By Commodore A Jai Singh ( Retd)
Never one to lose an opportunity and the first to sense vulnerability, China, has been taking full advantage of the world’s focus on combating the Wuhan virus to push its expansionist agenda in the maritime domain. This has led to an unprecedented level of tension in the western Pacific and specifically in the South China Sea which has raised valid concerns about the possibility of a conflict.
China has made no secret of its global ambitions and its Mahanian model of achieving that through maritime superiority. This has led China to embark on a naval expansion programme, the likes of which the world has never seen. In the 71 years since its inception (on 24 April 1949), the PLA(Navy) is now the world’s largest navy in numbers and intends ultimately to be the most qualitatively superior navy in the world. In addition to its grey hulls ( warships), it has the world’s largest Coast Guard ( white hulled ships which indicate a less aggressive posture, though not necessarily in the Chinese case,) and a maritime militia ( armed fishing trawlers) running into thousands which it uses effectively to intimidate warships of other nations in disputed waters by overwhelming the maritime space with sheer numbers and a threatening posture.
In the last two months and even more frequently in the last fortnight or so, China has stepped up its aggressive activities in the South China Sea which has led to considerable anxiety not only amongst the countries in that region but also other navies in the proximity of those waters. It has renamed more than 80 features with traditional Chinese names and sub-divided the administration of the Paracel and Spratly Islands into the Xisha and Nansha subdivisions which are the Chinese traditional names for these two disputed island territories; in the South China Sea China has maritime disputes over EEZ with Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Philippines and Brunei. It has intensified its dispute with Indonesia in the Natuna islands by threatening an Indonesian naval presence with its maritime militia; the PLA Navy sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel in response to Vietnams objections and it has rebuffed Malaysia’s objections which led to the US Navy deploying a three-ship TF led by the Amphibious Assault ship USS America and joined later by a Royal Australian Navy frigate. Taiwan continues to be in the Chinese crosshairs with a series of provocative actions including the ramming of a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel to keep that country on edge.
China clearly believes that the US Navy, its chief protagonist in the region is at the moment vulnerable with the outbreak of the coronavirus amongst the crew of many ships including its mainstay in the Pacific – the USS Theodore Roosevelt. China’s authoritarian regime has always viewed democratic institutions as weak in governance and therefore vulnerable. The unseemly incident related to the Roosevelt which led to its Commanding Officer being relieved of command and which finally led to the resignation of the Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly and now the possibility of the Commanding Officer being reinstated in command as a weakness in the Navy’s chain of command which would render the US Navy vulnerable under external pressure. However, the US navy has not backed down and has continued with its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the proximity of its artificial islands which has always irked China no end.
It is clearly evident that China intends to exploit the current situation to its advantage in the Indo-Pacific. Herein lies the concern for India which has so far stayed clear of getting involved in any provocative actions against China in the Pacific. The Indian Navy has a presence in the western Pacific with its multi-mission deployment. Its primary concern is to protect India’s interests in the region as happened a few years ago when the Chinese resistance to our investment in oil exploration jointly with Vietnam was suitably responded to.
India is fully committed to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and to ensuring a rules-based international order. To that extent, it is fully supportive of initiatives in this regard in the entire Indo-Pacific. It participates in numerous bilateral and multilateral naval exercises in the region; it is usually the first responder in any Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief(HADR) operation and is an active participant in various regional security fora. However, it has wisely chosen to stay clear of any involvement in a possible confrontationist scenario and has unambiguously conveyed its unwillingness to participate in joint patrols or FONOPS with the US Navy in the South China Sea.
India should be concerned with China’s belligerence in the South China Sea and the western Pacific which is expanding further westwards towards the Eastern Indian Ocean. Once China consolidates its domination of the South China Sea it will attempt to do so in the Indian Ocean. There is already a permanent Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Late last year the Indian Navy had to ‘expel ‘ a Chinese research vessel from the eastern Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy is fully cognisant of this presence and has expressed its concern at various fora. However, disappointingly, inadequate funding and bureaucratic lethargy have stymied the enhancement of India’s maritime capability. In the last two decades, the PLA Navy has added more than eight times the ships and submarines as compared to India thus further widening the quantitative and qualitative gulf between the two navies.
The Indian Ocean region has some of the poorest nations on earth and China has made the first moves in the last fortnight or so in providing assistance to many of these, albeit with eventual payback being an integral part of this generosity. China will leverage this economically, militarily and politically to consolidate its presence and position in the Indian Ocean. India, therefore, has its work cut out. It has to keep the Chinese Navy at bay in its strategic neighbourhood and monitor Chinese presence, be it naval, marine research, fishing resource exploitation or intelligence gathering. China has invested heavily in its Belt and Road Initiative and the success of this securo-nomic construct is critical for China’s ambition of becoming the global numero uno. It is also Xi Jinping’s vanity project and with his growing megalomaniac tendencies, it cannot be allowed to fail. China will therefore try and counter the recent pushback by some nations to its debt-trap diplomacy by finding different means to achieve its ends. From a security perspective, a substantial and permanent PLA Navy presence in the Indian Ocean is therefore inevitable. The presence of its all-weather ally Pakistan in the North Arabian Sea and the availability of Pakistan’s naval facilities at Gwadar facilitates the PLA Navy’s logistic support for sustained operations in the Indian Ocean. It also poses a considerable threat to India’s energy supplies from the Gulf region.
The economic cost of combating this pandemic is going to be severe. The Indian economy which was facing headwinds even before COVID-19 struck is going to face an uphill challenge. An immediate casualty of any such economic strife is usually the defence budget and there are already indications of a cut being imposed on defence spending. However, a pandemic like this which can derail the economy is also a national security threat in more ways than one. From the maritime perspective, therefore, it is important that the navy is given the resources to continue maintaining its vigil on the high seas and the waters of our interest lest we concede space to an aggressive challenger.
(The author is Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal.)