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Naval Strategies of India and China: Strengths and weaknesses
By Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan (Retd) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 11/19/2019 5:30:23 PM
Naval Strategies of India and China: Strengths and weaknesses

India’s security is determined by two sets of factors.  Both sets have numerous causal linkages with each other and the infirmities as well the strengths of one significantly impacts the other. The first comprises the policies, strategies, organisational-structures and the delivery-mechanisms that guide and shape India’s internal politics and determine her internal stability as a coherent geopolitical entity. The second set consists of elements that define and shape India’s interaction and interface with external structures,  including both, nation-states and non-State entities, either or both of which may, at given points in time, be either supportive or inimical to India’s own geopolitical endeavours.  While considering these geopolitical endeavours of India, it is a major conceptual error to place geopolitics, geoeconomics and geostrategy on the same hierarchical level. 

The fact is that every nation has a set of geoeconomic objectives that it strives to attain through the formulation and execution of one or more ‘strategies’ and its constituent ‘plans’.  (A ‘plan’ differs from a ‘strategy’ in that while a ‘plan’ will answer questions such as ‘what is to be done?’, ‘where is it to be done?’, ‘when is to be done?’, ‘how is to be done?’, ‘whom is it to be done by?’, ‘for how long is it to be done?’, a ‘strategy’, which is an amalgam of several plans organised along both, spatial and temporal lines, will, in addition, answer the question ‘why is to be done’).  Once a strategy has been formulated, a nation needs to put in place ‘assurance’ mechanisms (that will help assure the success of the strategy that has been formulated) and ‘insurance’ mechanisms’ (that will hep insure the State against a potential unravelling of its strategy).  These assurance and insurance mechanisms are typically the two instruments of foreign policy, namely, ‘diplomacy’ and the ‘military’.  Figure 1 offers a schematic depiction of this correct typology.  

It needs to be noted that militaries and their logistic-support structures (e.g., overseas bases) are major components of these ‘assurance and insurance mechanisms’.  However, it ought not to be assumed that diplomacy is used solely to avoid armed conflict while the military is used solely to prosecute armed conflict.  The truth, of course, is that diplomacy is frequently used to shape armed conflict and militaries are frequently used to prevent armed conflict. 

India’s ‘naval’ strategy, like that of China, is, a subset of the country’s maritime strategy.  In common with all littoral States, the maritime strategy of both these rising maritime powers is itself an amalgam of the various strategies that each has evolved in order to promote, pursue, preserve and protect its ‘maritime interests’.  These maritime interests — of both India and China — are subsets of the core national interest of each of the two States. They simultaneously flow-from and feed-into the core national interest.  The core national interest of India is drawn from the Directive Principles of State Policy set forth in Part IV of the Constitution of India.  It is: to ensure the economic, material and societal wellbeing of the people of India. 

In India’s case, six principal maritime interests flow-from and feed-into this core national interest.  These are:
(1)    Protection from sea-based threats to India’s territorial integrity.
(2)    Ensuring Stability in India’s maritime neighbourhood.
(3)    Creation, development, and sustenance of a ‘Blue’ Economy, incorporating:
(a)    The preservation, promotion, pursuit and protection of offshore infrastructure and maritime resources within and beyond the Maritime Zones of India (MZI).
(b)    The promotion, protection and safety of India’s  overseas and coastal seaborne trade and her Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), and, the ports that constitute the nodes of this trade.
(c)    Support to marine scientific research, including that in Antarctica and the Arctic.
(4)    Provision of ‘holistic’ maritime security — i.e., freedom from threats arising in- or through- or from the sea.
(5)    Provision of support succour and extrication-options to the Indian Diaspora.
(6)    Obtaining and retaining a regionally favourable geopolitical maritime-position.

It is critical to remember that India’s maritime interests are exclusively those of India.  As such, they are not dependent upon some other country.  Thus, even if we were to, hypothetically speaking, magically remove China, Pakistan, the USA, et al, from the Earth, it would not change India’s maritime interests one whit!

In the case of China, it might appear logical to assume that an articulation of the core national interest of China would merely require the word ‘India’ to be substituted by the word ‘China’.  However, there is, in fact, a major difference.  In contemporary China, the ‘people of China’ have been conflated with the Communist Party of China (CPC).  The core national interest of China, therefore, becomes ‘Regime Survival’, where the survival and wellbeing of the ‘regime’ is equated to the survival and wellbeing of the people themselves.  Indeed, Mao Zedong’s statement of 1973 was forcefully reiterated by China’s State news agency, Xinhua, after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held in Beijing between 18 and 24 October 2017 — “Party, government, military, civilian, and academic; east, west, south, north, and centre, the Party leads everything”.  

The net result of this is that while a listing of the maritime interests of China would strongly correspond to that in respect of India, each constituent maritime interest is geared to ensuring that the communist regime not only survives but actually thrives. 

Both India and China have formulated geostrategies to preserve, promote, pursue and protect their respective maritime interests in the possible environmental conditions of peace, tension and conflict.  It is at this level of the foregoing typology of geopolitics that the differences between the two countries become stark.  This is especially because both have the same ‘strategic geography’, especially in maritime terms.  Before proceeding any further, it is necessary to be clear about this relatively unfamiliar expression ‘strategic geography’ and to recognise the manner in which it is to be distinguished from ‘real’ geography’.  If one were to take a chart or map that depicts ‘real’ geography and then place upon it a set of coordinates defined by specific latitudes and longitudes, and, within the area that has been so bounded or enclosed, if one were to then give special focus — at the national-level — in terms of the planning and execution of one’s geopolitical strategies, this enclosed or bounded area would define one’s  ‘strategic geography’.  Obviously, the strategic geography of one country, say India for instance, can hardly be expected to be the same as that of, say, Maldives, or, for that matter, the USA.  As such, every geopolitically defined ‘region’ is an artificial, manmade construct, whose defining-boundaries can be (and often are) different for different geopolitical players. 

As a sovereign nation, the name that India has chosen to give to this geographic space is the ‘Indo-Pacific’.  Other sovereign nations may well have given the same name to their own respective strategic-geographies, but this is no more or less than the ill-founded expectation that the several persons who bear the same name — Ashok Kumar, for instance — should be identical to one another!  Likewise, every geopolitically defined ‘region’ is an artificial, manmade construct, whose defining-boundaries can be (and often are) different for different geopolitical players.  This is as true of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as it is of any other ‘region’.  Thus, the fact that India’s spatial construct of the Indo-Pacific might conceptually differ from that of another country is perfectly normal and entirely unexceptional. 

The Indo-Pacific is not, in and of itself, a strategy.  It is merely an inclusive articulation of India’s ‘strategic geography’.  India conceives of the Indo-Pacific not as being ‘against’ some other construct, but as being ‘for’ the universally beneficial development of all societal structures to be found within it, based upon internationally accepted rules. Inclusivity, and, transparency, are fundamental to India’s Indo-Pacific formulation.  For India, ‘inclusiveness’ implies the use of existing regional mechanisms to promote dialogue-based approaches to the resolution of differences, the enhancement of economic cooperation, the sharing of maritime space and airspace, and the willingness to work with all countries in the region.Likewise, India holds that ‘transparency’ denotes openness of both intent and action. 

Thus, the principal maritime geostrategy that India has adopted within its strategic-geography is that of ‘Constructive Engagement’.  This is a concept founded upon inclusivity and rests upon the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats.  In other words, India’s foundational belief is that the Indian economy cannot ride upon a crest while the economies of other State entities within the Indo-Pacific are wallowing in a trough.  The Indian Prime Ministerial concept of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) is the prime example of the centrality that India accords to inclusivity and transparency in its efforts at constructive engagement.  Maritime connectivity — physical, digital, cultural and people-to-people — is an important component of this inclusivity. 

India’s own maritime strategy could be indicated by the acronym ‘NAMO’s BEQUEST’, even though this mnemonic certainly does not define it in its entirety.   The acronym expands as follows:

N =    International North-South Transport Corridor (providing multi-modal connectivity
between ports on India’s west coast to St Peterberg in Russia, via Bandar Abbas/Chabahar, Amirabad, the Caspian Sea, Astara, and Astrakhan, thereby opening up an east-west connectivity from Baku [Azarbaijan] eastward to the Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan, and westward to Central Europe — see Figure 3)

A =    Asia-Africa Growth Corridor
M =     Project MAUSAM (which is the root word for ‘monsoon’ and connotes the huge waves
of religio-cultural connectivity provided by four of the world’s great religions — Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and, Buddhism — all of which spread eastward by riding the ‘monsoon’ winds, so-to-speak)
      O =           Free and Open Indo-Pacific
      S =          SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region)

     B =    Pursuit of a ‘Blue’ Economy as exemplified by BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for
               Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation)
    E =    Eastward Focus (‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policies)
    Q =    QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue)
    U =     Underwater Domain Awareness (a subset of Maritime Domain Awareness that is of
              particular significance vis-à-vis China)
    E =    Energy Security
    S =    SAGARMALA (Port-led development)
    T =     Transparency (Openness of Intent and Action)

China, on the other hand, has adopted the ‘Four Shas’ as its strategic construct of choice within the South China Sea.  This strategic construct replaces the previous emphasis that had been laid by Beijing upon the ‘Nine-Dash Line’ and is pictorially depicted in Figure 3. 

Beyond the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (the maritime component of the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI]) is China’s major maritime strategy for the attainment of its geoeconomic objectives.  In sharp contrast with the concept of SAGAR, the BRI is an extractive model that is exclusively designed to further the economic objectives of Beijing, with little or no concern for the economic impact (or lack thereof) upon the countries that it addresses.  This culturally insensitive approach is bedded in the historical view that China has consistently had, wherein it is the ‘middle kingdom’ surrounded by barbarian kingdoms whose very raison d’être (reason for existing) is to provide tribute in one or another form to China.  For all its apparent initial-attractiveness, the BRI is increasingly facing a negative-backlash from a number of countries ranging from Malaysia and Indonesia to Tanzania and extending all the way to Europe.

Turning now to the naval strategies of India and China, as has already been stated, these are subsets of each nation’s maritime strategies and are the ‘assurance’ and ‘insurance’ mechanisms for the maritime geostrategies by means of which each country seeks to achieve its geoeconomic objectives (as also its non-geoeconomic ones such as prestige, status, etc).  These naval strategies are also functions of the naval capacity and capability of India and China respectively.  As such, it is important to be clear about the difference between these two terms, namely, ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’, especially because far too many Indians tend to use the two interchangeably.  ‘Capacity’ relates to ‘material’ wherewithal — i.e., the provision of hardware (ships, submarines, aircraft, physical infrastructure, equipment, spares, etc.).  ‘Capability’, on the other hand, refers to the realisation of a potential ‘aptitude’ or ‘ability’.  It is mostly by way of intangibles and cognitive processes (organisation, human skills, training, maintenance, life-cycle costing, operational-exploitation doctrines, administrative set-up, a legal-framework, etc). 

Obviously, both ‘capacity’ and ‘capability’ need to be contextualised to a geographic setting — in this case, the Indo-Pacific.  This geographic contextualisation embraces not merely the ability to navies to operate in the oceanic reaches of the Indo-Pacific, but the relative ease or difficulties experienced by them in accessing these blue waters in the first instance.  While it is true that geography certainly does not mechanistically dictate naval action, ‘location’ does matter and, in seeking to assure and ensure a nation’s pursuit of its geoeconomic objectives, naval strategies are at least partially shaped by the constraints and opportunities generated by geography.  Neither India nor China are true island-States.  As such, each of them not only require an army and a navy, but also a separate fleet per sea that they border.  Thus, India requires at least two fleets, while the realities this maritime geography of China forces it to split its naval forces into three distinct fleets. 

India, with a  peninsula that juts a thousand kilometres into the Indian Ocean, is blessed with one of the finest maritime geographies in the world and can access the ocean with consummate ease.  China, on the other hand, has an extraordinarily poor maritime geography.  Although it has a coastline of 14,500 km (which is nearly double that of India’s 7516 km), its oceanic access is severely constrained, as may be seen in Figure 4, by a double-string of island-chains owned by countries such as Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines — all of whom lean towards the USA in geopolitical terms and none of whom are consequently geopolitically well disposed towards Beijing.  
The ships and submarines of each of China’s three naval fleets can be physically consolidated only by traversing SLOCs that are straddled by these inimical powers.  While it is true that geography certainly does not mechanistically dictate naval action, it is equally true that location does matter and, in seeking to assure and ensure a nation’s pursuit of its geoeconomic objectives, naval strategies are at least partially shaped by the constraints and opportunities generated by geography.  As stated in 1942 by the American geostrategist, Nicholas Spykman, “it is the geographic location of a country and its relations to centres of military power that define its problem[s] of security”.

Beyond geography, the very different naval strengths and weaknesses of the Indian and Chinese navies determine the freedom with which the naval strategy of each country can be executed.  In terms of capacity-building, China’s warship construction programme in the past 25 years has been nothing short of spectacular and far outstrips all global competitors.  This is particularly true of major warships of higher displacement-tonnage.

Indeed, displacement-tonnage is a very good indicator of the ability of a warship to endure the violence of the maritime environment — something that generally increases with distance from the coast.  Thus, warships of heavier displacement-tonnage are more likely to be suitable for protracted deployments in ‘blue waters’ than are those of lighter displacement-tonnage.  In this regard, the comparative total-tonnage of the major surface combatants of the Chinese and the Indian navies is overwhelmingly in China’s favour, as may be seen in Figure 5.  It is important to note that while the tonnage of the individual warship-classes that constitute each navy has been rising, and while there is not much to give or take between the comparative tonnages of Chinese and Indian frigates or destroyers, it is the stark disparity in the sheer numbers of Chinese and Indian warships that make the overall tonnage that each navy can put to sea so different from each other.

What all this brings out quite starkly is that although Indian warship construction / induction is certainly picking-up and although the tonnage-trend is a healthy one, this is, nevertheless, very nearly a case of ‘too-little-too-late’.  Indian ship-building has to show a dramatic increase of the type shown by Chinese shipyards, most especially in the period after 2010.  Despite the proclivity of our defence shipyards to ‘cut-off their noses to spite their faces’ by refusing to accept their capacity-limitations and encourage private players, there is an urgent need for greenfield shipyards in the country to either build relatively low-end platforms so as to free-up capacity in the more established defence shipyards, or to take up construction of major surface-combatants themselves.  The latter could, perhaps, be under a ‘prime system-integrator’ model.  As such there is, enormous scope for private players in the national effort to ratchet-up numbers in the Indian Navy’s DDG and FFG holdings.  In the interim, the Government of India and its Navy will have to rely upon nimble-footedness at the strategic level as well as at the level of operational art, so that even should a conflict with China arise, the entire numerical strength of the principal combatants of the Chinese Navy are not capable of being arrayed against it en masse. 

However, it should not be concluded from this that the Chinese Navy is able to run roughshod over all opposition, particularly in the Indian Ocean.  The lack of ‘integral’ air power in the PLA Navy, by way of one or more combat-capable Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs), is a crippling one.  The fact that the Liaoning is in operation is operationally meaningless in the context of the Indian Ocean, because to operate a CBG several hundred miles from one’s own shores is a capability that takes a couple of decades or more to acquire. This is where the Indian Navy holds a decided advantage, albeit one that is shrinking with the passage of time. 

For the moment, the overall combat capacities and 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.  The Indian Navy has great confidence in its operational, human and training capabilities, and, in a combat encounter between major surface combatants, the Indian Navy is very likely to acquit itself well. 

Within the underwater domain, however, Chinese nuclear propelled submarines offer China very significant advantage and the Indian Navy needs to bend all its efforts in ensuring a high probability of detection of such submarines as they transit the straits connecting the Pacific and the Indian oceans.  Once detected, India’s superior airborne antisubmarine aircraft — both fixed-wing (P8-India) and rotary-wing (helicopters such as the soon-to-be-acquired MH 60-R Seahawks) are quite capable of ‘turning on the heat’, but for the immediate present, the advantage lies with China.

India’s naval strategy of mission-based deployments is an impressive and effective one.  However, this is a surveillance-centric one that is being sustained at significant societal cost.  (Major combatants are spending somewhere around 280-300 days at sea per year with minimal or no societal-support structures in place).  Even in purely operational terms, in times of hostility, the Indian Navy will have to concentrate firepower at locations of its choosing and this will require at the very least, three operational CBGs.  Until that happy state comes to pass, the naval advantage that India possesses — even within the Indian Ocean alone — will be difficult to press home against a determined and capable naval adversary.

Vice Adm. Pradeep Chauhan (Retd)

(The Author is a Veteran Defence Expert and Director-General, National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi)




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