India challenges China in South China Sea
26 April 2000
India intends to hold a series of bilateral and unilateral naval exercises in the South China Sea in October and November 2000, according to government sources cited by the Hindustan Times on 24 April. The decision comes amid debate within the Indian armed forces over the reshaping of naval forces and the expansion of their operational capabilities. By extending its area of operation firmly into the South China Sea, India presents a direct challenge to China, which claims the entire area as its territorial waters. This promises both a redefinition of the naval balance of power in the region, and an intensification of tensions between New Delhi and Beijing.
During a recent Indian Naval Commanders' Conference, the Naval Operations Directorate announced plans for unilateral Indian navy exercises in the South China Sea later this year, according to government sources cited in the Hindustan Times on 24 April. The announcement comes amid debate within India's armed forces over the future role of the navy, including plans to increase its aircraft carrier force to three.
The decision to extend the reach and operational areas of India's expanding navy firmly into the South China Sea will not only trigger a reassessment of the balance of naval power in the region, but also risks a deterioration of Beijing-New Delhi relations as India encroaches into territory claimed by China.
India's navy intends to hold bilateral exercises with South Korea and Vietnam in October and November 2000. Following these exercises, four or five Indian vessels will remain in the South China Sea to be joined by an Indian Kilo-class submarine and reconnaissance aircraft for unilateral naval exercises.
The exercises fit within India's shifting definition of its naval areas of concern, as laid out by Defence Minister George Fernandes April 14 at the launching of India's latest warship the INS Brahmaputra. Fernandes said India's "area of interest extends from the north of the Arabian Sea to the South China Sea." The debate in New Delhi over the role of India's navy is apparently being won by those who wish to expand the operational capabilities of the navy and to increase attention to force projection and expeditionary forces.
India's spreading naval reach is in part to counter the growing threat of piracy on both sides of the Strait of Malacca. In November 1999, Indian navy and coast guard vessels recaptured a hijacked Japanese cargo ship after a 12-hour chase. The hijacking prompted Japan to consider increased financial and possibly naval support to patrol the areas around the Strait in cooperation with China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. This in turn contributed to Fernandes calling Japan and Vietnam key strategic partners in anti-piracy operations.
However, while India-Japan ties remain constrained by Tokyo's ongoing attempts to mediate between India and Pakistan, ties with Vietnam have been improving since a 1994 visit of then Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to Hanoi and the signing of a defence cooperation agreement. More recently, India has re-embarked on a "Look East" policy, increasing military and economic cooperation with Vietnam and enhancing ties with other South East Asian nations, including Myanmar.
At the same time India is expanding its naval reach into the South China Sea, it is expanding its force structure as well. The 2000-2001 defence budget includes $940 million for the Navy, up from $835 million the previous year. Of this, 60 percent has been allotted to acquisition of weapons and modernisation programmes.
While India's single operational aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, is under refit, there are plans to build a domestic carrier and acquire the re-fit Russian Kiev-class Admiral Gorshkov. Prior to the recent launch of the INS Brahmaputra, India also commissioned its third fleet tanker, adding to its blue-water capabilities. There are plans to launch six more warships in 2000. India's naval expansion also includes buying several Russian MiG-29 Ks to add to its naval air force.
India is also preparing to launch a Kilo-class submarine capable of ballistic missile launches, according to the Hindu. On April 10, India tested the Dhanush ship-launched ballistic missile, and there are plans to fit some of India's Kilo-class submarines with Russian Klub-class ballistic missiles.
The expanding navy presents a direct challenge to China. Beijing and New Delhi are already competing for control over the Andaman Sea, along the west coast of Myanmar leading to the entrance of the Strait of Malacca. On land, the border between China and India remains contested in two areas, and China's traditional backing of Pakistan continues to hinder the potential for improved relations.
The move to expand operations from the north of the Arabian Sea through the South China Sea and to establish an expeditionary- capable force not only threatens China's areas of operation but also alters the balance of naval power in the region. Further, plans for three operation carriers will make India equal to the United Kingdom and second only to the United States in carrier assets. Regionally, other carrier-capable navies have just one, including Russia and Thailand.
Currently in the Pacific, West Pacific and Indian Ocean, the only viable expeditionary naval force is the United States. While Japan has significant naval forces, it will be some time before it is capable of extensive expeditionary activities. In creating a viable blue-water reach, including refuelling and support craft, India will significantly surpass China's naval capabilities as well.
For China, the threat of an encroaching Indian naval presence will further undermine any potential Sino-Indian reconciliation and cooperation. An India capable of placing a carrier force off Chinese shore - supported by submarines capable of ballistic missile launches - drastically changes the equation with regard to China's support for India's rival Pakistan. With Russia supplying much of the technology and hardware, Sino-Russian relations will also be strained.
India's plans stem from several sources - counter-piracy, protection of trade routes, balancing China and establishing itself as a world power rather than simply a regional power. China has two choices: tie down Indian defence spending on land-based assets by instigating tensions with Pakistan or, more costly, match India's naval expansion with its own.
China will likely follow both paths, increasing its own naval reach in the short term by focusing on the establishment and maintenance of forward bases in the Spratly Islands and Myanmar. As India pushes to redefine itself as an international naval power, friction and confrontation with China will become more volatile.
In knowledge we trust!