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There’s a clear-eyed vision behind China’s maritime build-up

🔴 Arun Prakash writes: India has neither the economic wherewithal nor the need to compete in a naval arms race with China. But we do need to ensure adequate naval capability to safeguard our vital interests

Written by Arun Prakash |
Updated: December 3, 2021 7:50:33 am
China’s aspiration to become a “maritime great power” is being driven by a clear-eyed vision that goes well beyond the Belt and Road Initiative and its seaward component, the Maritime Silk Road

It would seem that the surprise and indignation expressed by the US on obtaining satellite pictures of construction work on a “secret Chinese military facility” in the UAE port of Khalifa was unwarranted. This is because the importance of overseas bases to support a sea-control navy that guards seaborne trade was emphasised by none other than the American oracle of seapower, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who has a significant following in China’s strategic circles.

China also takes its cue from 18th century Britain. Having been transformed by the industrial revolution into the “workshop of the world”, Britain deployed the Royal Navy to protect the sea lanes so that British goods could find markets worldwide. Britain acquired bases in strategic locations around the globe; from Singapore to Mauritius, Cyprus and Malta and from Gibraltar to the Falklands, Fiji and Hong Kong. As China’s overseas interests grow by leaps and bounds, demanding power-projection capabilities, Beijing, too, focuses on overseas locations that can help it oversee vulnerable Indo-Pacific sea-lanes.

The surprise amongst US (as well as Indian) diplomatic and security establishments may have been even less marked had they paid attention to China’s 2019 Defence White Paper (DWP), which declares that, “Overseas interests are a crucial part of China’s national interests,” and adds, “To address deficiencies in overseas operations and support, China builds far seas forces, develops overseas logistical facilities, and enhances capabilities in accomplishing diversified military tasks.”

On its official founding in May 1950, the PLA Navy (PLAN) was equipped with warships and submarines supplied by the Soviets, who also shaped China’s early maritime outlook. The Soviet doctrine visualised the role of navies, mainly, for guarding the seaward flank of armies and for waging “guerrilla warfare” at sea through submarines.

Signs of China’s “maritime awakening” started emerging when the 2006 DWP expanded the PLAN’s responsibilities to embrace “…integrated offshore operations, strategic deterrence, and to gradually develop its capabilities of conducting cooperation in far seas”. While successive Communist party leaders had been advocating modernisation and enhancement in PLAN’s capabilities, General Secretary Hu Jintao startled western analysts by declaring, at the 2012 Party Congress, that China aimed to become not just a maritime power but “a maritime great power”.

It is now clear that this was a well-considered and strategic objective, driven as much by China’s growing dependence on the seas for trade and energy-driven economic growth as by its ambitions for territorial aggrandisement and global status. China’s shipbuilding industry, run on the socialist model till the 1990s had remained technologically-backward, and shown abysmally low productivity. Noting the giant strides made by Japan and South Korea in shipbuilding, China embarked on a crash-programme of modernisation and corporatisation of this sector.

Having designated shipbuilding a “strategic industry”, China had by 2010 become the world leader in shipbuilding. China’s emphasis on “civil-military integration” ensured that the boom in merchant shipbuilding — and the availability of large, modern shipyards and skilled manpower — directly benefitted its naval programmes. Even as we derive justifiable satisfaction from the delivery by Mazagon Docks of a modern destroyer and a submarine, in the same week, our shipbuilders will need to set the bar much higher.

Tangible examples of China’s shipbuilding prowess are: The commissioning of its first homebuilt aircraft carrier, the Shandong, in four years flat and the “assembly-line” delivery of 30 Type-54A frigates within weeks of each other in 24 months. By way of contrast, India’s indigenous aircraft carrier was 12 years under construction and a frigate/destroyer takes, on average, 7-9 years to build. These lengthy build-periods are attributable, largely, to the significant import content of our ships — the siren song of “atmanirbharta” notwithstanding.

China’s aspiration to become a “maritime great power” is being driven by a clear-eyed vision that goes well beyond the Belt and Road Initiative and its seaward component, the Maritime Silk Road. According to the Pentagon’s 2021 China Military Power Report, the PLAN has “a battle force of approximately 355 platforms, including major surface combatants, submarines, aircraft carriers, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare ships, and fleet auxiliaries.” This force already outstrips the US Navy and is expected to grow to 460 ships by 2030 — vastly exceeding every estimate.

As we reflect on India’s response to China’s maritime rise, let us note historian K M Panikkar’s observation that the arrival of Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama off Calicut in 1498 “marked the beginning of four centuries of domination, by European powers, based on control of the seas,”, simply because no Indian ruler, of that era, was blessed with a maritime vision, much less a navy. Little seems to have changed as we note the irony that our navy has come into the limelight after May 2020, not because of the entreaties of Indian admirals but due to the machinations of Chinese generals.

India has neither the economic and industrial wherewithal nor the need to compete in a naval arms race with China. But we do need to ensure adequate naval capability to safeguard our vital interests: Seaborne trade and energy traffic, as well as marine wealth, present and latent. At the same time, our naval forces should be able to field capabilities (in all three dimensions) to exercise control of the seas where and when we want and to deny their use to hostile powers. Our interests also extend to the security and well-being of our maritime neighbours, and while expediting projects like Chabahar in Iran and Agalega in Mauritius, we must reach out to locations like Madagascar, Comoros and Socotra.

Calls for enhancing the navy’s share of the defence budget from a paltry 12 per cent to at least 18-20 per cent are certainly justified. But, of equal importance, is the formulation of a “National Strategy for Maritime Security” that goes well beyond building a capable “fighting navy” and encompasses the upgradation of the full gamut of India’s maritime capabilities including shipbuilding, merchant shipping, ports, seabed exploration and fisheries. As it stands, India’s failure to bring a sharp focus on maritime capacity-building represents not only an economic “missed opportunity” but also a yawning gap in maritime security.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 3, 2021 under the title ‘China in sea, India at dock’. The writer is retired chief of naval staff.

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