In India’s strategic institutes and think-tanks, maritime analysts are sometimes faced with an uncomfortable question. “Why is it,” inquisitive observers wonder, “that the Indian Navy calls itself a blue-water navy, whereas the PLA-N – despite its vastly superior capabilities – is still ‘planning on’ attaining blue-water status? The query is mostly prompted by reports appearing in the media highlighting Chinese plans to augment sea-going capacity and make good on its distant-seas ambition.
Indeed, the speed and scope of China’s maritime development in recent years has been impressive enough to convince maritime observers of its blue-water potential. Over the past decade, China has taken huge strides in modernizing its navy, which now boasts an aircraft carrier, amphibious ships, nuclear submarines, and lethal anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. Yet it is hesitant to openly acknowledge great power maritime status. This oddity, though compelling, is more a matter of strategic nuance than substantive capability. The PLA-N’s understated valuation of its maritime prowess is not an acknowledgment of “modest” strength, but the product of a uniquely geopolitical process where competing navies deliberately re-interpret established maritime notions for favourable gains. Each appreciates the real issue at hand, yet assumes a position that suits individual national interests.
While both China and India covet strong maritime power status, each defines their own maritime capabilities differently. Chinese leaders and defence experts portray the PLA-N as a resurgent force with developing capabilities. New Delhi’s strategic elite, on the other hand, project the Indian navy as a potent instrument capable of providing security in the wider Indian Ocean Region. Notwithstanding the palpable differential in power and capability between the Indian Navy (IN) and the PLA-N, their real “blue-water” status is a matter of geopolitical outlook, rather than hard facts.
In theory, a blue-water navy is a maritime force capable of operating in the deep waters of the open oceans. The term is more colloquial than doctrinal and most sea-going states differ on its specifics. Broadly, however, most navies agree that a blue-water navy is capable of prolonged and sustained operations across the open oceans, and has a capacity to project “credible power” in the distant seas.
Even though it is smaller and less capable than its Chinese counterpart, the IN’s desire for blue-water status is driven by its keenness to be recognized as a regionally dominant force. To make itself relevant to the security and geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, the IN realizes it must dispel any impression that its mandate is limited to the brown water (coastal) or green water (littoral) functions. The PLA-N, on the other hand, despite its well-developed and growing capabilities, is reluctant to be seen as a blue-water force because of the obvious political implications, where Indian Ocean states might begin to view it as a dominant extra-regional entity. The political sensitivity about China’s perceived power-projection in the IOR places an imperative on the PLA-N to define its capabilities in conservative terms, lest its actions are misunderstood as being hegemonic in intent.
Deciphering China’s motivations in the far-seas, however, requires an appreciation of the historical context of its maritime development. In 1982, Chinese Admiral Liu Huaqing proposed a three stage maritime development plan that came to be accepted as the backbone of China’s future maritime strategy. The plan recommended that the PLA-N work towards the establishment of control over the first island chain by 2010; extend its maritime influence to the second island chain by 2020; and establish a force that would challenge the U.S. Navy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans by 2050. Until then, Huaqing (a former Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission and an adept strategic thinker) averred China must avoid an unnecessary projection of naval strength. In the main, the PLA-N’s development has proceeded along the track laid out in the original plan. It has developed strong capabilities but consciously understated its true potential.
In China’s viewing, there is only one globally relevant maritime force – the U.S. Navy. Chinese maritime experts admire the USN’s expeditionary and power projection capabilities, but their awe of the latter’s capabilities is overtaken by a strong sense of envy and inferiority. Consequently, China’s long-term ambition is to upstage U.S. naval power in the South China Seas and counter its dominance in the open oceans. Until that goal is achieved, however, Beijing sees no useful purpose in branding itself as a blue-water power. The Indian Navy, on the other hand, does not see the USN as a rival, or as a yardstick for future progress. In fact, recognition of its blue-water status by the USN and other Western powers validates the IN’s role as a security provider in the Indian Ocean Region.
This is not to suggest India’s dominant status in the IOR isn’t being challenged by China. The “blue-water” discussion is incomplete until one considers the role that Chinese economic activity plays in its maritime power projection. China’s penetration of the IOR continues apace with growing investment in maritime infrastructure and regional connectivity projects. According to recent reports, Beijing’s “One Belt One Road project” will result in the investment of nearly $40 billion in the region to create two separate land and sea transportation corridors. Unsurprisingly, Beijing has plans for military maritime presence in the region – made amply evident by its recent exercises in the IOR, including a submarine deployment in Colombo. And yet it is keen for the PLA-N to keep a low profile; which is why Chinese military leaders make it a point to highlight cooperative security and regional economic development in every multilateral interaction, including the recently concluded Gaulle Dialogue in Sri Lanka.
A closer look at the Chinese infrastructure projects, however, reveals a deeper motivation: China apparently desires de-facto control over maritime facilities it helps build and maintain. This is clear from the recent submarine deployment in Colombo. The submersible docked not at a berth belonging to the Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) – mandated to accommodate military vessels – but the deep water Colombo South Container Terminal (CSCT), a facility built, controlled and run by a Chinese state-owned corporation – the China Merchants Holdings (International). While Sri Lankan authorities agreed that berthing at the facility constituted a violation of protocol, they offered perfunctory explanations for the breach – suggesting an inability on Colombo’s part to regulate PLA-N activity in a Sri Lankan port, at a facility controlled by a Chinese entity.
China’s maritime strategy, however, is not limited to stealthy control over domestic infrastructure in the IOR and manifests in other ways. In Hambantota, for instance, Colombo has agreed to grant Chinese state-owned companies operating rights to four berths in exchange for an easing of loan conditions. Using high-interest infrastructure loans as barter-chips for strategic concessions in the IOR is, in fact, an important tool in Beijing’s geopolitical toolkit. Another illustration of Beijing’s innovative strategy is at the iHavan project in Maldives (a key link on the Maritime Silk Route) where the high-premium loans awarded are bound to result in a request for a relaxation in loan conditions. In exchange, China would perhaps demand operating rights to another terminal.
As they jostle for space and supremacy in the IOR, the Indian Navy and PLA-N appear to be guided by distinct operational philosophies – the IN is driven its aspiration to be a leading regional security provider, while the PLA-N is manoeuvring to position itself as a guarantor of regional peace to advance a larger geopolitical agenda. It is, however, the Chinese strategy of fusing its maritime efforts with a broader plan for economic development and regional integration that is proving to be more effective. While India can still hope to counter China’s growing maritime power in the IOR with a pragmatic regional engagement plan, balancing Beijing’s economic outreach in the Indian Ocean might constitute a more complex challenge.
Abhijit Singh is a research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses and looks at Maritime Security in the Indian Ocean. He is co-author of the book Indian Ocean Challenges – A Quest for Cooperative Solutions.