For the last decade at least, strategic commentators have advocated that India’s continental power asymmetry with China – which uses intrusions as an instrument of coercive diplomacy and refuses to either delineate the Line of Actual Control (LAC) or settle the boundary question – can be offset by exploiting its maritime superiority against Chinese sea-going assets in the east Indian Ocean.
India has shied away from exploring this ready option in deference to the Wuhan and Mamallapuram spirit and overall, to keep the China front quiet in order to buy time to make up the power gap. New Delhi’s more recent obsession to fix Islamabad, rather than decouple it from Beijing, has left it between the devil and the deep sea.
It is the ‘sea dimension’ that provides a window of diminishing opportunity, as China’s People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is fast developing into a blue-water navy, which has already asserted its maritime superiority in South China Sea. It’s about 5 years before it shows its flag in Indian Ocean.
What Are Indian Navy’s Options In Malacca?
The Indian Ocean covers about 20 percent of the world’s surface. It is the third largest of the world’s five oceans. The Indian Ocean Rim countries together have a population estimated at 2.6 bn or 40 percent of the world’s population. 50 percent of the world’s container traffic plies across the Indian Ocean, and ports in the Indian Ocean handle about 30 percent of global trade.
Approximately 70 percent of the world’s sea-borne oil trade transits the Indian Ocean. Roughly 60 percent of oil reserves and 40 percent of gas reserves are known to be in the Indian Ocean.
In a recent address, the Chief of Naval Staff Adm Karambir Singh, responding to a question on the Indian Navy’s options in the Malacca Straits to relieve pressure on the northern land border, replied that these have been indicated to the government – and certainly not for the first time.
In December 2019, during the Navy Day commemoration, he said that any time, 7 to 8 Chinese warships are lurking in the Indian Ocean, adding that they are making their debut after 400 years.
The 2019 China Defence White Paper places priority on PLAN, and its budget this fiscal is more than India’s defence budget of USD 57 billion.
Admiral Singh said that China is becoming an ‘un-resident naval power’ in the Indian Ocean, where India is the first responder and preferred security partner.
- New Delhi’s more recent obsession to fix Islamabad, rather than decouple it from Beijing, has left it between the devil and the deep sea.
- The Straits of Malacca has been mentioned for many years as a tricky passage offering ‘operational outcomes’ but not tested so far.
- Blunting PLAN’s influence is a key objective of the Indian Navy, and controlling key choke points an adjunct.
- Chinese maritime research and survey ships have been interdicted in the Bay of Bengal, carrying out surface and sub-surface activities to discover vital maritime domain data of military use.
- Clandestine maritime activities are designed to ensure there is no disruption to China’s oil trade from the middle east passing through Malacca Straits.
- A Chinese think tank said in 2004: “It is no exaggeration that whoever controls the Straits of Malacca will have a stranglehold on energy route to China.”
- It is apparent that the control of the Straits of Malacca is within grasp – either singly or in concert with the US. Its active control will send a powerful signal to China.
China Has Been Increasingly Sending More Survey Vessels Escorted By Warships
Blunting PLAN’s influence is a key objective of the Indian Navy, and controlling key choke points an adjunct.
The Straits of Malacca has been mentioned for many years as a tricky passage offering ‘operational outcomes’ but not tested so far. China has secured overseas bases at Djibouti in Horn of Africa and naval turnaround facilities in Karachi and soon probably at Gwadar too. It has access to Hambantota and Colombo ports, and is negotiating replenishment facilities with Seychelles.
One million Chinese live and work out of Africa, which is the source of strategic minerals for China. At any one time, nearly 300 deep sea fishing vehicles are known to operate in the Arabian Sea.
In 2019, the Indian Navy chased away Chinese naval vessel Shin Yang 1, snooping close to Andaman and Nicobar islands. Chinese maritime research and survey ships have been interdicted in the Bay of Bengal, carrying out surface and sub-surface activities to discover vital maritime domain data of military use.
China is sending, with increased frequency, survey vessels escorted by warships, for obtaining operational statistics by launching underwater drones.
The Xiang Yang Hong survey ship was operating in 2019 near Australia, and locating routes that Canberra uses for its trade through the Lombok and Sunda Straits in Indonesia to the South China Sea. These straits are ideal for passage of submarines. This same ship was detected in the Bay of Bengal earlier in 2020.
These clandestine maritime activities are designed to ensure there is no disruption to China’s oil trade from the middle east passing through Malacca Straits.
Geo-Strategic Importance Of Malacca Straits
The phrase ‘Malacca Dilemma’ was invented by Chinese President Hu Jintao in November 2003, in a speech to Communist cadres.
He said that 80 percent of China’s trade, including oil imports, passes through the Malacca Straits, and that ‘certain powers’ have tried to control navigation through the straits.
The Malacca Straits are a shallow, narrow and the shortest waterway linking the Indian Ocean with South China Sea. At some places, it is just 23 metres deep, and at its choke point, the navigable channel is about 2 km wide. It is one of the most congested waterways in the world, with approximately 75,000 ships – including oil tankers – that navigate through the Straits annually.
China, therefore, observes with extreme care, the naval Malabar series of exercises that India holds with US and Japan. Beijing wishes to control the eastern mouth of the Malacca Straits. It has engaged the Sultan of Malacca for some time now. An alternative to Malacca Straits has been on the cards: Kra Isthmus Canal across Thailand but it is beset with cost and technical problems.
‘Whoever Controls Straits of Malacca Will Have a Stranglehold On Energy Route to China’
A Chinese think-tank said in 2004: “It is no exaggeration that whoever controls the Straits of Malacca will have a stranglehold on energy route to China.” It referred to India’s control of the Indian Ocean and considered it a deterrent – either singly or jointly – to China’s passage through the Straits.
In 2003, during the Iraq war, Indian warships escorted US vessels through the Malacca Straits. In case the Straits are blockaded, the Chinese ships would have to sail an additional four to five days to find safe passage through dangerous waters. The Chinese, therefore, have sought oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia to Xinjiang; from Russian East Siberia; through the Myanmarese port at Kyaukpyu to Yunnan and eventually across the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from Gwadar port.
Deeply aware of vulnerabilities, the Chinese have enhanced their capacities for strategic oil reserves from 45 to 90 days, though the precise quantity is classified.
A countervailing strategy to create alternate pressure points on China, in order to relieve pressure on Ladakh, is currently being debated. Sending warships to the South China Sea, to operate in concert with a coalition of democracies is one idea; the other is to concentrate in the eastern Indian Ocean, India’s natural habitat and area of strength.
Former Chief of Naval Staff, Adm Sunil Lamba, was not very enthused about operating in the South China Sea, especially any joint patrolling with US Navy from the Indo-Pacific Command. Instead, he was of the view that the Indian Navy must focus its assets and capabilities in the Indian Ocean.
Is Control Over Straits of Malacca Within India’s Grasp?
In 1988, India had considered activating a World War-II air-strip in Campbell Bay in the southernmost island of Great Nicobar – its southernmost tip being Indira Point. But Indonesia raised objections, and at the time, a militarily powerful India, spending an unprecedented 4 percent of its GDP on defence, deferred the plan.
Now India has created INS Baaz, which is India’s southern-most base in the Andaman and Nicobar island chain, just 80 nautical miles from Malacca Straits. The Navy has been advocating extending the 3,000 feet air strip at INS Baaz to a 10,000 feet runway – that would allow modern fighters to operate and reach Malacca Straits in a jiffy.
It is apparent that the control of the Straits of Malacca is within grasp – either singly or in concert with the US. Its active control will send a powerful signal to China.
The Indian Navy remembers how in 2013, a Chinese naval ship buzzed the INS Airavat, which was on a goodwill mission to a Vietnamese port. The time has come to consider implementing the Indian Navy’s plans to invoke President Hu Jintao’s ‘dilemma’.
(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. He is a former Maj Gen from the Gorkha Regiment of Indian Army, and was in Nepal in November/December 2019, and spoke to many Nepali experts on the Kalapani issue. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)