, first and foremost, is to convince a traditionally continentalist and inward-looking Indian leadership of the virtues of Indian Seapower, not to lay out the battle plans for a potential future naval clash with the next great “Dragon Fleet.” Therefore, when China is mentioned, it is only in passing, with fleeting-albeit foreboding- references to “some nations’ attempts to gain a strategic toehold in the Indian Ocean Rim” or to “attempts by China to strategically encircle India.”
If one really wishes to get a better appreciation of how the Indian Navy plans for an upsurge in naval rivalry with Beijing, the best thing to do is to carefully parse the refreshingly sanguine words of India’s naval chiefs on the matter. By so doing, one can begin to discern the hazy silhouette of a nascent three-pronged strategy, or “strategic trident,” which could roughly be summarized as the following:
— Leveraging India’s Natural Geographical Advantage
— Developing an Asymmetrical Technological Edge
— Moving towards greater Navy/Air Force Jointness in the Indian Ocean Region
A few years ago, the former Chief of Naval Staff Sureesh Mehta created quite a stir, when he gave a seminal speech at an Indian maritime think tank, the National Maritime Foundation, shortly before his departure from office. Admiral Mehta, in a very eloquently framed presentation, articulated some compelling arguments:
First, India shouldn’t seek to compete ship for ship with China – such an approach is futile and doomed to fail, due to the growing disparity in funding in-between both navies. Second, India should leverage its geographical advantage. In short, India will always retain a sizeable advantage over any incoming Chinese fleet in the Indian Ocean by virtue of its central position as an interior line power in the heart of the Indian Ocean, as well as its peninsular formation, which enables it to radiate airpower in an arc ranging from the Arabian Sea to the Malacca Straits. Any Chinese naval task force venturing into the Indian Ocean would therefore have to run a formidable gauntlet of combined Indian naval and shore-based airpower. Finally, India needed to focus on developing an asymmetric technological edge over its Chinese rival. New Delhi possesses an immense advantage over Beijing – in that it can import (nearly) all the weaponry it desires, and, unlike China, doesn’t have to contend with an EU arms embargo, U.S. rivalry or growing Russian unease.
India’s current Chief of Naval Staff, Nirmal Verma, has added grist to the strategy laid out by his predecessor by stressing the need to establish more “turnaround bases and naval air enclaves” within the region, and by accelerating the revamping of India’s air bases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which Chinese strategists have portrayed as a potential “metal chain” that could lock them out of the Bay of Bengal in the event of a conflict with India.
As Sino-Indian rivalry spills out into the Indian Ocean, the maps of former, similarly conflict-ridden eras, are being pulled out of the attic of history, undusted, and made to overlap. Japan’s clever use of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago as an unsinkable aircraft carrier during World War II is now being replicated by New Delhi, and World War II era airbases in places such as Kalaikunda, in West Midnapore, have been refurbished in order to host Indian Sukhoi-30 MKI squadrons, which can provide long-range air cover to naval forces operating in the Andaman Sea west of the Malacca Straits.
The same minute patches of paradise at the epicenter of Soviet-U.S. rivalry in the Indian Ocean Region during the Cold War, such as the Seychelles, now find themselves at the heart of a struggle for supremacy once more. Only this time it’s Beijing and New Delhi, Asia’s two rising naval powers, which are jostling for influence. Competition in the Indian Ocean is hardly a new phenomenon – the players may change, but the game remains uncannily similar. And indeed, while much attention has been lavished on China’s diplomatic forays into the Indian subcontinent’s maritime backyard, scant focus has been given to India’s own parallel efforts to establish strategically placed nodes of influence – such as the listening post it erected in 2007 in Madagascar, or the ties it is discreetly shoring up with other small island nations such as Mauritius.
As the Indian Navy’s attention gradually pivots away from Pakistan in order to focus increasingly on China, it will be instructive to note whether this is accompanied by a corresponding repositioning of its force structure. It may be premature to reliably ascertain whether this is the case, but certain signs definitely seem to point to a rebalancing. The Indian Navy’s Eastern Command, for example, which has traditionally been neglected in favor of its Western, Pakistan-facing alter ego, is being considerably strengthened. The country’s small flotilla of nuclear submarines will also operate from an undisclosed location along the eastern seaboard.
Jointness, at this juncture, appears to form the missing link within the Indian Navy’s nascent China Strategy in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, if New Delhi wishes to truly leverage its inherent geographical advantage, it needs to be able to draw on both its naval aviation and shore-based airpower simultaneously rather than sequentially.
So far, unfortunately, the Indian Navy and Air Force have yet to demonstrate any genuine capacity – or desire – for operational synergy. In India’s defense, Navy/Air Force synchronization in maritime strike warfare is notoriously hard to achieve. Indeed, one could argue that the United States only really mastered such a level of operational jointness through the catalyzing experience of the first Gulf War. The Indian Navy and Air Force, however, appear to have demonstrated a singular degree of reluctance to pursue any kind of meaningful operational synergy. While both services have initiated joint training under the aegis of the TROPEX exercises annually held in the Bay of Bengal, they still prefer to coordinate – rather than to genuinely fuse – their combat exercises. The Indian Air Force and Naval aviation assets are thus provided with distinct, pre-designated “air corridors” in which to operate and respond to the instructions of their own service-specific commanders. This is indicative of a very rudimentary level of inter-service cooperation, which still prefers to opt for the traditional Indian “coordination” model over the exigencies born out of genuine bi-service synchrony.
What India needs is a truly transformational war fighting concept for the Indian Ocean, an “AirSea Battle concept with Indian characteristics,” which welds the three “prongs” of its thinking into a clear, actionable, China strategy for the Indian Ocean. Until then, expect more alarmist reports of hidden bases and nefarious plots.
Iskander Rehman is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C.