Flashpoints | Security | East Asia | Southeast Asia

Dead in the Water: India’s Push Into the Seas Is Unlikely to Help Matters on Land

As the Ladakh crisis crosses the 5-month mark, many in New Delhi are suggesting a radically different approach toward China’s bad behavior.

Abhijnan Rej
Dead in the Water: India’s Push Into the Seas Is Unlikely to Help Matters on Land

The U.S. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group along with Indian Navy ships Rana, Sahyadri, Shivalik and Kamorta steam in formation during a cooperative deployment in the Indian Ocean, July 20, 2020.

Credit: Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

Hard times call for creative, resourceful thinking – in everyday life as well as high international politics. As the India-China crisis along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) enters its sixth month, New Delhi’s strategic community is once again back at the drawing board, trying to figure out a way to restore a semblance of strategic parity with China, if not dislodge the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from its newly-occupied positions in Ladakh. It has become evident that neither diplomacy nor economic threats have made the PLA budge a bit. At the same time, prolonged, and perhaps permanent, heat along the LAC will sap India’s defense resources and serve as a potent reminder from China about who has the upper hand in the relationship.

One way out, some in India have argued, is to refocus the country’s strategic attention away from land and on to the seas. While this is not a new argument – the idea of “theater-switching” is especially common among serving and retired Indian naval officers, for obvious reasons – it has once again appeared in circulation. And, at the face of it, it is an attractive idea. New Delhi’s continental dilemma – as I have argued in these pages – threatens to permanently box the country in as a frontier power, and more so whenever it tries to decisively break free from it. Why not stop fretting about the 4,338-kilometer long disputed borders with China and Pakistan, and instead look toward the Indo-Pacific? Why not complicate China’s life in the maritime theater?

Alas, this line of thinking is unlikely to fructify due to problems with the very constituents of strategy. Any strategy is a way to align (often limited) means to set goals. India’s limited military resource base, stickiness in its allocation priorities, as well as inter-service bureaucratic rivalry hobble the “means” end of the chain, while the “ways” to attain the goal of deterring Chinese grey-zone coercion and salami-slicing along the LAC themselves remain unclear, irrespective of any future growth of the military-resource base.

Let us start with the means. As I have noted on more than one occasion, analysis of India’s military budget over the past two decades shows middling commitment to naval modernization and fleet expansion. In terms of sheer numbers, India’s navy remains dwarfed by China’s. And correcting the large skew toward revenue expenditure – on salaries and pensions – is next to impossible in the near future assuming that the overall defense budget does not grow significantly (which is even more unlikely now on account of the pandemic). Soldiers can’t be fired; sovereign pension guarantees can’t be withdrawn, at least not without serious domestic political costs. That means that any tinkering with the modernization budget can only happen on the margins of the overall defense outlay. On top of this sits the issue of inter-service rivalry, which has, in the past, gotten in the way of dramatic restructuring of the military. And the appointment of a politically well-placed former army chief as India’s first chief of defense staff hasn’t – and will not – helped matters for the navy.

But beyond the issue of budgetary constraints lies circumscribed doctrinal thinking. India’s military doctrines do not pay sufficient attention to power projection. There is very little information in the open domain that suggests India has developed operational concepts, such as distributed lethality (which requires a significant surface fleet to support it), that allow its navy to be deployed for combat in highly contested denial environment far from India’s shores, such as the Western Pacific, and the South China Sea in particular.

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Which leaves us with a suggestion that has gained considerable currency over the past few months: that India could use its peninsular geography as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) to create denial complexes that could hold Chinese sea lines of communication (SLOC) and critical chokepoints at risk.

In many ways, this is more promising than an elusive and expensive pursuit of sea control. A shift toward a denial strategy is likely to be budget-neutral, or at the very least, provide more bang for the buck. To put figures side-by-side: A 10-year lease of a Russian nuclear-powered attack sub cost $3 billion last year. Compare that with the price tag of India’s shelved third aircraft carrier, along with the accompanying air group: between $12 and $15 billion at a lower-end estimate. Moving past the issue of acquiring new boats, India’s extant capabilities could also further a denial strategy. For example, its thrust toward basing assets equipped with Brahmos cruise missiles in the ANI could bolster its grip on the Malacca Strait choke-point in time of conflict.

But, as a few have already pointed out on social media and elsewhere, an Indian threat to Chinese SLOC – or an outright naval blockade – sits high on the escalation ladder. Blockades are, for example, justified during an extant state of war, “legal or defacto,” as the U.S. Justice Department argued a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is also unclear, qualitatively, how a credible threat, backed by a significant show of force, to hold China’s navy or merchant vessels at risk during a crisis is different from, say, signaling intent to breach the Line of Actual Control on land. Both invite the risk of preemptive Chinese action.

One way by which India could compensate for its lack of capabilities in any maritime thrust against China is by entering into partnerships that amount to de facto alliances with other countries in the region, such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Again, this is something that has been debated for a while now by the Indian strategic community. But this too is unlikely to be useful, not the least because regional powers in Southeast Asia who bear the direct brunt of Chinese assertiveness are either unable or unwilling to act against it individually, or develop a collective response, without buck-passing the problem to the United States. We also need to remind ourselves that China has pushed ahead in the Western Pacific despite the U.S. alliance system there.

So that leaves us with what India can do with the United States in China’s maritime backyard, assuming the country’s long-standing posture of not participating in non-United Nations joint operations is diluted. The fact of the matter is American patrolling and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) have failed to alter China’s strategic calculus in the SCS. Under such circumstances, India and the United States jointly sailing through that body of water — without entering 12 nautical miles of waters around Chinese-claimed contested islands and other features, which is what is needed to challenge Beijing’s claims substantively — is unlikely to alter China’s LAC strategy in the smallest bit. (It is also important to note that Australia, a treaty American ally, has not taken part in FONOPs within the 12-nautical miles range.) India participated in a “group sail” with the U.S., along with Japan and the Philippines, in the South China Sea in 2019.

Which brings us to the other “goal” end of strategy chain – and the heart of India’s vexing challenge when it comes to deterring any Chinese fait accompli on land. A salami-slicing strategy is necessarily one where the aggressor calculates that its actions will not invite full-scale military retaliation given the small stakes involved. This problem, which exists even between near-peer competitors and their allies, is compounded when the dyadic power asymmetry is large – like China and India’s, as is evident from how the crisis in Ladakh is playing out. Existing U.S. treaties have also failed to account for gray zone challenges that accompany salami-slicing tactics. For example, in the past, analysts have called for a review of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty in light of its insufficient value in pushing back against Chinese gray zone coercion.

Even if some of the problems mentioned above are solved miraculously – and it would take a walking-on-water level miracle to resolve them – at best, a robust Indian maritime posture could deter future Chinese land grabs. It is unclear how such a posture could undo a fait accompli already in place.

As a blunt, concluding thought: Assuming, reasonably, that India’s primary national security goal is the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity, a defense strategy that focuses on the maritime theater is unlikely to be of much use. What is of use, however, remains unknown.