China recognises India’s special role in stabilising the strategic Indian Ocean region but the perception that it is India’s “backyard” may result in clashes, Chinese military officials and experts have cautioned. “The word backyard is not very appropriate to use for an open sea and international areas of sea,” Senior Captain Zhao Yi, Associate Professor of the Institute of Strategy in China’s National Defence University, said during a rare candid interaction with the resident Indian journalists in Beijing and a visiting Indian media delegation.
“I admit geographically speaking India has a special role to play in stabilising Indian Ocean and the South Asian region,” he said but if India views the Indian Ocean as backyard then how the navies from United States, Russia and Australia have free navigation in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese Navy’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean comes in the background of the release of a White Paper published by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently, outlining a new military strategy enhancing its navy’s duties for the first time to “open seas protection” far from its shores.

Also the presence of Chinese submarines at Colombo port last year and most recently in Karachi sparked concerns in India.

Chinese submarines in Pakistan and Sri Lanka need a vigorous response

The docking of a Chinese submarine docking at Karachi last month however, has raised eyebrows in India. The Chinese navy first showed its flag in the Indian Ocean nearly three decades ago, when it began to make ship visits to Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Since then, the frequency and intensity of Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean has grown. The Chinese navy’s continuous anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea since the end of 2008 have showcased Beijing’s growing naval capabilities as well as the political will to operate in waters far from its shores. Defending China’s growing overseas interests has become a major priority for the PLA.
As part of its “going out” strategy, the PLA navy has begun to build strategic partnerships in the Indian Ocean, cultivate access arrangements with critically located countries, export ships and submarines, and intensify its defence diplomacy in the littoral.

C Rajka Mohan, Distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express says “the idea of a Chinese network of naval facilities and bases in the Indian Ocean, or a “string of pearls”, is often invoked by those in Delhi who fear Beijing’s hostile intentions. Others taking a more benign view of China’s policies ridicule the idea”.

He suggests “ignoring the alarmists and apologists, Delhi must take a more realistic view of China’s long-term role in the Indian Ocean. China has ambitions to become a great maritime power. It is building the capabilities and devising policies to become one. A rising China is bound to establish a sustainable naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The question is not whether, but when and how”.

There is nothing illegal about China’s aspirations. Other countries have established a naval presence in the Indian Ocean over the last five centuries. But the long distance “make an effective presence in the Indian Ocean difficult for China without strong local partners. Although China is exploring special maritime relationships with many nations across the Indian Ocean, Pakistan remains the most likely place where its navy may drop anchor for the long term. The stable all-weather partnership built up over the last many decades, Pakistan’s critical location in the Arabian Sea next to the Gulf, and Islamabad’s growing economic reliance on China, appear to have set the stage for an expansive naval partnership”.

India, he says, needs to respond vigorously to the Chinese challenge.

China India submarine mismatch

Compared to India’s 13 conventional subs, the Chinese Navy has about 50 conventional subs and 10 nuclear subs. And, more ominously, according to Arun Kumar Singh, who retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam, “it has begun exporting its conventional subs at prices well below the international price. A French or German sub costs about $1 billion, and a Russian sub about $600 million. But, recently, Bangladesh signed a contract to buy two Chinese Ming-class subs for a total of $203 million, Thailand has decided to buy three Chinese Yuan-class subs for $355 million each, while Pakistan has signed a contract for eight Yuan-class or Qing-class (improved Yuan class) subs for an undisclosed amount. Four of these subs are to be imported and four are to be built in Pakistan. These subs have air-independent propulsion system and can carry three nuclear-tipped 500-km range Chinese-designed cruise missiles that could threaten Indian coastal cities”.

China is keen to protect its vulnerable sea lanes that pass through the Strait of Malacca which can be blocked by the US and Indian navies during war time. Hence, Chinese warships began non-stop anti-piracy patrols off Somalia in 2008, and last year there were reports of sightings of Chinese nuclear subs and conventional subs in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. China has justified these deployments as part of their anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.

In addition with China taking management control of the strategic Gwadar port, only 360 nautical miles from the strategic Gulf of Oman, Indian oil tankers ships, bringing badly needed Gulf oil to India, will be highly vulnerable to any interdiction during war.

India therefore, says Singh “needs to focus on bolstering its Navy in general and its outdated submarine fleet in particular. Since the indigenous six Scorpene class subs under construction will join between 2016 to 2022, and be insufficient to replace the older 13 subs, we need a fleet of conventional and nuclear subs that can provide us a blue water deterrent capability in the IOR against future Chinese Navy aircraft carrier deployments. We should also be able to deploy our subs in the western Pacific off China’s coast.

“While the recently announced “Make in India” plans indigenous building of new conventional and nuclear subs (SSNs and SSBNs), the fact is that they will take at least 20 years to be commissioned.

“Also, the tragic sinking in Mumbai harbour of a Kilo-class sub, Sindhurakshak, on August 14, 2013, due to an explosion, again exposed the urgent need for a viable sub rescue system for each coast.

“There is a need to urgently import three nuclear subs (SSN), and two Submarine Rescue Vessels (SRV). Since Russia is the only nation which is willing to supply SSNs, and also has a modern SRV capability, hopefully Prime Minister Narendra Modi will discuss this with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he visits Russia on July 8 for the Brics meeting in the city of Ufa, and again in early October, during his formal visit to Moscow”.