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Defence & SecurityGeopolitics & Strategy

Time for India to activate its Maritime Fulcrum in the Indo-Pacific Area to serve its strategic interests; By Commodore R. S. Vasan IN (Retd.)

C3S Article no: 0066/2017

Backdrop. The Doklam standoff has been the longest in recent history of Sino-Indian bilateral relations. Both sides have hardened the position and are unrelenting in withdrawing from their respective positions. India has clearly stated that the status quo as it existed on 15th June 2017 should be restored and both sides should withdraw. China on the other hand has said that this “double withdrawal” is not acceptable indicating a provocative mindset. Unlike China, India has been extremely mature in its statements and responses. China is impatient and uncomfortable with a resurgent India that stands up to the pugnaciousness of the big bully in the north. India has firmly backed Bhutan which felt threatened with the construction activity in a disputed area between China and Bhutan. Not only did this action by the Chinese attempt to alter the status quo but also threatened the Indian strategic advantage at the tri junction.

While no side wants a war, the signs are ominous for a possible confrontation even if it is a limited one a la Kargil. India has time and again reiterated that this is not 1962 and the Indian armed forces today are lot more capable and prepared to ward off this aggression.  Within five years of the loss of face in the Sino Indian war of 1962, the Indian army challenged the Chinese incursions in its territory near Natula in 1967 which resulted in heavy casualties on the Chinese side and later in 1986 when the Indian Army under General Sunderji  in an operation code named Operation Falcon sprang many strategic surprises including lifting troops  by use of heavy lift helicopters and aircraft  which encircled the intruding forces of China and ensured that the intruders withdrew withno loss of territory along the line of control. The application of air power was novel considering that during 1962, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was not used due to unexplainable reasons.

Lessons from Kargil. There are many lessons from Kargil which will help India to shape its responses. In the case of Kargil, the entire conflict was localised and even the Indian Air Force was not allowed to cross the LAC. The limitations of terrain and the inadequacies of weapon delivery systems brought about innovative ways deliver guided munitions where required. The IAF was fully prepared to expand the envelope of engagement if warranted. The Indian Navy mobilized its eastern fleet and both the fleets were deployed in the Arabian Sea for sending a clear message to Pakistan that India would not hesitate to use the Arabian Sea as a launching platform as in 1971 in support of the Army action should Pakistan indulge in a full-fledged war.

The maritime fulcrum.   In the backdrop of discussions above, the importance of opening up a maritime front and using the existing maritime environment is inescapable. China is not battle ready in the Indian Ocean to engage in a full-fledged maritime war due to constraints of time and space. The extended ranges at which the PLA-Navy units need to operate for influencing the course of action in the maritime domain is a serious constraint.

Sea Lines of Communication(SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea are vital for both China and India to meet the energy requirements and for sustaining the economic progress. However, geography places serious constraints for China and offers a positional advantage to India which has access to choke points both on west and east. As per some analysis, China has a Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) of 400 million barrels (target of 511million barrels). This would last for about two and half months but any continued disruption of the SLOCs will adversely affect China more than India. India is ranked fifth amongst nations with SPR and there are no firm indications of how long India can sustain its war effort. India has the advantage of its forward base in Andaman and Nicobar Islands where the only unifiedtri service command is in place. The proximity to Malacca Straits to A&N provides an enviable advantage to Indian Defence forces. Both the Navy and the Air Force have military options which can be exercised by forward deployment of surface, sub surface and air units from Port Blair and Car Nicobar. China is acutely aware of the limitation of geography and the vulnerability of its units when it passes through the choke points and has undertaken passages by avoiding Malacca Straits which adds to sea days even before reaching the Indian Ocean. Likewise, the Lakshadweep and Minicoy Islands in the Arabian Sea provides options for Indian Navy and the Coast Guard to mount enhanced surveillance of the movements along the SLOC and respond with due force as required.

China has tried to address the Malacca dilemma and its IOR ambitions by building /operating bases in IOR. Djibouti which will soon be operationalised is the first naval base of PLA Navy in the Indian Oceanand Gwadar which is operated by a Chinese company offers limited support till conversion in to a PLA- N base at some future date.Hambantota likewise may also offer some support though the present leadership in Sri Lanka is sensitive to India’s concerns on use of Hambantota or Colombo for sustaining any war effort.The limitation of shore support will not apply to the deployment of nuclear submarines of China( SSN and SSBN) which will be on patrol in sensitive areas of interest. However, they are pitted against the P8i, Poseidon’s and the modified IL38s who have the capability to detect, track and prosecute both surface and sub surface hostile contacts.

South China Sea.The recent Pentagon plans clearly have an engagement plan in the SCS by continuous yearlong deployment in the contested areas. The artificial Islands constructed by China are illegal possessions of China.The PCA came down heavily on the concocted historical claims with in the nine-dash line and on the environmental atrocities committed by China to construct artificial Islands by indiscriminate dredging of sensitive coral around rocks and reefs.  According to recent reports, the US Navy would be given greater freedom for carrying out the Freedom of Navigation operations(FONOPS) around the reclaimed Islands in SCS allaying fears that the Trump administration is moving away from its pivot to Indo Pacific and  not challenging China enough in SCS. Things are hotting up in SCS with the smaller neighbours becoming anxious about Chinese adventurism and land grabbing spree. While it was Philippines that mustered enough courage to approach an international court, and obtained a very favourable verdict, the change of guard in Philippines and the yuan diplomacy of China has bought peace with Duterte. Indonesia has recently renamed  the seas north of Natuna Island by Indonesia as North Natuna Seas to protect the fishing rights  in the  Exclusive Economic Zone. Dissatisfied with the heavy incursions by the fishing vessels of China, Indonesia has plans to enhance the military potential of Natuna Islands.  It is amply clear that maritime neighbours in the region are implementing measures to protect their long-term interests. With the renewed commitment of USA to vigorously indulge in FONOPS in the South China Sea(SCS) and the protective actions by the littorals, PLA Navy cannot afford to let its guard down in the SCS. So even China will be in a typical catch 22 situation of having to face a two-front situation if it wants to wage a war in the Indian Ocean. With the convergence of interests between India, USA, Japan, Australia and some of the ASEAN members including Vietnam, China could complicate matters for itself both in SCS and in the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese Military called off its visit to Vietnam last month due to differences. Vietnam in many forums has indicated a desire to enhance the scope of military engagement with India. It is time for India to offer all military assistance and expand the scope of its strategic relations with Vietnam both to strengthen Vietnam’s ability to stand up to China and to bank on well-oiled component of maritime fulcrum in the Pacific. The commonality of inventory between India and Vietnam and the desire to acquire high end military hardware from India provides a great opportunity for India to up the ante in the Pacific through Vietnam the only nation in the region that gave a bloody nose to China in 1979.

Nuclear Dimension and deployment of Nuclear submarines.  As far as the nuclear standoff is concerned, with both India and China committed to No First Use(NFU), the chances of either one indulging in a nuclear war are remote. This is also  very well analysed in a blog that discusses the hypothetical possibility of a war between the two Asian Powers. However, this does not preclude the deployment of both SSN and SSBN for augmenting naval deployment in the areas of interest. The use of conventional anti-ship missiles and Sea Launched Attack Missiles are not ruled out during the unpredictable phase of tactical engagements at sea.

The Pak Card.  In a full-fledged war if it breaks out, Pakistan would like to obtain some benefits in the standoff and may provide both direct and indirect assistance to China being an all-weather friend of China. Pakistan has already come under pressure both domestically and internationally for its sustained support for terror groups. Its lack of visible and assertive action against terror group has compelled USA which was criticized as being too soft on Pakistan to offer only conditional assistance to Pakistan under the new regime. The chances of a combined all-out war involving both Pakistan and China are remote due to the geo strategic and political environment that exists today. However, India will need to work harder to ensure that it has the stated capability to fight a two and half front war.

Way Ahead for the activation of the Maritime Fulcrum. From the above analysis, it is clear that India enjoys a geographic advantage vis-à-vis China particularly in the maritime domain in the Indian Ocean. The situation created in the South China Sea of its own volition has complicated matters maritime for PLA Navy which renders it difficult to maintain a two-front readiness in SCS and the IOR. Here is a list of things that India can act up on to complicate matters for effective deployment of PLA- Navy units for sea control and sea denial missions. It is possible that some of the listed options are already being exercised.

  1. Shore up the C4ISR capability both in A&N Islands and in the L&M Islands to cover both flanks. Additional naval/air force units need to be positioned in the forward outposts to provide a response capability to the Tri Services command in Port Blair.
  2. Closer liaison with USA, Japan, Australia and some of the ASEAN countries (who have serious differences with China) to keep the pot boiling in SCS to complicate the deployment of front line units away from the nine-dash line. This will compel Chinese maritime forces to remain within the first line of defence. The FONOPs will come handy if the backdoor diplomacy with USA is used to increase pressure on China in the first and second line of defence.
  3. Establish active patrolling of SLOCS to keep track of the movement of Chinese surface, sub surface units and merchant vessels with readiness to strike if required.
  4. Provide real time inputs and augment enhanced Maritime Domain Awareness through the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) established in Gurgaon in end 2014.
  5. There is an urgent need for making good deficiencies in war wastage reserves(WWR) and vital equipment.
  6. The Indian Coast Guard which in any case can be tasked operationally by the Navy need to take on additional surveillance roles for providing real time updates on the developing situation.
  7. Last but not the least, get the merchant fleet and the fishermen to join in the efforts to report any unusual sighting or activity in the Indian ocean.

In conclusion, it is amply clear that India has a clear edge when it comes to the maritime theatre in the Indian Ocean due to its geographic advantage, capacity and capability. The situation in the South China Sea ensures that the PLA Navy is restricted in its ability to deploy its Navy both in the SCS and in the IOR. By opening the maritime front in a carefully calibrated response, India would be playing to its strength and attacking the Achilles heel of PLA- Navy.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is the Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi and Director, C3S The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the NMF, C3S, the Indian Navy or the Government of India. He can be reached at rsvasan2010@gmail.com]

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