India has finally decided to fish in troubled waters of South China Sea in order to showcase her maritime power projection capabilities. According to media reports, the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet has sailed out, on 18th May, on an “operational deployment” to the South China and North West Pacific. This operational deployment is significant development in the contentious geography of South China Sea which has become hotbed of strategic maritime competition between China and the US and her allies.
This competition is reshaping the entire geopolitical milieu in Indian Ocean. Alliance building in the region is being driven by this competition where existing super power (US) is trying to maintain its maritime dominance on the regional waters while an emerging superpower (China) is desperately trying to rise in the same waters without indulging in any conflict, at least not at this juncture of time. This article focuses on how India is entering in this competition and how this is going to impact the already volatile situation in the region.
It must be clear that Eastern Fleet is the largest out of total three fleets of Indian Navy. Vessel strength of this fleet stands at 60 ships. Major basis are Kolkata, Paradip, and Chennai, as well as on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Eastern Naval Command is headquartered at Visakhapatnam in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
Indian Ministry of Defense has told that 4 ships of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet would remain in the specified maritime regions for two and a half month long operational deployment.
“In a demonstration of its operational reach and commitment to India’s ‘Act East’ policy, the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet, under the command of Rear Admiral SV Bhokare, Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet, sailed out today,” the press release states.
The ships included in this deployment indicate that IN intends to showcase its firepower capabilities in the region. Indian naval flotilla consisted of 6,200-ton Shivalik-class guided-missile stealth frigates ‘INS Satpura’ and ‘INS Sahyadr’ armed with supersonic anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles; the 27,550-ton Deepak-class fleet tanker ‘INS Shakti’, one of the largest surface warships in the Indian Navy; and the 1,350-ton Kora-class guided missile corvette ‘INS Kirch’, armed with sub- and super-sonic anti-air and anti-ship missiles. This force doesn’t include top of the line guided missile destroyers but the capabilities which they offer (anti-ship and land attack cruise missiles) is being presented by smaller frigate ships, nevertheless.
As per media briefing, the Indian warships are slated to make port calls at Cam Rahn Bay in Vietnam, Subic Bay in the Philippines, Sasebo in Japan, Busan in South Korea, Vladivostok in Russia, and Port Klang in Malaysia.
The fleet will also participate passing exercises (PASSEX) with other navies to practice cooperation and “showing the flag” in a region “of vital strategic importance to India,” according to the defense ministry. Apart from that, it will present Indian in multilateral maritime exercise Malabar. The US and Japanese maritime forces will also be part of the exercise.
The US maritime diplomacy revolves around the idea of using fast emerging “Chinese threat” for the regional littoral nations and gathering as much support as Washington can. Latest in this regard, is the news about possible lifting of ban on Vietnam. While Beijing is struggling in this domain and in recent months, China’s effort to build multiple sea ports in Indian Ocean has met with systematic impedance from Indo-US alliance.
Now India has become the active partner of the US as strategic interests of both Delhi and Washington have converged. India has world’s 4th largest navy and is going to play critical role in enforcement of the US Pivot to Asia strategy which is nothing more than a glorified scheme to implement old ‘containment of China’ strategy.
India with its regional power ambitions has no other choice but to project its maritime power in all the regional seas. India is eyeing advanced US maritime technologies through this partnership after becoming an active partner in the US Asia Pivot strategy. Both countries have already signed a pact for cooperating on aircraft carrier technologies through which Indian Navy will be offered Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) technology through Foreign Military Sale (FMS). China is new player in aircraft carrier manufacturing while Indian Navy has decades of experience using such large maritime asset which are considered critical for maritime power projection.
Chinese reaction to this Indian naval deployment was obvious and China has objected the presence of Indian naval fleet in South China Sea. It is notice worthy fact that this Chinese objection has come a day before Indian President Parnab Mukherji is about to visit his official visit to China on 24th May. Evidently, China has made it clear to Delhi that trade, investment and business can take the backseat when it comes to South China Sea. For India, this is a setback. Already both nations have divergent views on issues like Pakistan based terrorist groups, CPEC in Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK and Chinese blockade of India’s entry into Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG). India wants to fix its bilateral relations through economic diplomacy but for China, India is in the US camp as far as regional geopolitics is concerned and there is simply no trade-off.
The trajectory of Indian maritime strategy is disturbing as it is going to trigger a fresh arms race in the region. India conducted flight test of K-4 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) in April this year to posture its second strike capability. This missile has reduced maritime disparity between India and China in SLBM capability domain but at the same time this missile has further deteriorated the maritime balance of power between Pakistan and India. Now Pakistan is compelled to deter this new Indian capability to acquire a similar system. Pakistan does not have any regional or global ambitions like India but still national security remains the paramount strategic interest and already, Indian second strike capability is being considered a move to put pressure on Pakistan.
Indian strategic alliance with the US has started to create ripples in the region as for as balance of power is concerned. Keeping in mind the regional geopolitics of littoral nations of Indian Ocean, it is evident that strategic interests of China and Pakistan are going to be the key target of this Indo-US alliance. India has no reason to change her current approach as she enjoys larger diplomatic support in the region compared to China and Pakistan combined. This Indian strategy would create impetus for Beijing and Islamabad to make fresh overtures in order to maintain stability in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and Chinese One Road, One Belt initiative is part of this response strategy.