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What Would an India-China Standoff in the Indian Ocean Look Like?; By Commodore V Venugopal (Retd)

Image Courtesy: The Indian Express

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Article 54/2020

A standoff in the Indian Ocean, between the navies of India and China, has increasingly been predicted by analysts as a likely military scenario. The context most often cited would see it develop from a limited conflict where border skirmishes escalate into a conflict in the maritime domains of South Asia. The scenario becomes even more likely when it’s understood that the Indian Ocean is widely viewed as China’s Achilles Heel, owing to its economic reliance on the region’s sea lanes, thus raising the prospect of large-scale intervention by Beijing. The safeguarding of vital energy supplies and trade from the Persian Gulf, through the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, is one of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) biggest strategic challenges.

This article aims to take a realistic view of an increasingly likely scenario: an India-China maritime standoff in the Indian Ocean and analyse it from a naval perspective, without delving too deeply into the specific tactics likely to be used by the combatants.

Sea routes of the Indian Ocean 

In understanding the scenario presented, we must first outline the theatre in which it is taking place. There are three straits that a tanker can take from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea. Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok, each located near the Indonesian archipelago. An analysis of time and space reveals that the shortest route for a ship leaving the Straits of Hormuz and attempting to reach the South China Sea is through the Malacca Strait, which leads to Singapore. Malacca, however, is a natural choke-point for Chinese shipping, as identified by President Hu Jintao two decades ago.

The route via Sunda, near Jakarta, can be also ruled out due to the shallow width of the channel and navigational constraints. This leaves the Lombok Strait, the furthest south, which is 37 miles long and is safe for navigation by both large ships and submarines. Although the distance is greater for Chinese vessels to transit, it is also the furthest point away from Indian naval bases on the subcontinent. Therefore, given the scenario we are addressing, the Lombok Strait would be a preferable option for Chinese naval commanders, not least because it provides their submarines with a degree of secrecy when transiting to the Indian Ocean.

Picture Courtesy: Google Sites

Operational tasks for the PLAN 

Unlike in 1962, hostilities are likely to spill over to the Indian Ocean in a future standoff between Asia’s two giants. Maritime operations are unlikely to have a direct effect on the progress or outcome of land operations. Victory or defeat in the Indian Ocean would, however, be a significant game-changer politically, contributing to the wider geopolitical outcome of post-conflict South Asia.

In such a scenario, the PLAN’s mission would likely need to be two-fold. First, adopt a defensive posture to ensure the safe passage of Chinese tankers from the Strait of Hormuz to the South China Sea. Second, an offensive strategy that sees the interdiction of Indian warships and merchant ships across the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

PLAN warships could operate off the Makran coast in the Gulf of Oman and target Indian vessels when within range. This would require the positioning of Chinese warships in Gwadar well before the commencement of hostilities. The permanent basing of PLAN naval assets at Gwadar and other facilities in Pakistan must be factored into the long-term planning policy of the Central Military Commission in the coming decade.

Both tasks would involve the large-scale deployment by China and India of surface assets and submarines for prolonged operations, notwithstanding the long logistics chain. This would require logistics hubs in friendly countries to support their fleet units. Considering the constraints in conducting an out of area operation, it would be practically impossible for the PLAN to prepare for any sea control or sea denial operations in the Indian Ocean as they could conceivably do in the South China Sea. It is also unlikely that China’s carrier battle groups would make a foray into the Indian Ocean, as the risk and vulnerability are too high compared to the tactical benefits from such a deployment.

However, Beijing is likely to sortie major surface combatants in small groups, along with replenishment tankers, to escort their merchant ships through vulnerable areas in the IOR. An out of the box move by a Chinese naval commander could also involve an attempt to clandestinely land a combination of marines or special forces on one of India’s outlying islands via submarines or Craft of Opportunity(COOP) for subversive activities and intelligence operations.

Safe passage of merchant ships

In the event of a Sino-Indian maritime standoff, I would consider the safe escort of tankers from the Strait of Hormuz to the entrance of the Lombok Straits as the primary task of PLAN in such a scenario.

The only viable option for Beijing would be to develop a convoy system in the envisaged danger zones, where shipping would fall under the threat of India’s shore-based maritime strike aircraft. The challenge is substantial, as the threat posed to Chinese flagged merchantmen from the Indian Navy virtually covers the entire IOR.

Escorts of convoys are ideally suited for short time duration and in this case, the ships would be vulnerable for at least 72 hours of transit where they would sail close to the Indian peninsula. Tying down high-value combat platforms such as the Type 52D destroyer for escort duties would heavily impede the PLAN in the flexibility of its offensive operations, however. The positioning of replenishment tankers at regular intervals and providing them with three-dimensional protection would be another major operational constraint.

A convoy transiting a vast expanse of ocean is an easy target to detect and destroy, however versatile the escort ships may be. Faced with the prospect of the Indian Navy intercepting such formations, an alternate route for Chinese tankers to follow would be to hug the east coast of Africa and break out into the Indian Ocean off Madagascar, thus keeping well clear of the Indian coastline. In this situation, however, fuel consumption would be high and thus carries its own risks.

Interdiction of Indian shipping

The second task of the PLAN is primarily offensive and intended to put New Delhi on a defensive footing, interdicting, and sinking Indian shipping both naval and commercial.

In this more offensive scenario, Beijing would not risk deploying carrier strike groups into the Indian Ocean for such an operation. Instead, it would likely deploy small hunting packs of surface ships or submarines for this task. It may be noted that surface ships have the advantage of being able to positively identify targets, which is critical, as the sea lanes of the IOR are used extensively by neutral shipping and Beijing would be keen to avoid drawing in third parties, particularly the US forces based at Diego Garcia.

The latest estimates reveal that about 500–600 merchant ships transit through Indian Ocean sea routes every day, thus making it one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world connecting Europe, the African coast and the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia.

PLAN warships could operate off the Makran coast in the Gulf of Oman and intercept these sea lanes, targeting Indian flagged vessels when they come within range. This would require the positioning of Chinese warships in Gwadar well before the commencement of hostilities. The permanent basing of PLAN naval assets at Gwadar and other facilities in Pakistan must be factored in the long-term planning policy of the Central Military Commission in the coming decade.

The bases China would most likely rely on for logistic support during an offensive maritime scenario with India would be Djibouti and Gwadar. In the context of this discussion, it is important to understand India’s geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean and its role as the first responder to all the countries in the region for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Given this role, it is highly unlikely that any of the countries in the region would provide their sovereign territory to China to assist in a war against India, even those with governments sympathetic to Beijing.

The commercial terminal at Hambantota can be ruled out for use as a logistics hub in support of military operations. In the event of an India China standoff, Sri Lanka given its proximity to India and the international sea lanes would likely adopt a neutral stance, rather than to accord permission for China to use the port. This is further complemented by the bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka, which, while at times tense, have never been overtly hostile.

On the other side of the Indian Ocean, Djibouti’s main concern would be the location of China’s sole overseas military base at Obock which sits close to the US, Japanese, and French bases. In this scenario, substantial diplomatic pressure would likely be applied from Washington, Tokyo, and Paris on Djibouti to adopt a neutral stance and refrain from allowing China to utilize the base to support operations in the IOR. Given these factors, it can be surmised that China’s options would be narrowed down to Gwadar to support military operations in the Indian Ocean in the event of a maritime standoff.

The Gulf of Oman, Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean

Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia

An Indian concept of operations  

A combination of tracking technology and geostrategic factors (which favour India) means it could easily afford to wait for Chinese ships and submarines to get within a suitable distance before deciding when to use its forces. The maritime domain in this scenario would be limited to the Bay of Bengal, the South Indian Ocean, and the South Arabian Sea. India possesses the tactical advantage through a network of bases along with its coastline and island territories which would sustain the deployment of its forces for prolonged operations. Its main tasks would be to protect its coastline and island territory and ensure the safe transit of its merchant ships while interdicting those of its adversary.

The biggest advantage India has over China is the versatile P-8I Poseidon aircraft which would be an eye in the sky and a game-changer in maritime spaces by providing an early warning should Chinese units enter the Indian Ocean through any of the straits. The first surprise that PLAN ships would encounter would likely be maritime strike aircraft Su-30’s operating from air bases in the Andaman-Nicobar Islands and bases in India with a radius of action of approximately 810 nautical miles (nm). This could be further enhanced to 2200 nm by inflight refuelling by Indian Air Force tankers. Their role could be to interdict a potential adversary’s merchant ships and naval ships. Maritime Jaguars have a lesser radius of action at 440 nm and would be best suited for anti-shipping operations close to the Indian coast.

Small surface action groups would likely be positioned based on the tactical situation and the speed of advance of the adversary. Their rules of engagement could be to seek and destroy high-value tankers and naval ships after positive identification. They could also be deployed for ASW operations to prosecute possible enemy submarine contacts. In addition, surface ships would be deployed to provide all-round protection to island territories, own ports and vital installations from seaborne attacks. A thought which is discussed in the strategic community is the need by the Indian Navy to implement a blockade at the Lombok and Malacca straits leading to the South China Sea. Considering the principle of the war of economy effort, the cost-benefit analysis of such a move pales in the shadow of tremendous geographic advantage that favours India. Hence India is unlikely to enforce a blockade as the number of units required to implement and monitor the operation effectively would be huge.

New Delhi’s submarine deployment would be based on the appreciation of likely tactics employed by Beijing. In all likelihood, submarines would be deployed on free patrol and assigned targets in addition to providing intelligence inputs on the advance of the adversary. Their rules of engagement would specify attack only after identification unless it is for self-defence. This is a measure to avoid attacks on neutral shipping using the sea lanes.

Finally, India could utilize the overseas base at Assumption Island, Seychelles for logistics support in case of prolonged operations in the Indian Ocean. The coastal surveillance radar station at Madagascar could provide early warning information to update the maritime domain picture. In addition, logistics facilities at the US base in Diego Garcia and the French Naval bases at Reunion Island and Mayotte could be requisitioned through diplomatic efforts to sustain India’s Navy.

In conclusion

Based on the above analysis, the author is of the view that New Delhi’s geostrategic location, at the fulcrum of the Indian Ocean region, accords a tremendous advantage to the Indian Navy in the event of a standoff with China, notwithstanding the superiority in the number of units enjoyed by the PLAN.

Sustaining the PLAN’s fleet units in the Indian Ocean would be a major operational imperative for China, especially in the context of a larger land war. Protection of replenishment tankers would be a major challenge for the PLAN, as a loss of these units would virtually cripple the PLAN’s ability to operate. In terms of logistical support, only Gwadar in Pakistan would be of use for China to achieve its overall objectives which limit the action PLAN can undertake. The Indian Ocean’s sheer size plays to India’s advantage, the geographic location is simply too far to provide any credible long term logistical or operational support to all of China’s ships operating in the Indian Ocean Region.

Finally, much has been written regarding Beijing’s growing carrier fleet. A Chinese carrier task group foraying into the IOR without the proper logistical and operational support mentioned above would be both a tactical blunder and also a strategic one if they exercised in that manner. The damage or loss of a ship imbued with such national prestige as an aircraft carrier would be a disaster for the Communist Party of China. In contrast, the threat from Chinese submarines deployed in the IOR would be a credible one facing New Delhi and must be factored into the Indian Navy’s concept of operations, especially in the deployment of India’s major fleet units.

However, based on this analysis the author is of the view that India has a tremendous advantage in the maritime domain. This advantage could be used as leverage to change the outcome of hostilities on the land border and even put India in a stronger position vis-a-vis any subsequent peace negotiation.

(Commodore V Venugopal IN (Retd) enjoyed a 30-year career with the Indian Navy during which time he held various appointments including commands at sea. He is an alumni of DKI Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, College of Naval Warfare, Mumbai and Defense Services Staff College, Wellington and Member, C3S. His areas of interests include maritime security in Indian Ocean & Indo-Pacific Region, Maritime piracy and Counter terrorism. The views expressed are personal.)

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