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China’s maritime ambitions impact India

China’s naval expansion can deny India freedom of navigation in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea.

JAYADEVA RANADE  New Delhi | 3rd Jan 2015

A Chinese Navy nuclear submarine takes part in an international fleet review to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in Qingdao, Shandong province in April 2009. REUTERS

ention of a submarine conjures up an image of something subterranean, stealthy and sinister. It is also the more lethal of vessels in the inventory of a country's navy and most capable of launching a retaliatory nuclear counter-strike. The appearance of a Chinese submarine in Colombo, therefore, understandably arouses concern in New Delhi.

Since Mao Zedong, China's leadership has viewed submarines as an essential component of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Beijing's primary concern was to thwart any attempt by foreign powers to frustrate a possible Chinese assault on Taiwan. Today, with its growing economic and military might, expanding overseas interests and enhanced maritime ambitions, China sees advanced nuclear submarines as capable of vastly extending its strategic maritime reach and adding to its ability to deliver a nuclear counter-punch. As China enhances its indigenous capacity to build increasingly advanced, silent nuclear submarines, the PLAN presently has five nuclear and at least 50 diesel submarines. Two more Jin-class nuclear submarines are expected to be operational by 2020.

The appearance of Great Wall No. 329, a Chinese Song-class diesel-powered attack submarine in Colombo between 14-19 September, whose carefully timed presence overlapped with Chinese President Xi Jinping's visits to Sri Lanka and India, signalled China's maritime ambitions in India's neighbourhood and in the Indian Ocean. It was the first ever visit by a Chinese submarine in such distant waters. Earlier, apparently timed to embarrass Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his first visit to Sri Lanka in 24 years, a PLAN warship and submarine docked at Colombo port from 7 September 2014.

In early October, China announced that a Type 093 Shang-class nuclear-powered submarine would henceforth join the PLAN flotilla deployed for anti-piracy operations in the waters off Aden. A submarine's effectiveness for anti-piracy operations is minimal and the deployment of a nuclear submarine in these waters underscores PLAN's intention of maintaining a meaningful presence, with strategic deterrence, in the Indian Ocean on par with that maintained by the major powers. Reports reveal that three Jin-class nuclear-powered nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, presently at the Yalong Navy base in Hainan Island, may conduct their first strategic patrol mission by the end of this year.

The submarine that visited Colombo in mid-September travelled through the Malacca Strait, but it is not known whether the others transited through the Malacca Strait or came through the Sunda or Lumboc Straits. All three approaches will, however, be used by PLAN submarines, and safe lanes for visits by submarines to the Sonadia Island in Bangladesh, Colombo and Hambantota ports in Sri Lanka and Gwadar port in Pakistan would have been identified. The latter three are being built by China and would be natural stopping points for PLAN vessels and submarines operating in the Indian Ocean. China is also eyeing Sonadia port.

While concluding agreements, Beijing has been careful to ensure that it retains long-term rights over the facilities. For example, Pakistan granted China "sovereign rights" over Gwadar port. Sri Lanka, in return for China investing US$ 1.4 billion in the project to reclaim 223 hectares land from the sea to build Colombo Port City, granted China 20 hectares of land free-hold in perpetuity and another 88 hectares on a 99-year lease. In Hambantota, China will retain control over four of the seven berths for 35 years and hold 53% of the shares in the company that will operate the port.

The possibility of China selling submarines and Unmanned Underwater Vessels to Pakistan, thereby escalating the maritime and terror threat to India, is ever present. This can be countered only by acquiring effective anti-submarine warfare capability and space-based surveillance systems.

Chinese PLA Navy officers, including Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo, who is a member of the CPPCC, have publicly voiced demands for bases abroad. In November 2013, the Global Times quoted Djibouti's Navy Commander Colonel Abdourahman Aden Cher as welcoming China building a base in Djibouti. On 19 November 2014, a Namibian newspaper disclosed that discussions are under way at the "highest levels" regarding the PLA Navy's plans to build a base at Walvis Bay. Chinese media reports have indicated China's interest in building overseas bases at 18 ports.

An area of concern is China's Unmanned Underwater Vessel (UUV) programme, which is part of its asymmetric subterranean warfare strategy and was initiated as part of the secret "863" Programme. At least seven specialised institutes are involved in the research that has been going on for many years. By 2011, the Ningbo Jiayang Machine Company had manufactured and offered for sale a "Mini Unmanned Submarine".

The possibility of China selling submarines and UUVs to Pakistan, thereby escalating the maritime and terror threat to India, is ever present. This can be countered only by acquiring effective anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capability and space-based surveillance systems.

As China expands its Navy's reach into the Indian Ocean, it will simultaneously acquire the capacity to box India in and deny it hitherto unfettered freedom of navigation in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. The long recognised strategic importance of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — Britain wanted to retain possession at the time of India's independence in 1947 — now needs to be optimised. Existing facilities need to be strengthened by maintaining credible naval and air force presence and missiles and adding advanced surveillance capabilities. India must simultaneously maintain a credible military presence on the Lakshadweep Islands.

China's PLAN and submarines add steel to its proposed maritime silk route and give it the potential to compromise the maritime domain. India is well positioned to offset such a threat provided it acts rapidly and harnesses modern technology.

Jayadeva Ranade is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and president of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi. He is a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.

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