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Deciphering China’s Submarine Deployments in the Indian Ocean Region

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • July 08, 2015

    In an unusual development, a senior Chinese naval spokesperson declared last week that China had no strategic design to confront India in the Indian Ocean. In a bid to allay Indian apprehensions about Chinese naval deployments in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) the officer reportedly assured Indian journalists that China was neither a hegemon nor a significant military power in the Indian Ocean and that its ship and submarine visits to countries like Pakistan and Sri Lanka were no threat to Indian security interests.

    Indian observers, however, remain unconvinced – and for good reason. India’s security establishment is yet to emerge from the shock of a secret Chinese submarine docking at Karachi in May 2015. This was the third Chinese submarine deployment in the IOR in a little over a year, but more worryingly it was a visit that New Delhi had no inkling of until revealed in the media last month. Predictably, the news revived speculation about possible Chinese basing facilities in the Indian Ocean.

    For almost a decade now, PLA-N (People’s Liberation Army – Navy) anti-piracy contingents have been a constant presence in the IOR. Chinese submarine visits, however, were until recently a relatively uncommon occurrence. The rise in PLA-N undersea deployments over the last two years indicates that China is now thinking strategically about the Indian Ocean. In October 2014, a Song class submarine visited Colombo port, docking at a harbour controlled by a Chinese company. While the Sri Lankan authorities attempted to explain this oddity by citing operational exigencies, it was clear that China preferred its submarines in the IOR to dock in an exclusive facility.

    The pattern of Chinese submarine visits reveals that the PLA-N has been incrementally raising the complexity of its deployments. At Colombo, for instance, the Song class submarine was accompanied by a tender ship, an essential accompaniment with conventional submarines of limited endurance. At Karachi, the submarine was a Yuan-335 class equipped with Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) and increased under-sea endurance. In the process, it appears, the PLA-N has been perfecting submarine operations in the IOR, fine-tuning standard operating procedures, and gaining critical experience as well as vital hydrological and bathymetric data to maintain a sustained undersea presence in the IOR.

    While energy and trade interests in the Indian Ocean Region render some Chinese naval presence inevitable, the emphasis on undersea operations in a maritime space where China has no territorial claims is indeed surprising. With Chinese warships playing an important (and much visible) role in safeguarding maritime trade in the region, it is not clear what exactly China hopes to achieve through its regular submarine deployments.

    To decipher the PLA-N’s maritime motives in the Indian Ocean, it is necessary to appreciate the evolving nature of contemporary maritime operations. The Chinese plan for far-seas operations seems modelled on the US Navy’s blue-print of global operations – where “theatre access” and “area dominance” in littoral spaces are considered operational imperatives. In March 2015, Washington released its revised maritime strategy, which highlighted the need to “preserve access” in the global commons – a notion central to US maritime operations in Asia. The US Navy treats ‘anti-access and area-denial’ (A2/AD) as an existential challenge to its global operations and has a force structure built around the need to preserve freedom of movement and manoeuvre. Submarines play a key role in combating A2/AD measures, facilitating a broader array of maritime operations in littoral spaces.

    Beyond tactical effectiveness, however, an important reason why submarines are considered key assets is that they offer the crucial advantage of ‘stealth’. In littoral theatres, surface and air assets have a visible presence and offer the adversary the tactical room to pre-empt and prevent interdiction operations. Such, however, is not the case with submarines, which can remain undetected for long periods of time (in some cases even go ‘undetected’ until the hour of action). Undersea presence, therefore, offers a maritime actor a decisive edge in combat operations.

    To be sure, the deployment of a PLA-N submarine in the Indian Ocean does not qualify as a provocative act. Nations with extensive overseas interests are justified in using maritime assets to defend their rightful stakes in nautical spaces of interest. The political and operational pay-off of such visits cannot, however, be overlooked. By deploying a submarine in the IOR, the Chinese Navy demonstrated its capability and commitment to conduct long range missions in a distant oceanic space as well as confidence in its own operational capability.

    Two aspects about the recent submarine visit to Karachi are noteworthy. First, the Arabian Sea continues to be critical for defending Indian security interests. Following Chinese maritime infrastructure creation in Myanmar and Bangladesh in recent years, the Indian Navy had been diverting critical operational attention towards the Bay of Bengal. The PLA-N’s submarine deployment shows that the Arabian Sea is just as vulnerable to Chinese incursions as the Eastern Indian Ocean.

    Second, the strategic ‘springboard’ that China has been seeking in the IOR is likely to be Pakistan. In recent years, more than any other regional maritime force, the Pakistan Navy (PN) has welcomed the prospects of a Chinese naval facility in the Western Indian Ocean. Since February 2013, when a Chinese company took over the management of the Gwadar port, Pakistan has appeared willing and ready for the PLA-N to set up a naval facility on its soil. It is more than a coincidence that the Yuan-335 deployed at Karachi port belongs to the same class of submarines that Beijing has offered to sell Islamabad. With eight submarines planned for transfer to Pakistan, it is entirely possible that the Yuan class visiting Karachi was meant to give PN cadres a feel of the submarine they would be operating in the near future.

    So what must India do? To begin with, India must take urgent measures to boost its conventional submarine capability. While the six Scorpene submarines are nowhere near commissioning, China has already built up a fleet of over 50 conventional submarines. Given the promptness of Beijing’s military aid to Islamabad, the Pakistan Navy too could soon possess a sizeable undersea fleet.

    No less significant is the need to invest in anti-access capabilities in the Indian Ocean to make sure that India has a viable counter to any assertive manoeuvres by the PLA-N. New Delhi must develop the Andaman and Nicobar islands as a strategic base from where to both monitor Chinese naval activity and also launch operations against any possible threatening manoeuvres in IOR spaces that the Indian Navy considers strategically critical. This includes the placement of shore-based anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, anti-ship missiles and armed drones. Already, there are reports that the Navy is feeling the acute shortage of multirole ASW helicopters on its frontline warships. An absence of shore-based assets is sure to dampen its fighting capabilities further. More importantly, India must invest in establishing an integrated surveillance network in the Indian Ocean Region through which it can keep track of Chinese activity on a region-wide basis.

    India would also have to consider coordinated high-spectrum maritime exercises with the United States, Japan, Australia and other Indo-Pacific nations with an interest in keeping the Indian Ocean’s vital SLOCs secure. Following the PLA-N submarine deployments, India has been considering Japan’s inclusion in the India-US “Malabar” series of maritime exercises. New Delhi must, however, proceed beyond statements of intent in this regard. During his visit to the smaller Indian Ocean island states in March 2015, Prime Minister Modi had laid out a strategic ‘blue-print’ for the Indian Ocean that includes an element of continuous maritime engagement with littoral neighbours. It must now be broadened to include an element of structured maritime engagement with key Indo-Pacific states.

    Lastly, the Indian Navy must focus fresh attention on the challenge posed by the Pakistan-China maritime nexus in the Western Indian Ocean. India has been fortunate that Sri Lanka, after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa as president, has refused to act as a Chinese surrogate in the IOR. Pakistan is, however, bound to pose a more complex challenge. Already, there are signs that Beijing might expand assistance to Pakistan’s naval modernization programme. Beyond the offer of eight S-20 variants of the Type-039A/Type-041 submarine, Beijing is said to be negotiating a deal for four "Improved F-22P" frigates equipped with enhanced sensors and weaponry, and six Type-022 Houbei stealth catamaran missile boats to Pakistan.

    It is not lost on Indian observers that even as they are being reassured of China’s benign intentions in the IOR, Beijing’s protests to media characterisation of the Indian Ocean being India’s ‘backyard” have been growing louder. Last week, another Chinese spokesperson raised the possibility of conflict if India continued with its proprietary notion of the Indian Ocean as India’s Ocean. An effective way for China to negate India’s geopolitical primacy and operational influence in the Indian Ocean would be to deploy more submarines. An increase in such deployments in India’s maritime neighbourhood will result in a dilution of New Delhi’s strategic leverages in the Indian Ocean Region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India