Why China is a challenge India has never seen before

Kanwal Sibal
Kanwal SibalFeb 28, 2017 | 14:26

Why China is a challenge India has never seen before

Our security challenges in the Indian Ocean are set to increase in the years ahead, with China’s maritime ambitions as the biggest source. China’s 2015 White Paper on Military Strategy formalised a new maritime strategy encompassing “open seas protection” for which its naval capacity to protect its overseas interests and sea lanes of communication must increase. This makes the Indian Ocean an integral part of its maritime strategy.


Naval bases

China has established a naval base at Djibouti. Apart from its strategic location, by maintaining its naval contingent so far away from home for long periods it is obtaining vital experience in blue water naval operations. It is developing Gwadar, once again located strategically — at the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz — as a commercial port to begin with, but its evolution as a naval base is a matter of time. The sale of eight submarines to Pakistan will establish the presence of Chinese naval personnel on the Balochistan coast on an enduring basis. A Chinese submarine has already surfaced at Gwadar, and China has supplied two warships to Pakistan for the port’s security.

Gwadar can become a veritable naval base as it has hinterland access. [Photo: Mail Today]

China is selling two submarines to Bangladesh, which too will mean a Chinese presence on the Bangladesh coast, albeit limited. As evidence of its increasing naval activity in the Indian Ocean, Chinese submarines have twice surfaced at the Colombo port. China, seeking a foothold in Maldives, has acquired an island there, ostensibly for the purpose of tourism development. Once it implants itself there more deeply economically, and should Maldives walk into a debt trap as Sri Lanka is sliding into, China will have greater influence.


Naval experts rightly say that for the present Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean is no cause for alarm as the assets it is creating are vulnerable as they are too far away from the Chinese mainland and lack air cover. US naval power, it is argued, rests on the vast network of military bases that America has across the world. Simply having access to ports for replenishment of stores, rest and recreation and for doing exercises is not enough to wield naval power. A proper naval base would require the positioning of ordnance, spares and capacity to service vessels. From providing peaceful passage to foreign naval vessels to allowing base facilities is a strategic step that Indian Ocean countries may refuse in view of a strong Indian response. Pakistan is the only exception.


Gwadar can become a veritable naval base as it has hinterland access, meaning that the Chinese can position equipment, ammunition, spares, etc, there through the illegal China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Given Pakistan’s declared willingness to offer naval rights to China at Gwadar, the threat to us from Chinese activities there is not to be dismissed.


China is expanding its naval capacities with the construction of additional aircraft carriers and a sizeable nuclear-powered submarine fleet. The immediate objective is to challenge US naval power in the western Pacific. China is, like Russia in a sense, substantially “landlocked” as it does not have unfettered access to the open sea and is largely confined to the seas along its coast. From Taiwan to Japan it is ringed by the so-called first island chain, shored up by a powerful US military presence. China’s major strategic objective would be to break out of this throttling island chain and obtain access more freely to the Pacific and Indian Oceans for its navy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping. [Photo: Mail Today]

In this context, Taiwan is critically important and hence China’s paranoia about the possibility of it becoming independent. Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea and, even more so, in the South China Sea is explained by its strategic goal of exerting as much control over these waters as possible, and by changing the balance in the region and increasing the level of threat to US naval assets there push the US to politically accommodate its interests. The new great power relationship that it seeks with the US — a form of G 2 in Asia — is focused on this goal.

Strategic vision

Our joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions with the US and our endorsement of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concept of the Indo-Pacific stem from our own increasing concerns about China’s geopolitical ambitions in Asia and, in particular, our neighbourhood. If China’s ambitions are curbed in the Asia-Pacific its rapid naval expansion in the Indian Ocean will be thwarted. India, US and Japan, along with Australia, have therefore a shared interest in maintaining a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure peace and stability.

Indonesia would be a partner in this because to avoid the Malacca Straits choke point, the Sunda and Lombok Straits passing through the Indonesian archipelago provide a route for Chinese submarines to enter the Indian Ocean. India and the US are already collaborating in tracking the movement of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, as publicly disclosed by the US Pacific fleet commander in New Delhi recently.

China, through its One Belt One Road project, is seeking to control the Asian landmass to the north as well as the Indian Ocean to the south, with the CPEC as the link. This is the geopolitical challenge India — located at the centre of these two projects — faces as no power before in history has dominated both the hinterland and the sea in our extended region.

(Courtesy: Mail Today)

Last updated: February 28, 2017 | 14:26
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