In a demonstration of its operational reach and commitment to the ‘Look East-Act East’ policy, a formidable armada of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet steamed out of its base at Visakhapatnam on 18 May for a two-and-a-half month-long deployment to the highly sensitive South China Sea and its littoral.
The South China Sea has emerged as a flashpoint in the Asia-Pacific, with China’s claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China and East China seas, thus sparking disputes with its neighbours such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. The Indian Navy affirms that, in addition to showing the Flag in this “region of vital strategic importance to India”, its Eastern Fleet squadron will participate in the trilateral maritime exercise of Malabar-16 with the US Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force during its deployment. The squadron will also make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Sasebo in Japan, Busan in South Korea, Port Klang in Malaysia, and Vladivostok in Russia.
The deployment comprises the indigenously built guided missile stealth frigates, INS Satpura and INS Sahyadri, fleet support ship INS Shakti, and an indigenous guided missile corvette, INS Kirch. These ships will also conduct PASSEX (passing exercise) with each of the host navies, the aim being to strengthen bilateral ties and enhance naval inter-operability. China’s military posturing challenges the United States, which has been a Pacific power for more than two centuries ever since its Corps of Discovery sailed down the Columbia River to the Pacific Northwest in 1805. Today, the US Pacific Command’s (USPACOM) area of responsibility (AOR) covers more of the globe than any of the other five geographic combatant commands of the US.
Its AOR oversees US Forces Korea, US Forces Japan, US Special Operations Command Pacific, US Pacific Fleet, US Marine Forces Pacific, US Pacific Air Forces and US Army Pacific. USPACOM pronounces that with the US’s allies and partners, it stands “committed to enhancing stability in the Asia-Pacific region by promoting security cooperation, encouraging peaceful development, responding to contingencies, deterring aggression, and, when necessary, fighting to win.”
China is as intent on asserting its role in the region, as this energy-hungry, export-driven, economy that is heavily reliant on raw material and fuel imports seeks to buttress its suzerainty over the regional Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) that are critical to the survival of the entire Asia-Pacific community. Of late, it has been creating islands and militarizing them to further its access to marine resources, and it has been extending its blue-water presence through the establishment of a major surface fleet and nuclear-submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea and through deploying precision cruise and advanced ballistic missiles that can target all current US bases and naval forces in the region. However, in a move that Beijing views as an American attempt to curb Chinese influence across the region and embolden countries to defy China on the maritime disputes, Washington is pursuing its policy of “pivot”. Also termed “rebalance”, the strategy enunciates the relocation of 60 per cent of the US’s naval assets – up from 50 per cent today – to the Asia-Pacific region by 2020.
It is as part of this plan that the US is keen on leveraging its strategic partnership with India to enlist this growing Asian economic, military and geopolitical power for establishing a balance of power in the larger Indo-Pacific domain. Barack Obama, the first American President to have visited India twice during his tenure, has committed to forging deeper cooperation with India which he calls a 21st century centre of influence. He believes that with India assuming its rightful place in world, the two countries have a historic opportunity to make their relationship “a defining partnership of the century ahead”.
Deepening Indo-US ties further will be the purpose of Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington on 7 and 8 June, his fourth in two years, the Indian Prime Minister not having gone so many times to any other country. In his meeting with visiting US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter in New Delhi in April, Modi had underscored the strategic significance of bilateral defence ties and also set priorities to further implement the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Regions. He had termed the ‘vision’ as one reflecting the growing strategic convergence between the US ‘rebalance’ and India’s ‘Look East-Act East’ policy, which seeks to intensify New Delhi’s role in an Asia that is the epicentre of the historic transformation of the world today. “As strategic interests continue to converge in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions, both President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have highlighted maritime security as a key area of cooperation,” notes the ‘vision’ charter. “Naval engagements, such as the bilateral Malabar exercise, improve the cooperation of US and Indian maritime forces and contribute to both sides’ ability to counter threats at sea, from piracy to violent extremism; these engagements also present opportunities to engage with other partners.”
The return of the Asia-Pacific to the centre of world affairs has been the great power shift of the 21st century. This century will undoubtedly be shaped by events transpiring in this vital region that embraces the Pacific, the largest and deepest ocean basin covering over 155 million sq km and straddling 30.5 per cent of the Earth’s surface. This expansive region had till lately enjoyed general peace and prosperity for 70 years since World War II.
Half the world’s yearly maritime trade worth USD 5 trillion traverses this economically integrated region that spans some of the busiest international sea lines and nine of the 10 largest ports. Its 4.2 billion inhabitants speak over 3,000 different languages and constitute 61 per cent of the global population. The 36 regional nations they dwell in constitute two of the three largest economies as well as 10 of the 14 smallest.
These nations also have seven of the world’s 10 largest standing militaries and five of the world’s declared nuclear states. Five of the nations are allied with the US through mutual defence treaties. The Asia-Pacific also holds dense fishing grounds and potentially enormous oil and natural gas reserves, though at present it is a net importer of fossil fuels.
China is also keen on furthering its interests in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) under the framework of its Maritime Silk Route (MSR) that entails the development of a string of ports, essentially encircling India, such as Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, the Hambantota and Colombo Port City projects in Sri Lanka, and Gwadar in Pakistan, apart from a military logistics base in Djibouti to apparently service its warships engaged in counter-piracy operations near the Gulf of Aden.
India’s vast coastline of 7,615 km abuts the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and one of its island enclaves, Andaman & Nicobar, is closer to Myanmar and Thailand than to the Indian mainland. With 66 per cent of global oil, 50 per cent of the global container traffic and 33 per cent of global cargo trade passing through the IOR, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to the west to the Malacca Straits in the east, the Indian Navy is tasked with securing the sea lines for the global maritime movement.
India finds a dire need to keep pace with developments in its littoral, with the steady build-up in undersea combat capabilities by Pakistan to its west and by China to its east and south, both neighbours with which it has been at war in the past. With one of the largest fleets of attack submarines comprising four ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and 53 diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), China is close to deploying a powerful sea-based nuclear deterrent through long-range nuclear-armed submarines.
Five Type 094 Jin Class SSBNs may eventually be built, each armed with 12 JL-2 missiles that can deliver one-tonne nuclear warheads at a range of 4,320 nautical miles (8,000 km). In an unprecedented move last year, China sent a new Type 093 Shang class fast attack nuclear submarine on a three-month mission across the Indian Ocean. China’s claim of engaging in an anti-piracy mission off the Somali coast was contested by New Delhi, which argued that no country uses nuclear submarines to combat pirates.
It was, however, a choreographed presence by China to validate its interests in the IOR through which it declares that it transports USD 1.5 trillion worth of goods, including petroleum. The Indian Ocean accounts for half the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of its petroleum shipments, according to a recent US Naval War College study which also notes that the IOR has replaced the North Atlantic as the central artery of world commerce.
The presence of Chinese submarines at the Colombo and Karachi ports too have sparked concerns in India, even as China’s new military strategy envisages, for the first time, “open seas protection” far from its shores. China is also selling submarines to both Pakistan and Bangladesh. In a deal worth USD 5 billion, Beijing will sell four modified Type 41 Yuan Class SSKs to Islamabad and transfer technology for the construction of four more at the Karachi port.
The Pakistan Navy already operates five French submarines, three of them Agosta 90Bs (Khalid Class) purchased in the 1990s and two older Agosta 70s (Hashmat Class) from the late 1970s. Two Type 035G Ming Class SSKs worth USD 203.3 million will be delivered by China to Bangladesh by 2019. A base is being established for these first submarines for the Bangladesh Navy that will enable the service to emerge as a ‘three-dimensional’ force.
After ceding influence to the Chinese in Sri Lanka on the development of both the USD 1.4 billion Colombo Port City and the USD 1.7 billion seaport and airport at Hambantota, India wrested the prized contract for developing the strategic Chabahar port in Iran during Modi’s visit to Tehran on 22 May. The Prime Minister’s path breaking deal, coming barely five months after the US and the European Union lifted economic sanctions on Iran, entails an Indian investment of USD 500 million on the project, with the option to spend an additional USD 16 billion on the Chabahar free trade zone.
Chabahar port, located barely 72 km from Pakistan’s deep-sea Gwadar port, which is the centrepiece of a USD 46 billion economic corridor that China is building, will be critical to Indian power projection into Central Asia and beyond. The port presents an energy and trade gateway for India through Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and even Russia. Curiously, Russia and China had strengthened their presence in Iran when it was under Western sanctions, but Tehran is now keen on diversifying its international partnerships.
China, in fact, had been keen on developing Chabahar port and had sent a delegation there recently to explore all opportunities, with both countries having cited port development as an area of high collaboration during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Iran in January.
Beijing was also affronted by the first ever trilateral dialogue hosted last June by India with Japan and Australia to discuss maritime security and freedom of navigation. The US desires to join this group, with USPACOM Commander, Admiral Harry B. Harris, stating during his India visit in March that Washington’s addition into this dialogue would underscore unity of the four countries, or “quad” as he termed them.
India conducts more military exercises with the US than with any other country and is participating this year in two that are being held there, including RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific), the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise, and Red Flag, the US Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat training exercise with its allies. The US, in turn, had participated in the International Fleet Review of the Indian Navy at Visakhapatnam in February. The visiting Chief of US Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, had reported good progress in talks on the joint development of India’s next-generation aircraft carrier. This, potentially the biggest military collaboration between the two countries, would involve the design and construction of a carrier with combat capabilities superior to its Chinese counterparts. New Delhi is aware of Washington’s keenness to marshal India as the power that can tilt the strategic balance in Asia. As a regional power, India views the IOR as its theatre of influence, just as China is seeking a similar role in the Western Pacific. Ultimately, the strategic interaction between the three countries will define the nature of maritime influence in the Indo-Pacific.