By Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)
“The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned,” says China’s 2015 Military Strategy, and goes on to add; “In line with the new strategic requirement of ‘offshore waters defense’ as well as ‘open seas protection’, the PLA Navy will shift its focus and build a combined, multi-functional and efficient marine combat force structure.”
The Strategy document has merely reiterated the 2012 decision of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) that becoming a maritime power was essential for China to achieve its national goals and aspirations, and to attain its rightful position in the world order. China’s pursuit of maritime power has received an impetus from the substantive growth of its overseas economic and security interests, as well as from its long-standing claim on Taiwan and new territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas.
Ever since Xi Jinping designated the maritime domain as an essential building block of his ‘China Dream’, the CPC has brought a sharp focus on it and overseen the systematic build-up in each element of national maritime power. Today, China is the world leader in shipbuilding, and its 5000-ship strong merchant marine ranks No.1 in the world. It also owns the largest number of coast guard vessels that protect the world’s biggest fishing fleet. Chinese shipyards are rapidly adding to its fleet of modern destroyers, frigates, diesel submarines and logistic support vessels. Its force of homebuilt nuclear submarines has been operationally deployed and its first aircraft carrier is at sea, with more on the way. In a few years, the PLA Navy (PLAN) will be second only to the US Navy in capability.
In India’s context, its traditionally land-oriented decision-makers have undergone a ‘maritime-awakening’ in the recent past. However, the cause of this epiphany was not the emergence of an enlightened vision, but a series of disruptive developments in the last three decades. These included the transformative phenomenon of globalization, the drama of rampant piracy, the trauma of a sea-borne terror strike in November 2008 and the specter of the growing PLAN. All of these served to bring focus on India’s navy and on maritime security.
Belated realization dawned that the geopolitics of South Asia rendered India as dependent on sea-borne trade and energy traffic as any island nation. India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), spanning 2.5 million sq km of ocean and seabed area, supplies about a third of its hydrocarbon requirements but contains a huge potential for exploiting other resources that collectively constitute the future ‘Blue Economy’. Not only does India’s peninsular coastline, studded with many ports, give it a dominant location astride major Indian Ocean shipping lanes, its island territories constitute strategic maritime outposts; with the Laccadive group lying in the heart of the Arabian Sea, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands ideally located to keep vigil on the vital Malacca Straits.
While India’s crucial position in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is widely acknowledged, less well-known are its growing interests in the Pacific. Almost, 55% of India’s trade with the greater Asia Pacific area transits through the South China Sea, giving India a strong stake in the freedom and stability of sea lanes.
The Indian oil major ONGC Videsh, holds substantial stakes in Russian, Vietnamese and New Zealand offshore hydrocarbon fields; projects that will become vital elements in India’s energy strategy. Thus, today India’s seaborne trade & commerce, investment and diaspora, span an arc extending from Siberia and Oceania in the east to Africa and Central Asia to its west. China’s attempts to dominate the waters of the Indo-Pacific, therefore, represent a grave threat to India’s vital interests and pose a challenge in the maritime domain.
Dialectical discourses apart, amongst the more realistic indicators of a nation’s strength, as well as its intentions, are its GDP and defense budget. Whereas India ranks 7th globally with a GDP of USD2.1 trillion, it is outstripped by China, ranked No. 2, with a GDP of USD11 trillion. China’s stated expenditure on defense for 2017 is USD152 billion; dwarfing India’s allocation of USD 53 billion. While India has, historically, allotted a minuscule portion of the defense pie to its navy – this year’s share being just 14% – much of China’s recent defense expenditure has been devoted to the development of the PLAN as Beijing looks far beyond its shores. These figures clearly illustrate India’s severe fiscal limitations as far as resource allocation is concerned.