High sea: Indian Elephant versus Chinese Dragon

Source: AP

Source: AP

The last decade has been marked by the emergence of India and China as maritime powers. Will the growing naval capabilities of the two Asian giants lead to conflict or a rebalancing of power? Prokhor Tebin analyses India’s naval strategy and how New Delhi could be decisive to the security of the Asia-Pacific region.

With China on mind, India firms up naval strategy

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the naval power of Asian countries, primarily India and China, started to grow amid the relative decline of the navies of the old maritime nations – the United States, United Kingdom, France and Russia. Rapid economic growth called for instruments to protect the national interests of the Asian giants in the world’s oceans while offering sufficient funds to promote these countries’ sea powers.

Unlike China’s maritime ambitions, India’s aspiration to become a great maritime power has received far less attention. At the same time, the “Indian factor” could be decisive to the future of world politics, security and stability in the Asia-Pacific Region.

India’s maritime thinking is largely based on the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the classical theories of Mahan and Corbett, as well as contemporary works by British and American experts and strategists. At the same time, during the past two decades, India’s naval thinking has been evolving and adapting to the peculiarities of the national security policy.

Back in 1998, “A Maritime Military Strategy for India 1989–2014” became the first document of its kind in the history of the Indian Navy. In the early 2000s, it became obvious that its conceptual settings were already out-of-date and failed to correspond to the contemporary international climate and Indian policy. The Indian Maritime Doctrine, published in 2004, became a corpus of fundamental principles identifying the use of naval power to achieve national policy goals.

The maritime doctrine became the basis for the new naval strategy, published in 2007. Unlike the previous strategy, spanning 25 years, the new one, “The Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy”, covers 15 years to come, which, its authors believe, will secure a balance between long and short-term objectives. If successfully implemented, the strategy will enable India to efficiently protect its national interests in the oceans and turn it into a great maritime power by 2022.

Compared with the Chinese naval strategy, the Indian version is more of a post-Mahan concept, and a postmodernist one, says British naval expert Geoffrey Till. This is connected with the greater role of peacetime objectives, international cooperation, and collective and international security efforts in the new Indian strategy.

Geopolitics of the Indian Ocean

The main objective of the Indian Navy is to ensure the country’s free access to the oceans and secure its dominant position in the Indian Ocean. This is largely due to India’s significant net energy imports. India, the world’s third-largest energy consumer since 2009, imports 26% of the energy it consumes. For comparison, China imports less than 10% of energy consumed, according to World Bank data.

Geopolitically, the Indian Ocean has a number of peculiarities. With 7,500 kilometres of coastline and about 1.63 million square kilometres of its exclusive economic zone, India is the only great power with direct access to the Indian Ocean. However, India has to reckon with the influence of the two extra-regional great powers – the United States and China.


The freedom of maritime navigation in the Indian Ocean, which plays a key role in the global world trade system and transit of hydrocarbons, depends on the openness of nine “bottlenecks”: the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, Malacca Strait, Lombok Strait, Sunda Strait, Six Degree Channel, Nine Degree Channel and Cape of Good Hope. A blockade or other restriction in any one of these passages will have serious economic and political consequences, global in their nature.

The Indian Ocean region holds 65% of the world’s oil reserves, 35% of the world’s natural gas reserves and substantial amounts of other mineral and biological resources. The region is home to 2.4 billion people, a third of the global population, and this number may exceed 3 billion by 2050. There are serious disparities in terms of economic development and internal political stability between the 36 key and 19 peripheral countries in this region. Along with trouble-free countries such as Australia, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, there are poor and unstable nations like Somalia, Mozambique, Madagascar and Eritrea.

The Indian Ocean carries potential threats to India’s national security. The world’s largest terrorist organizations – Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jemaah Islamiyah – are active in this region. Despite concerted international efforts to protect maritime traffic, the eastern and western extremities of the Indian Ocean remain the most pirate-infested areas in the world. The region also is home to the world’s most dangerous hotbeds of tension – Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Lastly, the Indian Ocean region is the locus of about 70% of the world’s natural disasters.

Maritime military strategy

India’s contemporary naval strategy classifies naval operations into four roles: military, diplomatic, constabulary and benign. Despite some specific differences, the approach of Indian naval commanders to the main functions of the Navy mostly corresponds to the principles adopted by the leading western maritime powers, as well as Japan and South Korea. This approach synthesises the modernist ideas of Mahan and Corbett and the post-modernist western naval thought of the 1990s–2000s.

Under the new naval strategy, the military role of the Navy incorporates not only wartime, but also peacetime functions. The former include efforts to gain dominance at sea, contest maritime dominance in a conflict with a stronger sea power and conduct military operations in coastal areas, including landing operations and joint operations with other armed forces.

The deployment of naval forces in peace implies, first of all, strategic deterrence, both nuclear and conventional. It should be noted that nuclear deterrence is a future task for the Indian Navy, as the country’s first nuclear-powered BM submarine, the INS Arihant, is expected to be put into service in 2012. At the same time, for a country that has adopted a “No First Use” policy -- nuclear weapons will be used only as a retaliatory measure --  the creation of a naval component of its strategic nuclear forces is a top priority. Finally, the Indian Navy puts special emphasis on engagement in peacekeeping operations under the aegis of the United Nations or in concert with international coalitions, including peace enforcement operations and humanitarian interventions.

The diplomatic role of the Indian Navy incorporates an array of functions, including “gunboat diplomacy” and political leverage, external naval presence and flag showing, as well as the development of a military partnership with other countries. International naval exercises and non-military operations also play an important role in Indian naval diplomacy. The term “power projection”, which in the western naval tradition implies amphibious and other “fleet against shore” operations, is almost identical to external presence and flag showing in the Indian strategy.

The constabulary role of the Navy is fully consistent with what is traditionally called “good order at sea”, which incorporates asserting sovereignty and protecting the resources of the world ocean, fostering free and open maritime trade, counteracting non-military threats and securing economic, political and legal stability in the oceans. The Indian Navy is set to engage in both independent low-intensity maritime operations to fight piracy and terrorism and joint operations with the Coast Guard to fight smuggling, drug trafficking and illegal migration and protect the exclusive economic zone and mineral and biological resources of the world’s oceans, as well as prevent pollution.


Finally, the benign role encompasses the entire range of “soft power” implemented by the Indian Navy. Unlike the “hard” military role, the benign role is designed to build up a positive image of India internationally, promote a beneficial international environment and facilitate the dissemination of India’s cultural and political values. The Navy’s “soft power” implies assistance to weaker maritime powers in the development of their navies and coast guards, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as assistance in studying the world’s oceans.

Outreach activities in the oceans are crucial for implementing the four roles of the Indian Navy. Their primary objective is to ensure an adequate perception of the situation in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Under the Indian naval strategy, the power of the Navy lies in its ability to respond to developments rather than in the size of its missile stockpile.

Look East and String of Pearls

Pakistan remains the most obvious military threat to India. However, New Delhi is increasingly concerned about China’s maritime ambitions, especially its “string of pearls” doctrine, which envisages an area of China’s influence in the Indian Ocean. Its main objectives are to ensure the security of energy supplies to China, facilitate China’s entry into the markets of the region and give China a headstart in establishing its control over the main navigation lines and bottlenecks of the Indian Ocean.


The main “pearls”, as perceived in the Chinese strategy, are the ports of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Sittwe, Kyaukpyu and Yangon in Myanmar, as well as Chinese military bases in the Paracel Islands and Hainan. New “pearls” might emerge, including in Myanmar’s Coco Islands, Mahé in the Seychelles, and the potential construction of the Kra Canal in Thailand. India has been quite successful in opposing China’s expansion plans. The democratic reforms in Myanmar have weakened China’s position and contributed to stronger political and economic ties between Myanmar and India. Furthermore, China has thus far failed – mostly due to India’s influence – to secure a footing in the Maldives, where it planned to build a submarine base in Marao Atoll. India also pursues an active policy within the framework of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. India’s own “string of pearls” in the region includes numerous naval bases in continental India (the largest ones are Kochi, Karwar, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam), bases in the island Union Territories, including Lakshadweep, the Andaman Islands and the Nicobar Islands, as well as partnerships with the Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar and Oman.

Indian-Chinese relations appear to be most strained in the South China Sea, where the Chinese “String of Pearls” doctrine comes into conflict with the Indian “Look East” policy, which promotes closer ties between India and the countries of Southeast Asia. This concept was first voiced in the early 1990s and has acquired a new traction in the last decade.

China is also dissatisfied with the increasingly strong connection between India and Vietnam, Beijing’s old rival. The development of military, political and economic ties between Hanoi and New Delhi has become a sort of symmetrical answer to the strengthening of Chinese-Pakistani relations. Official Beijing has repeatedly made harsh statements concerning the Indian-Vietnamese programme to explore oil in the South China Sea.

Furthermore, China criticises Indian-Vietnamese military and technical cooperation, which has developed since the mid-2000s. India has repaired and upgraded the Vietnamese MiG-21 fighter aircraft and supplies spare parts for Vietnamese vessels. The Indian Navy and the Coast Guard conduct joint exercises and sea patrols with Vietnamese counterparts.

In late July 2011, an amusing yet alarming incident took place, involving the INS Airavat, which, 80 kilometres off the Vietnamese coast, was contacted by a caller identifying himself as the “Chinese Navy”. “You are entering Chinese waters” was his message. The incident prompted New Delhi to reiterate that India supports the freedom of the open seas and navigation, “including in the South China Sea,” and that these principles “must be respected by all.”

The growing conflict between India and China is beneficial to the US. In recent years, Washington has pursued a policy of soft deterrence of China’s maritime ambitions and aims at isolating China by way of promoting a pseudo anti-Chinese partnership of the ASEAN member states and Japan. India is gradually being pushed towards such a partnership, along with other countries of the Indian Ocean region.

Nevertheless, India is not interested in confrontation and plans to keep relations with China on an even keel. New Delhi and Beijing in 2011 have resumed a bilateral dialogue on defence issues. The Indian-Chinese defence partnership envisages joint exercises and the exchange of military delegations. One of the dialogue’s most important tasks is to resolve the territorial dispute over the Aksai Chin area in the Jammu and Kashmir state, as well as Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. At this time, the two countries believe partnership to be more important than rivalry.

Guidelines for building the Navy

The fundamentals of its maritime military strategy identify India’s aspiration to create a large, well-balanced ocean fleet. India already possesses one of the largest navies in the world, and once the current programme for naval development has been implemented, India will be one of the top-five most powerful navies on the planet.

India’s success in building a powerful Navy still depends upon its import of naval engineering and technologies. India’s key partners in this domain are Russia and France. Unlike China, India has no powerful shipbuilding industry of its own, capable of facilitating naval construction programmes. At the same time, over the last decade, India has made impressive progress in the independent construction of its fleet and naval armaments.

Particularly noteworthy are the construction of the first generation of Arihant class submarines and the first Vikrant class aircraft carrier, which will replace India’s only aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat. India successfully pursues programmes to build all types of surface warships – Kamorta class corvettes (P-28 and 28A), Shivalik class frigates, and Delhi and Kolkata class destroyers. We should also remember the joint Russian-Indian project to build BrahMos, a supersonic cruise missile, as well as BrahMos II, its hypersonic version.

The Indian naval strategy emphasises efforts to build awareness in the world ocean domain. To this end, India is working on programmes to create a single monitoring system, incorporating military satellites, unmanned drones, airborne early warning airplanes and helicopters, and at least 24 Boeing P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircrafts, to be supplied to India starting in 2013.

By 2015, India plans to operate two conventionally-powered aircraft carriers, whereas by 2020, it plans to have three – the 44,000-tonne INS Vikramaditya, acquired from Russia, the 40,000-tonne INS Vikrant and the advanced INS Vishal, with a displacement of 60,000-70,000 tonnes. This will enable India to operate two carriers at a time, while the third one can be suspended for scheduled repairs or maintenance. There are some unconfirmed speculations that India also plans to acquire several new large-capacity assault landing ships.

When commenting on the development priorities for the Navy, Indian admirals have repeatedly stressed the construction of large versatile combat ships rather than a “Mosquito Fleet.” By 2020, India may have created a powerful modern ocean fleet, with a core of three aircraft carriers, 50-70 corvettes, frigates and destroyers, and about 30 submarines, including four nuclear-powered BM submarines, up to six general purpose nuclear submarines and 15-20 conventional submarines. This will enable India to implement its maritime military strategy and turn the Indian Ocean into India’s “internal sea”.

Prokhor Tebin is a post-graduate student at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Russian text is published in Nezavisimoye voyennoe obozreniye

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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