China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper reported last month that the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) second aircraft carrier, referred to as “Type 001A” is nearing completion and that another carrier, dubbed “Type 002”, is also under construction. The Type 002 represents not only a much bigger class of ship but will incorporate modern design and operational features, including a catapult and early-warning aircraft. A senior Chinese official was quoted as saying: “China needs two carrier strike groups in the Western Pacific and two in the Indian Ocean. So we need at least five to six aircraft carriers.”
Other manifestations of China’s unfolding grand strategy abound. It has built runways and fortified seven artificial islands created in the Spratly group in the South China Sea (SCS), thereby leapfrogging the mental and physical barrier posed to the PLAN by the “first island chain”. India is encircled by a growing ring of Chinese power and influence. To the north, garrisons, airfields and missile sites linked by modern road-rail networks underpin China’s dominant posture on the Tibetan plateau. Ominously, the Xining-Lhasa rail link is progressing towards Nepal, where China has made significant political inroads. To our east, China’s Yunan province will gain access to the Bay of Bengal via rail, highway and pipeline, linking it to the deep-water port being built by China at Kyaukpyu in Myanmar.
A parallel endeavour on India’s western flank, dubbed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), will create access to the Arabian Sea from Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar via Gilgit-Baltistan. Described by Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar as violative of “…Indian sovereignty because it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”, CPEC forms the bedrock of China’s South Asia strategy, with a commitment of over $50 billion.
Further west, China has set up its first overseas military base at Djibouti on the Bab el-Mandeb. To our south, China has built a new harbour in Hambantota and modernised Colombo port for Sri Lanka. All three ports could provide bases or sanctuaries to PLAN ships and submarines deployed in the Indian Ocean. There is already news that the PLAN intends to deploy its expanded marine corps to Djibouti and Gwadar. The recent Chinese sale of eight diesel submarines to Pakistan and two to Bangladesh provides conclusive evidence of India’s “strategic encirclement”.
India’s decision-makers are, almost certainly, receiving divergent counsel about the Dragon’s actions and intent. China’s left-leaning sympathisers scoff at the “encirclement” thesis and maintain that China neither wants war, nor seeks further territorial gains, but only economic engagement and tangible proof of friendship, which India has consistently failed to provide by playing the Dalai Lama card, cosying up to the US and withholding cooperation on the “Belt and Road” initiative.
Before the recent re-naming of Indian towns by Beijing, the demand for Tawang was explained away as a “bargaining ploy”, and India was advised to find a modus vivendi to somehow befriend China.
Even as we dismiss these inducements to appeasement, we must note the many serious dichotomies that distort our perception of this Asian hegemon. While China looms large in India’s security perspectives, the former does not regard India as a threat — or even a competitor. For Chinese strategists, asymmetry is inherent in such relations; they bluntly advise that rather than obsessing with futile dreams of parity, India must reconcile itself to a subaltern status vis-à-vis China.
In a novel explanation of China’s conduct, American scholar John Garver has termed it an “autistic state”. The analogy refers to an individual whose delusions and fantasies prevent him from comprehending the motivations and emotions of others due to this neurological disorder. For example, there is firm conviction in China that the root causes of the 1962 conflict were India’s “forward policy” and its putative ambition to seize Tibet.
There is also evidence of Chinese schizophrenia. While dismissing India as a weak and effete state, ideologues also vilify it as an ambitious and expansionist power, waiting to avenge its 1962 military defeat. Most irksome to them is India’s “proprietary” attitude towards the Indian Ocean and its growing maritime relations with the US, Japan and Australia.
While China’s self-perception has always been that of a benign and benevolent great power (“Middle Kingdom”), in another example of Freudian self-deception, the Chinese simultaneously nurture a deep-seated “victim mentality” as a relic of China’s subjugation and humiliation by foreign powers during the 19th century. And yet, a strong streak of realism has ensured that China’s post-Civil War leadership retained a crystal clear vision of their aims: Hegemony in Asia, acquisition of nuclear weapons and the incorporation of Tibet into the People’s Republic.
As Indian diplomats and security experts struggle to resolve the manifold “Chinese conundrums”, they need to take note of two strategic realities that emerge from the dramatic growth of PLAN and the creation of the SCS island-fortresses. These bases can be used to forward-deploy ships, aircraft and missiles to threaten US or other naval forces, and such deployments could extend the operational range of PLAN surface and air forces by as much as 600-900 miles.
This is also the distance by which the Chinese are now closer to India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands. While Port Blair is 900 miles from Chennai, it happens to be 1,900 miles from the Fiery Cross reef, via the Malacca Strait. In the near future, when PLAN is the world’s second most powerful navy, it may feel confident enough to contemplate a re-enactment of 1962 in the Bay of Bengal to cut India down to size again. How prepared would our political leadership and the armed forces be to react against a PLAN amphibious assault, on the Andamans, supported by one or more aircraft carriers?
This may, indeed, sound far-fetched, but so did Pearl Harbour in 1941 and Namka Chu in 1962. We too will soon have a robust and modern navy at sea, but without a national security doctrine or strategy, will we know how to use it as an instrument of state policy?