Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?

Can Indian Navy ships approach Chinese-flagged merchant ships near choke-points & take a good, hard look at them?

Updated
Opinion
7 min read
Archival image of INS Jalashwa, and India and China’s flags (in the background) used for representational purposes.
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Even as most of the world remains traumatised by the coronavirus pandemic and deeply preoccupied in coping with its devastating economic and public-health consequences, China has seen it fit to light a number of simultaneous fires, world-wide.

Having antagonised America over its irresponsible conduct in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, China’s renewed belligerence in the East and South China Seas (SCS) has set off alarm-bells in Japan and Taiwan, as well as amongst many ASEAN nations.

While analysts are still trying to fathom the motivation underpinning China’s seemingly irrational conduct, India was surprised and dismayed to find, in early-May, that its northern border had come alive, with troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed all along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh.

Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?

The resultant confrontation between the two armies came to a head on 15 June 2020, when a savage hand-to-hand encounter took place on the Galwan river, with heavy casualties on both sides.

India’s Maritime Leverage

Commercial satellite imagery appears to indicate that the Chinese have occupied positions as per their own interpretation of the LAC along the Galwan river, on the banks of Pangong Tso lake and in the Depsang plain.

Given that this grave border crisis has been deliberately precipitated by China with hegemonic intent, an early resolution seems unlikely.

Assuming that neither country wants a full-scale conflict, we must steel ourselves for a prolonged and tense confrontation. A resolution can emerge only from serious negotiations, whose main objective should be conversion of the LAC into a mutually agreed border.

Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?

In order to negotiate from a position of reasonable strength, one hopes that Indian diplomats, apart from leveraging India’s ‘comprehensive national power’, will bring an all-inclusive package to the table.

This package must include issues such as bilateral-trade and economic relations, the Tibetan government-in-exile, China’s conduct in the South China Sea, the internment of the Muslim-minority Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Taiwan's independence, and autonomy of Hong Kong, amongst others.

This article is about another issue, however – India’s maritime leverage – that does not receive due importance in our security calculus, but could add some weight to India’s negotiating position vis-à-vis China.

Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?
Snapshot
  • India’s maritime leverage does not receive due importance in our security calculus, but could add some weight to India’s negotiating position vis-à-vis China.
  • The roots of former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s foreboding lay in the total dependence of China’s booming economy on foreign trade, which was, and remains, overwhelmingly sea-borne.
  • Annually, hundreds of Chinese-flagged oil-tankers, gas-carriers, container ships and bulk-carriers sail past India’s doorstep.
  • Any disruption of this traffic is bound to have an adverse impact on China’s trade, industry and economy as well as social stability, with consequences for the ruling Communist Party.
  • Is it possible for the Indian Navy ships to approach Chinese-flagged merchant ships near choke-points or on the high-seas, and take a good hard look at them?

Throwback to Deng Xiaoping’s Radical Economic Reforms

To put the issue into perspective, we need to hark back to the turn of the century, when Deng Xiaoping’s radical economic reforms were rapidly transforming China into an industrial powerhouse and major trading nation. Realisation had begun to dawn on China’s ruling elite that the country was absolutely dependent on seaborne trade for its growing prosperity. It was at this point, in 2001, that India constituted the Tri-Service Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), which seemed ideally located to dominate the Bay of Bengal, the Malacca Strait and maritime SE Asia.

Such was the impact of this development, that in 2003, President Hu Jintao declared his apprehensions, about “certain major powers,” being bent on controlling the Malacca Strait, and called for the adoption of mitigating strategies against this vulnerability.

Terming it as China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’, PLA strategists went to the extent of likening the Andaman & Nicobar Islands to a ‘metal chain’ which could block the passage to and from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean.

Dependence Of China’s Booming Economy On Foreign Trade, Which Remains Sea-Borne

The roots of Hu Jintao’s foreboding lay in the total dependence of China’s booming economy on foreign trade, which was, and remains, overwhelmingly sea-borne. Whether it is import of oil and natural gas, minerals and food-stuff or export of manufactured goods, they are all carried by merchant ships that ply along international sea-lanes of communication (SLOC).

Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?

Annually, hundreds of Chinese-flagged oil-tankers, gas-carriers, container ships and bulk-carriers sail along Indian Ocean SLOCs, past India’s doorstep.

Any disruption of this traffic is bound to have an adverse impact on China’s trade, industry and economy as well as social stability, with consequences for the ruling Communist Party.

Almost simultaneously with their articulation of concerns about the Malacca Dilemma and SLOC safety, China’s leadership resolved that the country should become a ‘maritime great-power.’ In an amazingly short span of about two decades, China attained the status of a genuine maritime power; with the PLA Navy (PLAN) becoming the 2nd largest in the world. This has accorded China a dominant position in the SCS, permitting it to implement its ‘9-dash line’ and other agendas with impunity.

But the same does not hold true for the Indian Ocean, because of the ‘tyranny of distance.’

An oil tanker sailing from Kuwait, across the Indian Ocean, via Malacca takes about three weeks to traverse 13,000 km, to Shanghai, while a PLAN warship, sailing from the nearby base of Hainan would take 12 days to reach Indian waters after running the gauntlet of the Andamans.

The Indian peninsula looms large over the Indian Ocean and PLAN units would be vulnerable to Indian airborne, missile and submarine threats, even if supported by an aircraft carrier.

Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?

What Is ‘Commerce Raiding’ & Why Is It A Feasible Strategy During Wartime?

Given this vulnerability, there is a school of thought which considers that the Indian Ocean SLOCs constitute China’s ‘jugular vein’ which India must threaten, to exert pressure on the former.

There is, however, a catch here. ‘Commerce raiding’ is a feasible strategy during wartime, and once hostilities commence, belligerents may declare a naval ‘blockade’ against the enemy – denying entry and exit to all merchant shipping from the latter’s ports.

Laws of naval warfare also allow both belligerent parties to ‘visit and search’ an enemy or neutral vessel to determine the character of the ship or its cargo.

In peacetime, however, a different set of rules apply – stopping and boarding of a foreign-flagged merchant ship, on the high-seas requires permission of the flag-state or ship’s Master. A ‘non-compliant’ boarding is however, feasible in certain cases, including failure to comply with the warship’s directions, suspicious conduct, flying a false flag or not flying a flag. If all else fails, the ‘doctrine of necessity’ can be invoked by a warship (or submarine) to board and search a merchant ship.

Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?

Can Indian Navy Ships Approach Chinese-Flagged Merchant Ships Near ‘Choke-Points’?

Is it then, possible, for the Indian Navy (or preferably, the Indian Coast Guard) ships to approach Chinese-flagged merchant ships near choke-points or on the high-seas, and take a good hard look at them from close quarters? Or going a step further, could they ask the Master to stop and allow boarding and inspection of the ship’s cargo?

Why Isn’t India Using Its ‘Maritime Leverage’ Against China?

It may be feasible, but would it not be violative of international law? Perhaps it would.

But then China is not a law-abiding nation. When they protest, it would be opportune for us to remind China’s leadership of their disdainful rejection of the Court of Arbitration’s verdict in the South China Sea, of its illegal violations of the LAC on India’s northern borders, and of the treacherous and barbaric assault on our soldiers on 15 June 2020.

(Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) has formerly been Chief of the Naval Staff of the Indian Navy, and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. He tweets @arunp2810. 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.)

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