An ambition all at sea

The loss of ‘INS Sindhurakshak’ highlights shortcomings of India’s maritime capability in a time when Chinese naval power is reshaping regional geopolitics

Written by Sam Roggeveen | Published: August 26, 2013 4:01 am

The loss of ‘INS Sindhurakshak’ highlights shortcomings of India’s maritime capability in a time when Chinese naval power is reshaping regional geopolitics

The tragic accident that sank the INS Sindhurakshak and caused the deaths of several Indian sailors has once again drawn attention to the shortcomings of India’s naval power. India now has just 13 ageing submarines operational,and the longstanding ambitions of many in India’s naval community to challenge China as an emerging maritime power seem more distant than ever. In the present circumstances,India will do well just to maintain its edge over Pakistan.

It is best not to get too carried away with such crude measures of national power. Yet,India and other Indo-Pacific countries do have legitimate concerns about the truly impressive growth of Chinese maritime capability. It is not merely a question of scale. It is the fact that the composition of China’s naval development seems to be changing. Ever since China began its military modernisation drive after observing the American performance in the 1991 Gulf War,concerns about China’s rapid progress have been soothed somewhat by the fact that it seemed to be pursuing a solely defensive strategy.

Yes,China was investing in advanced submarines,missiles and combat aircraft,but reassuringly,it seemed to be in the service of a strategy that sought no more than to deny to other powers the use of the waters surrounding its territory and more specifically,to deter America and its allies from intervening in a conflict with Taiwan. This was a relatively modest,inward-looking ambition. There was little effort put towards projecting China’s military capability outward,onto the open ocean.

But that’s all changing. China is no longer focusing solely on “denial” capabilities,such as submarines and anti-ship missiles. It is also building large,modern,ocean-going surface ships and the support ships that will give them the range to operate on the open ocean far from home bases. China is now conducting flight tests from its first aircraft carrier,and will probably build at least two more. And Chinese shipyards are building what looks to be a world-class destroyer,dubbed the Type-052D.

Then there’s the fact that China is now the only country in the world running two simultaneous programmes to develop stealth fighter jets. Or that it is developing a new class of cargo airlifter that will give its air force global reach. And,above all,consider that the Pentagon,in its latest annual assessment of the People’s Liberation Army,judged that China is intent on building a “wholly indigenous defence industrial sector”.

That’s something not even the US can boast (even America imports some weapons and components),and it probably isn’t achievable for China either. But keep in mind that,even with all the advanced programmes just described,China is barely breaking a sweat. This is not the Soviet Union we’re talking about,which tried to build a military force to match the US with an economy that was barely half the size. China has been smarter,focusing first and foremost on growth and development,with military spending remaining a second-order priority.

For India,what compounds the challenge of China’s maritime ascendancy is the fact that India itself remains a largely continental power. India sees maritime capability as the means by which it can truly manifest its status as a global power,but the troubles and tensions on its borders act as a constant break on such ambitions. India’s parlous relations with Pakistan and China,and to a lesser extent Myanmar and Bangladesh,require constant diplomatic attention and military investment,particularly in land,air and nuclear forces. An ocean-going navy is simply less relevant to these cases.

Yet,fears coming from some quarters in India of Chinese encirclement are exaggerated. For one thing,there is little evidence to support the so-called “string of pearls” theory,in which China is supposed to be dotting the Indian Ocean with naval bases in friendly countries such as Myanmar and Pakistan. And remember that Chinese naval capability is coming off a very low base. The PLA Navy has years of learning ahead of it before it can operate consistently and effectively away from home waters. Last,China’s priority remains the Asia Pacific,not the Indian Ocean. It has territorial disputes and historical grievances with many of its neighbours,which will keep its maritime planners preoccupied for years to come. Nor does China have the global ideological and military ambitions that the Soviet Union did.

Nevertheless,China’s progress has been stunning. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union,the second place in the global ranking of maritime power has effectively been unoccupied. China is now set to take that mantle in the coming decade. It is unlikely to build a fleet that challenges the US globally,but it will shift the balance of power in the entire Indo-Pacific region.

The writer,a former senior strategic analyst in Australia’s Office of National Assessments,is the editor of ‘The Interpreter’,published by the Lowy Institute for

International Policy

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