Thursday 21 September 2017, 11:21 PM
Risk-Assessment of China in the Indian Ocean Region
By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (Retd.) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 8/25/2017 2:16:01 PM
Risk-Assessment of China in the Indian Ocean Region
Chinese Navy nuclear-powered submarine

Contrary to what some sections of the Indian media would have us believe, two armies alone do not go to war, nor do two air forces or two navies. Two nations go to war.The relevance of this basic fact is underscored by the stand-off between India and China in the Doklam Plateau that has been ongoing since 17 June 2017.  It is, of course, true that intense but quiet diplomacy is currently in progress in New Delhi, Beijing, and several other capitals of the world, to resolve the matter peacefully.  Yet, much thought needs to be given to possible politico-military circumstances under which the Government of India might realise and decide that a given Sino-Indian military build-up, stand-off or confrontation is no longer to be considered to be a mere skirmish between the respective armies (whether or not supported by their respective air forces in an air-land battle) but one in which the Republic of India in its entirety is engaged in armed conflict  against the People’s Republic of China. There is, therefore, a critical need to review all aspects of military-risk — land-based, maritime and airborne — vis-à-vis China.  Any assessment by India of prevailing or future military-risk must straddle both, the Indian Army’s conventional obsession with ‘threats’ as well as the Navy’s fixation upon ‘interests’.  It is important to remember that an ‘interest’ will always be preserved, pursued, promoted and protected, irrespective of whether or not there is a threat upon it. 

At its simplest, ‘risk’ is the interrelation of two factors, namely, the ‘probability-of-occurrence’of a given event and ‘acceptability-of-loss’ should the event occur.  The military risk that China poses to India within the Indian Ocean Region is directly determined by China’s current level of maritime power.  What does that mean?

Maritime power is the ability of a nation-state to use the seas of its interest for its own purposes, while dissuading or deterring or denying others the use of the seas in ways that are to its disadvantage.  It manifests itself as ‘political’, ‘economic’ and ‘military’ power, exercised through the use of the sea.  The ‘military’ component of maritime power is vested in a navy and sometimes, a coast guard or even a police organisation.  These then become instruments of a nation’s foreign and economic policies.  Major maritime powers almost invariably have some mix of all three of these instruments, but this mix is heavily weighted in favour of the navy.  Indeed, the centrality of a navy, to not just military maritime power but to maritime power per se is so very marked because a navy is the principal enabling instrument that allows other facets of maritime power to be exercised without let or hindrance.  It is also (often in combination with a coast guard or police organisation), the preventive instrument to dissuade, deter or prevent other inimical entities — whether State or non-State ones — from using the seas in ways that are disadvantageous to the State that owns that navy. 

Through the mechanism of external merchandise trade, economics plays a central role in determining the power of nations relative to one another.  Consequently, economic concerns form a major component of a country’s geopolitics.What geopolitics itself is may be readily understood from the following equation:

When a strategy needs to be operated outside of the country, it is known as ‘geostrategy’.  A ‘strategy’ is not quite the same as a plan.  A plan mainly addresses the question ‘how?’.  A strategy, on the other hand, not only addresses the question of ‘how?’, but, in addition, answers the questions: ‘what?’, ‘where?’, ‘why?’, ‘when?’ and ‘who?’.  Strategy retains its focus upon the overall desired end-result, constantly reviewing every possible influencing factor, and in so doing, not only generates fresh plans but also discards failed, failing or inefficient ones.  A strategy contains numerous subordinate spatial, temporal and event-based plans, by which something that is desired may be attained, especially over the long term.  A nation’s geostrategy is determined by two factors.  The first is a ‘fixed’ factor, namely, its geographic position. The second is the country’s strategic culture and is, quite clearly, a ‘variable’ factor.  It is derived from scholarship, a deep study of history and the derivation of lessons drawn from historical experience, and, the ability to identify security interests,forecast threats,assess risks, etc.In maritime terms, it is chiefly determined two factors. The first isthe nation’s dependence upon the sea for its economic wellbeing. The second is the maritime bent of mind of the government and the people. Modern China, quite like post-Independence India, is only now beginning to understand the critical role played by maritime geostrategy in furthering its economy. 

Four core imperatives drive the relationship between the Communist Party of China (CPC) to the Chinese State, as also the relationship of the Chinese State with the world at large. These are:

(1) Regime-Survival.

(2) The maintenance of ‘Face’ and, by corollary, the avoidance of ‘loss-of-face’.

(3) Domestic Stability.

(4) Territorial-Integrity. 

These resonate well with the more formally-stated six core national interests of China , namely, (1) State sovereignty; (2) National security; (3) Territorial integrity; (4) National reunification; (5) China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability; (6) Basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.

However, it is important to understand that the commonly-used term ‘core interest’, as used by the Chinese leadership, does not have direct correspondence with the same term used by India — or, for that matter, by almost all other nation-states. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) uses the term to signal a more vigorous attempt to lay down a marker, or type of warning, regarding the need for other countries to respect (indeed, accept with little if any negotiation) China’s position on certain issues that Beijing considers important enough to go to war over.  As China’s geoeconomic power impacts and dwarfs other regional and State economies, Beijing’s geostrategy incorporates an incremental increase of geographically-specific regions as its ‘core interests’.  Examples include Xinjiang, the Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR], the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea (which technically belong to Taiwan!), and, very nearly the whole of the South China Sea. 

China’s geoeconomic needs have not only generated a much more aggressive geostrategy, but also a marked inclination for other nation-states to simply acquiesce to whatever China propounded to be its latest ‘core interest’.  In Beijing, this acquiescence appears to have been understood as tacit acknowledgement of China’s intrinsic and inherent superiority to all other geo-political entities and peoples.  This self-concept is driven by the millennia-old Chinese belief that China is the ‘Middle Kingdom’, at the very centre of global civilisation, surrounded by barbarian vassals.  This is a view that largely defines China’s sense of national identity.  Thus, amongst the Chinese power-elites within the CPC — and the Central Military Commission (CMC) — the lack of any ‘pushback’ from other global and regional powers to China’s assertions has led to a palpable sense of disdain rather than concern.

In analysing China’s military strategy and the risk it represents to India, it is essential to understand three central features of the People’s Republic.  The first is the criticality of the continuity and supremacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC).  The second is the Chinese economy.  The third is the uniquely-Chinese concept of ‘Face’.  All three are very closely linked.  If the economy should falter or fail, the continuity of the CPC (regime-continuity) — or, at the very least, its continued supremacy — will become quite uncertain.  Likewise, the Chinese sense of identity is inextricably linked to this concept of ‘face’ and a national loss of face is likely to be far less acceptable than a mere ‘temporary’ loss of territory or military-assets.  This is a critical feature, for it offers India several military-strategic options in dealing with China.  On the other hand, it also complicates resolution of the current Doklam Plateau standoff. 

China’s White Paper of May 2015 forms the basis of our understanding of China’s Military Strategy.  While specifying outer space and cyberspace to be the new commanding heights in strategic competition among all parties, this document reserves its sharpest thrust for the development of Chinese maritime power upon the oceans. This is understandable, given that China’s top strategic concerns include America’s pivot towards the Indo-Pacific, Japan’s recasting of its military and security policies, the regional resistance being offered to Beijing’s 9-Dash Line and its assertive activities in the Spratly Islands,and, the growing prowess of the Indian Navy.  Of even greater significance is the fact that the oceans are central to China’s economic wellbeing.  Indeed, the economy is simultaneously China’s greatest strength and its greatest vulnerability and, therefore, it is the centrepiece of the country’s policy and strategy. This is equally true of India. An ever-increasing demand for energy fuels China’s (and India’s) economic growth.  Although the share of coal is still the largest in the energy-basket of both countries, oil consumption is growing so rapidly that it is driving the foreign policy and security perspectives of both China and India.

In 1985, China was East Asia’s largest exporter of oil.  In 1993, China became a net importer and, in 2015, it became the largest importer of crude oil on the planet, with oil imports amounting to just over 1 million metric tons per day.  By 2020, this figure will rise to an incredible 1.25 million metric tons of crude-oil every day.Although there are three major international pipelines bringing crude oil into China (the Eastern Siberian Pacific Ocean [ESPO] pipeline, the Kazakhstan-China pipeline, and, the Myanmar-China pipeline), these account for less than 15% of China’s oil imports.  85% of these imports comes by sea — on board large oil-tankers.

It should be noted that an average crude-oil tanker carries about 80,000 metric tons of crude oil, while an average Very Large Crude-oil Carrier (VLCC) carries a cargo of about 250,000 metric tons of crude oil.So if China were to import 1.25 million metric tons of oil per day (in 2020 or earlier) and if all of it were to come on non-VLCC tankers, China will require 16 tankers per day.  If all of it were to come on VLCCs, the requirement willbe for 5 VLCCs per day!  These are astounding numbers.  What do they mean in terms of possible naval warfare?  Targets.  For China, these constitute targets to be protected.  For China’s maritime adversaries, these are targets capable of being interdicted or captured.  What about corresponding Indian targets, given that India’s own imports of crude oilalready account for 80% of the country’s overall demand?It is true that for both countries, the principal sources of supply of petroleum-based energy lie either in the Indian Ocean, or must travel across the Indian Ocean.

The difference is that India is located in the Indian Ocean, but China is not.  Consequently, this life-blood of the Chinese economy must necessarily pass through several of the Indian Ocean’s maritime choke-points such as the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca and the Strait of Lombok.  These choke-points constitute major vulnerabilities for China and the mitigation of these vulnerabilities is a strategic imperative of very significant proportions.It is clear that with the geographic competition-space between India and China coinciding in the Indian Ocean, there is a very significant risk of economic competition transforming into armed conflict.  China accordingly seeks to shape its probable battle-space by enabling access and logistic-support to Chinese commercial and State entities (including military entities) throughout China’s areas of geopolitical interest.  As in the famous Chinese game of ‘Go’, the People’s Republic is putting in place the pieces that will shape her desired geopolitical space. 

It is this very geostrategy that then-Lt Col Christopher J Pehrson, USAF, had, in his 2006 dissertation written at the US Army War College, termed the ‘String of Pearls’.   This expression, first used in January 2005, in a report to US military officials prepared by the US consulting-firm of Booz-Allen Hamilton, rapidly caught the world’s imagination.  PehrsonprjectedChina as a slightly sinister, rising global power, playing a new strategic game, as grandiose in its concept, formulation and execution as the “Great Game” of the 19th Century.  Despite vehement and frequent denials by the Chinese leadership of any such geostrategic machinations designed at the assimilation of enhanced geopolitical and geo-economic power and influence, the expression rapidly embedded itself into mainstream consciousness. 

The net result was that for over a decade, China has chafed under criticism heaped upon it for a concept that Beijing had never once articulated.  However, in a brilliant re-branding exercise by Beijing in 2014, the world’s attention is being increasingly drawn away from the negative connotations associated with the phrase ‘String of Pearls’ and towards the much more benign-sounding ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt’, also known as ‘One Road One Belt’.  It is important to note that while this is certainly an alternative and far more acceptable term or expression — it nevertheless covers essentially the very same geo-strategic maritime gameplays that Colonel Pehrson explained a decade ago.  The new expression emphasises trans-regional inclusiveness and evokes the romance of a shared pan-Asian history with the implied promise of a reestablishment of the economic prosperity that the Asian continent’s major civilizational and socio-cultural entities, namely China and India, enjoyed until the 18th Century. 

Each ‘pearl’ in the ‘String of Pearls’ construct — or in more contemporary parlance,  each ‘node’ along the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ — is a link in a chain of Chinese geo-political and geo-strategic influence.  It is by no means necessary for a line joining these pearls/nodes to encompass China in one of the concentric ripples typified by the Island Chains strategy.  In fact, since the ‘String of Pearls’ (or the ‘Maritime Silk Route’) is a true maritime construct, it is highly unlikely that they would do so.  Thus, for example, Hainan Island, with its recently upgraded military facilities and sheltered submarine base, is a pearl/node.   Other pearls/nodes include the recent creation of artificial islands in the Paracel and Spratly islands incorporating, amongst others, the ongoing construction/upgrade of airstrips and the installation of missiles in several of the Paracel Islands, located some 300 nm east of Vietnam — as also on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands.  Additional pearls/nodes are obtained through Chinese investments being made in Cambodia and China’s continuing interest in Thailand’s Isthmus of Kra.  China’s development of major maritime infrastructure abroad — the container-terminal in Chittagong, Bangladesh, the Maday crude-oil terminal in Myanmar’s Kyakpyu port; the development of ports such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan, Bagamoyo in Tanzania, Beira in Mozambique, Walvis Bay in Namibia, Kribi in Cameroon’ the Djibouti Multipurpose Port (DMP), Gadhoo port in Maldives, along with the successful establishment of a military (naval) base in Djibouti  — all constitute yet more pearls/nodes.  The development of two atolls in Maldives, oil-infrastructure projects in Sudan and Angola, and the financing of newly discovered massive gas-finds in offshore areas of Mozambique, Tanzania and the Comoros, are similarly recently acquired pearls/nodes.  Even Australia yields a pearl/node, as does South Africa, thanks to Chinese strategic investment in mining in general and uranium-mining companies in particular, in both countries.

It is very important to bear in mind that where China is concerned, the ‘short-term’ generally implies 30 to 50 years.  This is an epoch that is far in excess of what in India passes as the ‘long term’.  Consequently, India often fails to pay as close attention to developments in China as she might have were the developments to unfold in a duration corresponding to India’s own ‘short-term’ (2-5 years).  This permits China to achieve strategic surprise, particularly in terms of military strategy.  It must also be remembered that these strategic-constructs are not only about maritime-infrastructure projects involving the construction of ports, pipelines and airfields, even though these constitute their most obvious and visibly worrisome manifestation.  They are equally about new, renewed, or, re-invigorated geopolitical and diplomatic ties between the People’s Republic of China and nation-states across a very wide geographical swath (including the African littoral and the island-nations of both, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean).  China’s strategic maritime-constructs have important military spin-offs as well.  By developing friendly ports-of-call (if not bases), facilities and favourable economic dependencies in the various ‘pearls’/’nodes’, the logistics involved in the event of a requirement to engage in maritime power-projection, are greatly eased. 

However, everything is not yet favourable for Beijing.  For instance, China faces significant problems in terms of ground-control stations to meet her satellite-based needs of real-time surveillance in the Indian Ocean.  Despite one satellite ground station in Kandy, Sri Lanka, China simply does not have adequate ground-control/tracking stations within the Indian Ocean to effect requisite ground-control and real-time downlinking of her remote-sensing satellites.  This forces her to deploy a number of ships (the Yuanwang Class) for this purpose.  These constitute a severe vulnerability that China certainly needs to overcome.  One way of doing so is to establish ‘infrastructure’ and ‘acceptability’ along the IOR island-states as also along the East African littoral.  This is precisely what China is attempting to do. 

A major gap in respect of China’s strategy to provide military protection to the country’s geoeconomic and geostrategic activities is in the lack of integral air power that is provided by a Carrier Battle Group (CBG).  China is rapidly learning that while one can buy or build an aircraft carrier in just a couple of years, it takes many more years to be able to develop the human, material, logistic and doctrinal skills required for competent and battle-worthy carrier-borne aviation.  It is true that for nearly a decade now, China has demonstrated her ability to sustain persistent military (naval) presence in the Indian Ocean — but this is in a low threat environment.  Combat-capability is, of course, quite different from mere ‘presence’ or even the ability to maintain anti-piracy forces, since the threat posed to China by disparate groups of poorly armed, equipped and led pirates can hardly be equated with that posed by a powerful and competent military adversary in times of conflict.  Despite the impressive growth of the Chinese Navy and vigour of the Chinese military strategy, China may not — for the immediate present — have the combat-capability to deploy for any extended period of time in support of its geo-economic and geostrategic reach were the latter to be militarily contested by a major maritime power such as India and its navy. 

Moreover, the overall combat capabilities — comprising the various  weapon-sensor suites, the software-intensive integration systems, the integral-air capacity, and, the propulsion and power-generation plants — of both, contemporary Indian guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) and guided-missile frigates (FFGs) compare quite favourably with those of the Chinese Navy.  In a combat encounter between major surface combatants, the Indian Navy is very likely to acquit itself well.  However, naval warfare is typically one in which the ‘hunter’ and the ‘hunted’ switch roles with disconcerting frequency and often operate in entirely different mediums.  Thus, the capability of current and future Indian warships must also be assessed against air threats (including anti-ship missiles) and underwater threats emanating from both, conventionally and nuclear-propelled submarines.  Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) within most parts of the northern Indian Ocean — most especially in the Arabian Sea — is adversely impacted by a ubiquitous negative temperature-gradient.  This significantly shortens the detection range of hull-mounted sonars.  On the other hand, towed-array sonars and ship-mounted variable-depth sonars impose often-unaffordable operational penalties in terms of manoeuvrability and speed — quite apart from a host of maintenance-related technological challenges that industry needs to wrestle with.  Indian FFG and DDG ship-designs have long featured the carriage of two 10-13 metric-ton multi-role / ASW helicopters aboard every such platform.  An ASW helicopter, equipped with a variable-depth sonar with high-end processing capabilities, sonobuoys, and a good EW suite, is the optimum platform for seaborne ASW and the Navy requires these in adequate numbers so as to take advantage of the potential offered by excellent ship-design.  For the present, the absence of multi-role helicopters has rendered this design-advantage null and void.  Much promise was initially held out by the indigenous ‘Advanced Light Helicopter’ (ALH) Dhruv.  However, the technological challenges of folding rotor-blades and minimising the downwash while the helicopter is in hover continue to frustrate efforts to embed this helicopter within the integral-air capacity of the Indian Navy.  As and when our otherwise very-capable surface-combatants need to operate in a combat-environment characterised by a substantive subsurface threat, this lack of integral ASW helicopters might well prove decisive.  In contrast, Chinese ships have a carrying-capacity of just a single helicopter, but successful reverse-engineering of the French Dauphin has resulted in the Harbin-Z that is integral to Chinese warships. 

Perhaps the most telling factor in favour of the Chinese Navy is its impressive holding of refuelling-tankers and stores/ammunition-supply ships, particularly those capable of ‘underway replenishment’.  These provide the Chinese Navy with what is known as ‘reach’.  The six Qiandaohu Class (Type 903A) replenishment vessels displace 23,000 metric tons, compared with the two 19500 metric-ton replenishment-tankers of the Indian Navy’s Deepak Class.  Although the five Dayun Class (Type 904) stores-supply ships of the Chinese Navy are incapable of underway replenishment, they do add significantly to their Navy’s amphibious follow-on capacity.  Seeking to catch-up, the India has begun the process of construction of five large 40,000metric-ton ‘Fleet Support Ships’ (FSS) for the Indian Navy.  Although the delivery of the first ship has been specified as 36 months (with subsequent ships being delivered at six-monthly intervals), there is little evidence as yet of any significant progress.  

In conclusion, the risk of a combination of geoeconomics and Chinese sensitivity to any loss of face driving a transformation of economic competition into conflict is assessed to be a medium-to-high one.  India currently enjoys several advantages in the maritime domain, especially within the Indian Ocean and so China will need to buy time to address her corresponding vulnerabilities.  However, if India were to continue to highlight shortfalls in current Chinese capacity and capability and smugly conclude that it will take the PLA Navy at least fifteen years to station a standing, battle-worthy naval squadron in the Indian Ocean, this would lull Indians into underplaying Chinese determination and the speed of that country’s military growth.  This would carry the very real consequent possibility of India suffering a massive strategic surprise.  This is not something that India can afford.


VAdm. Pradeep Chauhan (Retd.)




भारत डिफेंस कवच की नई हिन्दी पत्रिका ‘डिफेंस मॉनिटर’ का ताजा अंक ऊपर दर्शाया गया है। इसके पहले दस पन्ने आप मुफ्त देख सकते हैं। पूरी पत्रिका पढ़ने के लिए कुछ राशि का भुगतान करना होता है। पुराने अंक आप पूरी तरह फ्री पढ़ सकते हैं। पत्रिका के अंकों पर क्लिक करें और देखें। -संपादक

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