Naval Commanders' Conference: Can India Deal With Increasing Chinese Maritime Threat?

Multiple nations share India's apprehensions about China's rise as a naval power in the Indian Ocean Region
Naval Commanders' Conference: Can India Deal With Increasing Chinese Maritime Threat?

The Indian Navy kicked off its second Naval Commanders’ Conference in New Delhi on October 31. The high-level conference, which concludes on November 3, will focus on Chinese maritime activities among other issues. The Ministry of Defence has said that the conference is very significant due to the dynamic and fast-paced developments in security imperatives in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).  

The geostrategic environment of the IOR has been one of the Indian Navy's key concerns. In September, Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar stated that an aggressive and expansionist China presents a formidable challenge for India in the region. He said, “At any point, we have anything between five to eight Chinese Navy units, be it warships or research vessels, and a host of Chinese fishing vessels operating in the IOR. We keep an eye on them and see how they are undertaking their activities in the IOR”.

India's Interests And The Chinese Challenge

The IOR, which includes West Asia and the eastern coast of Africa, in addition to South Asia, is a significant region of interest for the Indian Navy. More than 70 per cent of the country's imports and exports pass through sea lanes in this region. The Indian Navy also plays a key role in conducting anti-piracy operations off the eastern African coast.  

However, China is known to utilise its anti-piracy operations as a diversionary tactic to simultaneously conduct nefarious activities on the high seas.  The steady rise of an aggressive Chinese naval presence in the IOR is a serious threat to India's vital security interests. There have been a few recent incidents in the IOR that acted as a Chinese show of strength aimed at the Indian defence establishment. Some of them had to do with Chinese involvement at a port in Sri Lanka.
India's island neighbour has maintained bilateral ties with China on a wide range of issues, much of which involve Chinese debt financing. As the country found itself in economic turmoil recently, China has found it easy to leverage the situation to further their geopolitical interests. Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, financed by Chinese loans, is now being managed by the Chinese state-run company China Merchants Port Holdings under a 99-year lease. China's involvement at the port means they can now monitor and ultimately control the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.   

In August, a Chinese ship 'Yuan Wang 5' docked at the strategically critical Sri Lankan port amid opposition from India and the US. It is a signals intelligence (SIGINT) ship, commonly known as a 'spy ship'. With its SIGINT feature having an electronic range of 750kms, it can monitor a vast swathe of the IOR. Yuan Wang 5 is operated by China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF), the branch of the Chinese Armed Forces that tracks satellites and intercontinental ballistic missile launches.  

The presence of the vessel in India’s maritime neighbourhood was a strategic threat as it could and would have collected various electronic signatures from India’s army, air and naval bases; military communications; Strategic Forces Command (nuclear command); and various missile tests.  

It is not that China's aggressive posturing in the IOR has gone unnoticed by New Delhi. The Indian Navy has been making strategic moves reflecting India's view to push for a rules-based order in the region.

Indian Moves In The IOR

To counter Chinese naval incursions in the IOR, the Indian Navy often deploys submarines like the Indian Naval Ship (INS) Vela on long-duration deterrence patrols. It is a diesel-electric attack submarine that has just completed a successful eight-month deployment to the IOR and returned on October 15, as announced by the MoD.

Additionally, India made a strong statement to China when it launched the 750-km range K-15 ‘Sagarika’ ballistic missile on October 14. This was launched from INS Arihant, India's first indigenous nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine. When asked how could the Chinese respond to this launch, Jabin T. Jacob, Associate Professor in Shiv Nadar University’s Department of International Relations and Governance Studies suggests that China would likely have a generic response. He said, “I think the Chinese will respond officially with boilerplate saying that regional peace and stability must not be disturbed but also indirectly hint that the Americans and their partners are out to contain China.”

Jacob added that the test would not faze China on the ground in terms of stamping its authority in the IOR. The state is determined to become the top Asian power, unafraid of demonstrating its intent through territorial and littoral provocations in the IOR to keep India on tenterhooks. This is not India's concern alone, as China's aggressive acts in the IOR are looked down upon by several other states, including Australia, US and many ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries who have their own vested interests in the IOR.  

Multilateral Manoeuvres

When it comes to military diplomacy in the naval arena, the Indian Navy is participating in exercises with Japan, Australia, the US, Singapore, Malaysia Indonesia, Tanzania and Mozambique. This is New Delhi's signal that it will challenge China's IOR activities with the help of like-minded countries interested in adhering to the rules-based international order. Just last week, India concluded the India-Mozambique-Tanzania Trilateral maritime exercise, marking its strong presence off the eastern African coast.
When it comes to the South China Sea which falls under the greater IOR, China has more or less been attempting to claim sovereignty over it. This does not sit well with many of the ASEAN states like Vietnam, Brunei and Philippines. Even India has serious concerns over this because nearly 55% of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region passes through these sea lanes, as pointed out by Harsh V Pant, Vice President of Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation. He adds that it is India's primary interest to keep these trade routes safe and ensure regional stability and freedom of navigation.  

Rear Admiral Jonathan Earley, the Commander of the Australian Fleet, who is currently in India as part of the Indo-Pacific Endeavour, said that India and Australia are increasing their military partnership across the Indian Ocean to combat “big power muscle movements”. Again, this was a veiled reference to China's growing ambitions in the IOR.
It is evident that many powers share India's apprehensions about China's rise as a naval power in the Indian Ocean. As such, several nations and power blocs such as the 'Quad' find it necessary to undertake collaborative measures to ensure security, stability and freedom of trade in the region.   

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