The Indian Navy has stepped up surveillance and activities in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which, it believes, China will “inevitably” try to enter in its quest to become a global power, just as it has laid claim to large portions of the disputed South China Sea, according to a top officer aware of the developments.
It is to deal with this scenario that India reached out to neighbours in IOR — Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar, to prevent China from expanding its footprint in the region by creating more bases — and like-minded navies, such as those of the United States and Japan, over the last two months, he added.
“It is inevitable that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) will come to IOR if China wants to become a global power. They are opening multiple routes to the Indian Ocean to overcome the Malacca Dilemma (China’s strategic weakness),” the officer said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
The comments come at a time when there are heightened military tensions in eastern Ladakh — where Indian and Chinese forces are locked in a tense border confrontation and disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has turned out to be a challenging process — and China is militarising the South China Sea.
The Malacca Dilemma refers to China’s apprehension of major naval powers controlling the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia and interdicting vital supply lines. A significant volume (more than 80%) of China’s oil imports pass through the strait connecting the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
The multiple routes that China could be looking at to enter the Indian Ocean are further south of Malacca and include the Sunda, Lombok, Ombai and Wetar straits, said a second Indian Navy officer who asked not to be named.
“It’s a reality that the PLAN will deploy in the Indian Ocean once its power crosses a certain threshold. Right now, it’s good enough for the South China Sea,” said Admiral Arun Prakash (retd), a former navy chief.
India is keeping tabs on China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and taking steps to ensure that the Chinese navy doesn’t muscle its way into the Indian Ocean where combat-ready Indian warships are carrying out round-the-clock surveillance for any unusual activity, said the first officer.
Over the last one month, the navy has conducted joint drills with a US Navy carrier strike group, led by USS Nimitz, and Indian and Japanese warships have carried out exercises in the Indian Ocean, against the backdrop of the India-China border standoff in Ladakh.
The India-US exercise involving eight Indian and US warships took place a week ago at a time when tensions have mounted over China’s activities in South China Sea, where the US Navy recently conducted a major exercise that involved two carrier strike groups.
From carrying out naval drills with like-minded countries to reaching out to states in the Indian Ocean region, the Indian Navy is focusing on checking China’s rising ambitions in the region and sending out a strong message that Beijing’s power play in South China Sea cannot be replicated in the Indian Ocean.
“China is claiming almost 90% of the South China Sea. We don’t want that scenario unfolding in the Indian Ocean. We will not allow China to have it easy coming here,” said the second officer.
China’s step-by-step inroads into “territorialising” the South China Sea find echoes in some parts of IOR, not by trumped up claims because that would be blatant neo-colonialism but with more sophistication, said naval affairs expert Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande (retd)
“Its (China’s) diplomacy and economic influence when combined with port investments, logistics bases, all of which could be for dual-use and their sustained deployments in the IOR, are of serious concern,” Shrikhande said.
The stage is also set for Australia to be part of the next Malabar naval exercise conducted by India with the US and Japan, as reported by Hindustan Times on July 17. The next edition of Malabar, already delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, is set to be held by the end of the year.
China has also been wary of the Quadrilateral security dialogue, or Quad, that was revived in late 2017 by India, the US, Australia and Japan, and these suspicions have increased since the four countries upgraded the forum to the ministerial level last year.
“We are already operating with these navies. We don’t need time to put the Quad into effect if the government gives us the go-ahead… It’s not that we are aligning with the US. Our actions are guided by national interest and what you see unfolding is issue-based convergence of interests,” said the first officer.
China began deploying troops to its first overseas naval base at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in July 2017, in what some global experts said was the outcome of Beijing’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. Mounting debts have led countries such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Pakistan to give control of territories, which are of strategic significance, to China.
The base in Djibouti has shored up China’s capabilities to sustain naval units in the Indian Ocean.
“In recent months, with much of the world preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic, China has sharply escalated its coercive activities. In early April, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel sank a Vietnamese fishing boat close to islands claimed by both China and Vietnam. A Chinese marine survey vessel harassed a Malaysian oil exploration vessel off Borneo. This month, the [US] department of defense voiced concern about the Chinese navy’s decision to seal off an area around the Paracel Islands to conduct naval exercises. In response, the United States increased its own naval activities, including joint exercises by two aircraft carrier groups,” the New York Times said in an editorial on Monday.
The Indian Navy has been on an operational alert in the Indian Ocean where scores of warships are ready for any task in the aftermath of the border row. It has positioned warships along critical sea lanes of communications and choke points and the vessels could be diverted for any mission.
Indian warships are deployed from as far as the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait and northern Bay of Bengal to the southeast coast of Africa.
While the Indian Navy is keeping a sharp eye on the Indian Ocean, it is also playing a key role in the Ladakh sector.
The navy’s P-8I maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft, imported from the US, are being used for surveillance of the Ladakh sector and gathering intelligence on Chinese deployments across the contested LAC.
The primary role of the P-8Is encompasses carrying out anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of the oceans.