By Ranjit B Rai


New Delhi, 29 July 2005

It is being said that a world war is highly unlikely, as nuclear deterrence, economic interdependence, globalization all mitigate against it. But beneath this calm, there is probably going to be a soft war, a benign competition for power and influence across the globe, besides the threat of Islamic terror. It was Alfred Mahan who had predicted that the destiny of the world in the 21st Century would be decided in the Indian Ocean. His prediction portends to come true since a silent struggle for the control of the Indian Ocean has begun, with the ascendancy and ambitions of the Indian and Chinese navies. 60,000 ships traverse the Malacca Straits annually and the Sea lanes of Control in the Indian Ocean have five strategic choke points at Hormuz, Bab El Madab, Sunda, Lombok and Malacca which if closed or disrupted can throttle the world trade and energy resources, and hold many nations to ransom. Ninety percent of Chinese energy imports pass through the Malacca straits, and Indian Navy as per its doctrine, has set itself the goal to police the Indian Ocean with the littoral powers.

It was in the late 70s at the height of the cold war, the British decided to withdraw their forces west of the Suez. The seminal question that dogged the world was, “Who will fill the vacuum left by the British in the Indian Ocean?“ Some speculated it would be the Indian Navy, which was in an expanding mode supported by the Soviet Navy as India and USSR had a military pact in place and India’s support to Soviet Union was unstinted in the United Nations. That did not come to pass as USA had already established bases in Japan, Korea and Diego Garcia and both the Soviet Union and USA were establishing more bases in the African and Middle East rim. The Soviet Union had officially approached India to set up a base in Vishakapatnam that it was helping build, to base its fishing and intelligence fleet vessels and provide harbour to its ships patrolling the Indian Ocean. India did not concede. The scenario today is much changed with the demise of the cold war and the strategic shift of USA towards India and Japan’s and Asean’s moves, to forge closer strategic links with India.

In January 2005 Washington Times disclosed an internal report prepared for United States Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pointing to an ambitious Chinese plan to extend its maritime and naval influence beyond the South China Sea. The new area of influence encompasses the Indian Ocean with access to the Middle East to project Chinese naval power to safeguard its energy and other shipments. China’s is investing in energy resources in the middle east especially Iran and will need insurance. Benign military presence is the insurance option. As initial “low key” measures China is seeking to use commercial port facilities in the area and afar, to control strategic ocean routes and "choke points." Chinese overtures to Myanmar and Bangla Desh and assistance to these two countries have been in that vein. The long term objective appears to be that of militarily protecting shipping sea lanes. Already a Chinese company with close ties to Beijing's communist rulers holds long-term leases on port facilities at either end of the Panama Canal.


In words of Chinese President Hu Jintao, China faces a "Malacca Dilemma" or the vulnerability of its imported oil supply lines from the Middle East and Africa to possible blockage. In moves that have alarmed Indian intelligence from time to time has been the successful Chinese attempt to turn Myanmar into a “satellite” by developing close ties and military assistance to the military regime. Reports of China having already built up "listening posts" at strategic points, pose challenges and India is now actively wooing Myanmar, and has offered aid to its Navy. Meanwhile at the eastern corner of the Indian subcontinent Bangladesh has been approached for naval and commercial access with China building a container port facility at Chittagong. China signed a military agreement with Cambodia in November 2003 to provide training and equipment while Cambodia is helping Beijing to build a railway line from southern China to the sea for rapid movement of troops and logistics if necessary. In Thailand, China is considering funding construction of a $20 billion canal across the Isthmus of Kra that would allow ships to bypass the Straits of Malacca. The canal project will additionally provide China port facilities, warehouses and other infrastructure in Thailand.


In the energy matrix of the region, Pakistan holds a strategic location as it sits astride the exit from Hormuz, is an Islamic neighbour of Iran and the central Asian pipelines when they are constructed will make Pakistan an ideal export hub. The “high-profile” Gwadar port in the southwest corner of Pakistan built with Chinese assistance next to Iran could well be China's outlet port for oil and gas from Iran and Central Asia. PM Wen Jaiboa when he visited Pakistan in March assured full support to Pakistan to maintain its territorial integrity. He was scheduled to inaugurate the port of Gwadar where many construction projects are expected for housing but security considerations delayed the formal event. Beijing can well set up Electronic Support Measures (ESM) eavesdropping posts at Gwadar capable of monitoring ship traffic through the strategically sensitive Straits of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea. China is set to supply Pakistan 4 F22P frigates.


China also is building up its military forces in the South China Sea region for projection of air and naval power from Hainan Island, near to the disputed Spratly Islands. Hainan Island came to international limelight in 2001 when a USN EP-3E Aries II ELINT platform on “routine duty” was compelled to force land on the island after colliding with and destroying a Chinese F-8 ‘Finback’ fighter aircraft. China recently upgraded a military airstrip on Woody Island and increased its presence through oil drilling platforms and ocean survey ships. The Chinese already dominates the Parcael and Spratly Islands from which the PLAN can move to the Indian Ocean for deployment. The possession of Spratly Islands have developed into a potentially fierce point of conflict as three nations, China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim those island territories in totality with partial claims from Malaysia, Philippines and maritime claim from Brunei. However the unification of Taiwan in the same mode as Hong Kong, is a possibility in the years ahead, and the maritime and economic assets of Taiwan will be multiplying factors for China’s capabilities. Trade is flourishing and an under sea tunnel has been mooted.

Chinese Naval Build Up Survey

China has already received the first of eight Type 636 version of Russian Kilo Class “hunter-killer” Submarines (SSK) considered to be to be one of the quietest SSKs with an impressive array of sensors and matching weapons. By 2015, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will probably number approximately seventy modern blue water surface combatants; two to three ballistic-missile armed submarines (SSBN); and twenty to thirty modern attack submarines, perhaps six of them nuclear-powered (SSN) and an impressive auxiliary fleet. Its Marine Corps, recently expanded from one to two brigades. The production and development of support vessels such as transport craft and landing ships was also being stepped up for transportation of men and materials in decent numbers to enhance strategic sea lift capabilities assisted by China’s growing mercantile fleet and excellent ship building facilities. Recent reports indicate that the Chinese Armed Forces are planning on fielding 16 new reconnaissance satellites: 8 imaging and 8 radar satellites. The new radar satellites, which are not inhibited by cloud cover, appear to feature synthetic aperture radars (SAR) marketed by Russia’s NPO Machinostroyenia, which can detect objects less than one metre in length. The planned constellation would allow for four daily revisits by each satellite type.

A new generation of conventional and nuclear attack as well as missile submarines are being developed to replace the PLAN outdated and trouble prone Ming-class conventional powered patrol submarines (SS), first-generation Han Class SSN and Xia Class SSBN. The first hull of the new generation Type 093 SSN, is reported to have been launched with Russian help in the past year. More than six vessels of the indigenously developed Song-class SS have so far been built. The initial development of the Song encountered significant design and engineering problems, especially related to propulsion, but they appear to have been resolved and are now coming off the production lines at a rate of one annually.

The Type 052C Lanzhou Class guided missile destroyer (DDG) has been developed by the Chinese shipbuilding industry and is equipped with stealth features and a long-range area air-defence Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) HQ-9/S-300F area defence SAM launched from the vertical launching system (VLS), the four-array multifunction phased array radar similar to the AN/SPY-1, and the YJ-85 (C-805) anti-ship missile. PLAN has already received two modified Soveremenyy Class DDGs from Russia in December 1999 and November 2000. Two more DDG will be delivered by 2006. In addition to the powerful 3M80E Moskit anti-ship missiles the Sovremennyy design provided for the first time a decent area-defence capability to the Chinese Navy in shape of SA-N-7 ‘Gadfly‘ area defence SAM. Significantly, the Chinese aircraft designers are reported to be working on design of an aircraft carrier based fighter, and thus it may be logically deducted that in not too distant future the PLAN will opt for aircraft carriers having acquired two old Russian carriers to study construction techniques.

The capabilities of the PLAAF has received a great boost with the induction of Sukhoi-30MKK multi-role air dominance fighters with buddy and IL 78 refueling facilities. A total of 78 Sukhoi-30MKK variants are entering PLAAF service with at least few moving to the PLAN command. The initial 20 Su-30MKKs delivered have the NIIP N001VE pulse-Doppler radar with a 80-100km range that can track up to 10 targets. However, PLAAF Su-30MKKs will subsequently be equipped with the much-improved Phazotron ZHUK-MS. The Su-30MKK has 12 weapons pylons, 10 of which can carry guided-missiles to include: the Kh-59M TV-guided missile; Kh-31P and Kh 59 MK anti-ship mssile; the Kh-29T TV-guided missile; and a range of laser- and TV-guided bombs in a significant anti-naval mission. The PLAAF and PLAN are also putting adequate stress on procurement of force-multipliers and target acquisition systems such as Airborne Warning & Control System (AWACS), optical satellites and maritime Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. However the attempt to acquire the Phalcon AEW system from Israel was de railed and Indian Air Force is set to receive its first plane in 2006. This must have peeved the Chinese.

Indian Navy Build Up Survey

The Indian Navy is also in an expansion mode with progressively increasing budgetary support and government approval of its 15 year ship building and 30 year submarine building programmes. The Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has articulated that a three carrier Navy is on the cards with its attendant support ships, having already contracted for the Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya) to join the fleet with 16 MiG 29Ks by 2008 and a 37,500 ton carrier being built at Cochin. Nineteen ships are on order and the quality of Indian Navy’s missile power is likely to be enhanced by the PJ-10 BrahMos missile induction. The maritime patrol assets of the Indian Navy are set to increase as it is looking at various options including the US offer of 12 PC3 Orions and Boeing which evidently have a role to patrol the Indian Ocean as provided in the Indian Maritime doctrine. The Navy is mastering the UAV art and looking for a ship based version.

Possibly as a counterbalance to the Chinese the Indian Navy and USN have already initiated active cooperation and joint patrolling in selected strategic areas of the Indian Ocean. As a sign of significant expansion of ambitious cooperation, the Indian Navy has now geared up and displayed deployment beyond Malacca straits in an exercise with the Republic of Singapore Navy this year, and exercised in the Gulf region at least for limited periods with a powerful Surface Action Group comprising of Delhi Class Destroyers and Talwar (Krivak III) Class Frigates with support ships. The navy has provided cover to African states meet and presented a patrol craft to Seychelles and is assisting Sri Lankan Navy. The Tsunami disaster amply proved the Navy’s capabilities to deploy 38 ships at short notice in the Indian Ocean region.

There has been a delay in ordering the already contracted six Scorpene submarines, but the doctrine articulates that nuclear deterrence from the sea is its goal. An SSBN in shape of the indigenous Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) is under construction at the ship building facility at Vishakapatnam with an underwater launched missile Sagarika which could well provide India the much needed nuclear deterrence against China in the years ahead. Media has reported that an Akula 971 is due to be taken on lease from Russia in 2008.
Reports have also emanated that 4 Tupolev-22M ‘Backfire’ multi-mission strike platform capable of performing low-level nuclear strike and conventional attack, anti-ship strike and high-seed reconnaissance missions, is still on offer to the Indian Navy. 'M3' version is designed for strategic bombing/maritime strike and entered service in Soviet Dalnaya Aviatsiya (DA) Naval Aviation during early 1980s. Powered by two Kuznetsov NK25 turbofan engines they have an un refueled range of at least 7,000-km+ at high altitude. The 3 Illyushin-38 MR/ASW platforms are undergoing Morskoy Zmei (Sea Dragon) multi-mission avionics & electronic warfare suite updates designed by Leninets could fill the gap of naval surveillance.

The US-China-India-Japan Relationship

Inevitably the China challenge looms large for America and Japan, an ally. Historically, when the world's leading powers are challenged by a rising one, they are likely to face a difficult relationship. And while neither side will ever admit it publicly, both China and the United States worry and plan for the future. How both sides handle tensions will determine their future relations — and the peace of the world. China has grown around 9 percent a year for more than 25 years, the fastest growth rate for a major economy in recorded history. In that same period it has increased its defence budget manifold, moved 300 million people out of poverty and quadrupled the average Chinese person's income. And all this has happened, so far, without social upheavals. China has followed a very different development strategy than Japan. Rather than focusing only on export-led growth to a few markets and keeping its internal market closed, China opened itself to foreign investment and trade. The result is that much of the world now relies on the China market. From the United States to Germany to Japan, and now India, exports to China are among the crucial factors propelling growth. For developing markets, China is the indispensable trading partner.

The Chinese challenge is unlikely to present itself in the familiar posture of another Soviet Union, attempting to keep pace with America in military terms. It is more likely to be an "asymmetrical superpower." It will employ its economic dominance skills, as the Chinese believe in accumulating advantage and wear out opponents. This emerges from the Chinese strategic thinker, Sun Zi, who argued that 'every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought'. It has been said America and China will be friends one day, rivals another, cooperate in one area, compete in another. However the answer to the question whether Indian and Chinese maritime interests will clash in the Indian Ocean in the coming years is worthy of analysis, for planners.

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