By Abhijit Singh
China’s new military strategy white paper released last week has created a stir in India. The document, released by China’s State Council, the chief administrative body of the Chinese government, calls for a hardened maritime posture, not just in China’s near-seas but also in the distant oceanic spaces – a proposition that has Indian political pundits and strategic experts worried.
In the past few days, New Delhi has been abuzz with speculation concerning China’s new military strategy. Four aspects have been highlighted: “Open seas protection” replacing “offshore defense” as the mainstay of the China’s maritime strategy; a shift in air operations from territorial air defence to both “defence and offence”; an increase in the mobility of the PLA; and the strengthening of Chinese nuclear forces for “medium and long-range precision strikes.” India’s maritime analysts see these proposals in the context of the central theme of the paper– the “safeguarding of Chinese maritime rights and interests. For them, the crucial shifts in PLA strategic thinking are clearly evident. From ground maneuvers to joint naval/aerospace operations and attendant changes in future military modernization, every section of the white paper attempts to establish a structural correlation between China’s overseas interests and its maritime strategy.
Not surprisingly, most Indian discussions revolve around one key announcement: a gradual shift in PLA-N (People’s Liberation Navy) operations to “offshore defense with open seas protection.”The document’s assertion that the Chinese navy will soon “enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack, maritime maneuvers, joint operations at sea, comprehensive defense and comprehensive support,” has alarmed Indian observers because such maritime missions represent an enhanced capacity for sustained presence in the IOR littorals.
Not everyone is convinced though of sinister Chinese designs in the Indian Ocean. For many Indian watchers, the timing of the document’s release says a lot about its core message and intended addresses. At a time of heightened regional tensions over Chinese reclamation of disputed islands of the South China Sea, Beijing’s new military strategy is meant to signal increased resolve to the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific. The document pointedly raises the possibility of “military struggle” if Washington and its allies in the Pacific continue taking a hard line on China’s activities in the South China Sea. In keeping with the popular nationalistic sentiment in China, it recommends a muscular approach in dealing with maritime territorial threats.
In one significant area, however, there is wide consensus among Indian analysts of a possible Indian Ocean connotation: the new document’s emphasis on high-seas presence and offensive naval operations as a means of enabling China’s transformation into a true maritime power. China’s focus, the white paper states, will be on “building a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure.” The shift to an expeditionary combat template is noteworthy, for it highlights China’s desire for a bigger security role on the global stage, especially the wider Pacific region where the new paper projects the PLA as a virtuous entity.
For New Delhi, it is no coincidence that a key component of President Xi’s recent proposal committing $46 billion to China-Pakistan economic corridor, is the development of Gwadar Port – a potential staging-post for the Chinese and a crown jewel in a new ‘silk noose’ around the Indian peninsula. With crucial sites in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Maldives forming part of a broader network of naval logistical bases, Indian analysts suspect China could soon be chipping away at India’s regional maritime influence.
Interestingly, while the paper does not refer to Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), some parts of the paper resonate with previous Chinese semi-official documents which do address that contentious theme. There are echoes, for instance, with the Blue-Book in the Indian Ocean, released two years ago by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). Modestly named “Development Report in the Indian Ocean,” the 2013 document painted a comprehensive picture of China’s growing economic and security interests in the Indian Ocean, including the possibility of the PLA-N playing a larger security role in the region. In a curious parallel, the latest white paper mentions the need for the PLA-N to pay “close attention to the challenges in new security domains,” and also work hard to “seize the strategic initiative in military competition.”
To be sure, Indian observers realize China’s hardened military posture isn’t essentially meant to target India. The white paper is a clear response to U.S.-led moves to constrict Beijing’s strategic space in the South China Sea and the East Sea, especially the release of fresh guidelines for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation, binding Washington and Tokyo in a tighter strategic embrace.
New Delhi, however, cannot help noticing that the new document offers no reasonable explanation for Chinese reclamation in the South China Sea. It is baffling for Indian observers that after 18 months of massive geo-engineering activity resulting in the reclamation of over 2000 acres of submerged islands and reefs, Beijing brazenly claims the facilities setup are benign in nature. For many in New Delhi, not only does Chinese defiance (in the face of evidence to the contrary) represent a blatant attempt at reshaping the status quo in the South China Sea, it is also an illustration of Beijing’s expansionist maritime thinking. The PLA-N’s stated far-seas strategy, they point out, aims to establish a robust military posture in the IOR, a suspicion validated by recent media reports of a Chinese attempt to establish a naval logistics base in Djibouti.
Even so, India’s official response to the latest development has been one of characteristic guardedness. Following the Naval Commanders’ Conference in New Delhi last week, the Navy Chief, Admiral Robin Dhowan observed that “Chinese maritime activities in the Indian Ocean were being monitored minutely,” a cautious reflection of Indian anxieties over the recent Chinese deployments in the IOR. The Indian navy, he pointed out, has been emphasizing its own plans to develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a strategic outpost – crucial in countering Chinese influence in the region. The IN has even released a 15-year perspective plan for infrastructure creation, a clear indication of India’s strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean.
Still, there is much wariness in official circles about hyping up the Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean. Many senior Indian naval officers acknowledge China’s economic interests in the Indian Ocean and its need to secure the vital sea lines of communication. A section of India’s strategic elite too feels there is a strong case for greater engagement with China. The pragmatists oppose trilateral maritime exercises in the IOR involving India and the U.S., even while pushing for greater nautical cooperation with China. Not surprisingly, the Indian navy has extended an invitation to the PLA-N to participate in the International Fleet Review at Visakhapatnam in 2016. At the same time, officials are desisting from Japan’s participation in the Malabar exercises later this year, in a possible move to assuage Chinese concerns.
While there is merit in maritime engagement with China, India needs to come up with a more imaginative response than “episodic engagement” to deal effectively with increasing presence in the IOR. The new defesce strategy white paper is a cautionary that China’s stated ambition to be a formidable force in the global security affairs is driven by cold calculations of national power. The issue is not so much of a shift in the Indian Ocean’s balance of maritime power, as one concerning the erosion of Indian capacity and political will to impose a deterrent cost on Chinese maritime misadventures in the Indian Ocean Region.
Abhijit Singh is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence studies and Analyses (IDSA) at New Delhi. He looks maritime security in the Indo-Pacific Region. He has written extensively on maritime issues, including research papers on the Iranian and Pakistani naval forces, and on the subject of “India’s expanding maritime reach”.
Abhijit is co-editor of the 2013 book Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. He also assisted the erstwhile official historian of the Indian Navy, late Vice Admiral GM Hiranandani (Retd), in the authorship of the third volume of Indian Naval History “Transition to Guardianship.”