In the early 90s, when we planned war games, the enemy (Red force) would typically be Pakistan, and the Blue force was India. China was mentioned fleetingly during the discussions, more for its logistics and international support to Pakistan in the Red vs Blue war game. It was thus, a no-brainer that the Western Fleet had the best warships and equipment, as compared to the Eastern Fleet, including the aircraft carrier(s).
Over the three decades since then, Pakistan has made way for China, and the new Red, ironically, is China. China has grown from a predominantly coastal navy with obsolete weapons and systems to a capable force, which poses a severe threat to any challenger, including the USA. The latest US Department of Defence report to the Congress states that China is already ahead of the US in – shipbuilding, land-based cruise missile and integrated air defence.
China’s national strategy to become a “world-class” military and achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049 has been clearly stated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership many times in the recent past. A point to note is that these efforts are not isolated. All the efforts are interrelated and moving ahead like a highly well-choreographed ballet, integrating and leveraging both civil and military strengths. China is not just talking about becoming great but also investing in it and showing tangible results across all domains.
India is deeply apprehensive about China and finds its growth threatening. India’s perception is not misplaced, given the history, repeated anti-India stand taken by China at various international forums and unilateral military actions on the northern borders, including the ongoing faceoff. India also feels constricted as China has been openly undermining India’s position as a regional power, especially in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). To make matters worse, China’s overtures in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), supported with some aggressive diplomacy and financial aid and development initiatives has put India’s hold on the IOR in the doldrums. India sees its sphere of influence reducing in its “legitimate area of interest”.
A maritime conflict scenario between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Indian Navy (IN) is likely under the following situations:
- India’s naval intervention in the South China Sea, either for supporting Taiwan (invasion by China) or in pursuance of its policy of “free of navigation at sea” in the region inside the nine-dash line.
- A direct maritime confrontation because of – an ongoing or future border crisis spilling over to the sea or in the case of a future India-Pakistan war, China directly supports Pakistan via the maritime route.
China repeatedly asserts that the unification of Taiwan with mainland China is on top of its agenda, and in the words of President Xi Jinping, they would bring the renegade province to heel. With Taiwan being approximately 6,440 km from India’s east coast and just 194 km from mainland China, Indian Navy’s intervention in China’s forceful annexation of Taiwan is completely ruled out.
Further, the Indian Navy does not have any military bases around that region, ruling out even non-military support. The Chinese invasion would be a short and swift one, overpowering Taiwanese defence and establishing control within a week. The possibility of this scenario panning out seems remote since India is yet to recognise Taiwan. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) has thus far remained an informal arrangement between the USA, Australia, Japan and India, and unless it develops into something similar to NATO (most unlikely), any Indian Navy participation against China is ruled out.
The Indian Maritime Security Strategy (2015) accords particular focus to “maintaining freedom of navigation and strengthening the international legal regime at sea”, and accordingly, India maintains that the South China Sea is a part of global commons, and India has an abiding interest in peace and stability in the region. In pursuance of this policy, Indian Navy warships have been regularly visiting the region and did so even during the peak of the Galwan Crisis.
The move was no doubt bold, but it is yet to be seen as to how far India is willing to push the envelope in this regard, given the fact that Indian Naval units would be operating in China’s backyard. China has, till date, maintained a verbal opposition to the Indian Navy’s move; however, if this changes to more active/harassing measures on behalf of the PLAN, its militia or Coast Guard, then the Indian Navy’s unilateral operations in the region would not be a wise call.
It has not happened so far, but it does not mean it will not happen in the future – a naval conflict between PLAN and IN, either due to border conflict spill-over effect or direct assistance to Pakistan in case of an India-Pakistan armed conflict. In both cases, the topmost priority for IN would be to establish control in the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the waters around the Andaman Sea and pursue an anti-access or area denial strategy and try to prevent the PLAN from occupying or traversing the region.
Chinese military strategy, also reaffirmed by its defence white paper, is based on the tenets of “active defence”. Active defence uses strategic defence in combination with offensive action at an operational and tactical level. Thereby, any offensive intent or action by the IN will be immediately counterattacked or even pre-emptively attacked. The attack or counterattack will happen rapidly and will be carried out by the PLA Naval assets when they detect IN units. The PLA Navy would aim to take operational initiative and get the best results in a brief period. In order to avoid enemy strength and focus on taking advantage of enemy weaknesses, the PLA Navy would avoid coming close to shore and remain seawards towards deeper waters, as far as possible, away from the protection of shore-based missile batteries and fighter aircraft.
The PLA Navy will neither use too little force nor unconstrained force. They would aim to use an optimum high-intensity attack to hit and sink a major capital ship(s) and then show “effective restraint”. So, make the “opening move” and “use war to stop the war”. The actions of the PLA Navy would be supported by cyber warfare directed against IN command and control systems and its space-based assets to gain intelligence and early warning, along with extensive information warfare. In order to avoid a long logistics chain, the PLA Navy would be using naval bases in Pakistan and even its military base in Djibouti.
What are the chances of a naval conflict ever happening between the PLA Navy and IN? It’s very low. The PLA Navy has never conducted hostile maritime operations or even shown hostile intent against any IOR country, including India. Even during the conflict of 1962 and other border skirmishes, China has never used its Navy to pressure India. Further, even if one looks back to the various armed conflicts between India and Pakistan in the past, China did not intervene militarily in support of Pakistan or even tried to use the opportunity to stoke tensions in the border areas or grab disputed territory.
China has achieved what India is struggling with – a comprehensive rise of national power. There is no doubt that the emergence of China and with it a strong Navy would undermine India’s influence. Rather than getting worried and trying to match platform to platform, capability to capability, India needs to let go of its threat obsession against China and focus singularly on what it wants to achieve in the next 25 years. Its policy cannot be reactive to what China does but according to its national goals and national security strategy, slowly but steadily without any interruptions, political or otherwise.
-The writer is voluntarily retired from active service after more than 21 years of commissioned service. He is an alumnus of Naval Academy (first course 10+2 X) and Defense Services Staff College and a specialist in Anti-Submarine Warfare. Presently, he is pursuing PhD in Defense Industrialization and Exports (India) from Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT). New Delhi. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda