Odin's Eye: Global Naval Affairs Commentary
Both India and China are strong political and economic powers, each in their own regions. Both have growing global influence largely through their fiscal power, which is often overlooked because it is exercised not by governments but by the Chinese and Indian Diaspora, the overseas Chinese and the so-called Non Resident Indian or NRI. It is therefore difficult to measure.
For the time being neither nation nor its navy seems to have any extra-regional ambition. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) might rank among one of the largest in the world, but it is entirely defensive. The PLAN’s hull count might be the envy of some traditional navies, like the Royal Navy, but a recently published US Department of Defense (US DoD) paper comments that the capability of some of these ships may be questionable. Any Chinese ambition to acquire an aircraft carrier seems to be well in the future. The DoD’s own intelligence suggests that, while China has an aircraft carrier research and design programme, production of an indigenous platform could not start until the end of the decade, and, by implication, might take a further ten years to realise. Instead the PLAN is likely to concentrate on its Over-The-Horizon (OTH) targeting capability, on developing long-range missiles with improved range and accuracy, on overcoming its known weakness in its ability to communicate with submarines at sea, and on improving its Anti-Air Warfare capability. A good deal of its capabilities in these areas could be easily interpreted as being a counter to US Navy carrier power. Undoubtedly China’s focus today is on being the dominant regional power, and sometime - maybe as soon as the end of the next decade - the superiority of the USN’s 7th Fleet will be seriously challenged off the coasts of China and in the South China Sea, including, of course, in the waters around Taiwan (for the mainland Chinese still want that renegade island back). Perhaps the biggest fear for the rest of the world is the opaqueness of the Chinese, what the DoD report calls our ‘limited knowledge of the motivations, decision-making and key capabilities supporting China’s military and naval modernisation’. Certainly the need to feed a rapidly expanding economy and population, which is evident abroad in China’s many business and development aid projects in Africa and elsewhere could lead to a need for PLAN forces to deploy ‘out of area’ in a manner not evident today, but perhaps frequently required in the future. Meanwhile, in the neighbouring region of South Asia, the Indian Navy is waxing strong. The Indians have shown their ability to test-fire medium range missiles from underwater platforms, and, like the Chinese, the Indians are expert at deploying and exploiting Russian equipment and technology. But, equally, some of India’s naval ambitions, whether to acquire nuclear-powered submarines or aircraft carriers, are long in the tooth. For example, there have been recent advances in Indian nuclear propulsion technology, but whether India actually succeeds in leasing and operating two Akula Class nuclear-powered submarines from Russia remains to be seen. Similarly, though, the Indian Navy has expertise, which the PLAN does not, in maritime aviation. However, India’s hopes of acquiring a modern aircraft carrier seem as problematic as China’s. The big difference between Chinese and Indian carrier ambition is that the latter do currently operate an elderly carrier, whereas the former has nothing at all in service of any vintage. The Chinese did acquire the (incomplete) former Soviet carrier Varyag from the Ukraine a number of years ago, but they have not done much to get it to sea. The Indians are building carriers in their yards, however, as an article elsewhere in this magazine makes out. It also seems that, eventually, India will operate the rebuilt former Russian carrier Admiral Gorshkov, but maybe not for some time yet. There are some that doubt it will ever happen, but India is not likely to pay up front for the ship and then accept non-delivery. India is deploying its warships more frequently out of their usual operating area, such as to the eastern Mediterranean, and recently a pair of Indian designed and built surface combatants visited Oman. However, India does not seem yet to have global pretensions for its navy, preferring to concentrate on the Indian Ocean, although some of its vessels have strayed into waters that the Chinese might like to call their own. Looking to how the world is shaping up strategically over the next few decades, the question that analysts ask is whether these two emerging superpowers could come into conflict? They do share a land frontier and on a regional scale might be regarded as maritime neighbours, even though by sea huge distances, including the Malacca Straits and the Indonesian archipelago separate them. The causes of friction might be across their common mountain borders, support for rival governments in the Himalayas, China taking sides with Pakistan, or, further afield, competition for markets and raw materials. Both countries have already fought each other, briefly, in 1962. Pakistan, India’s nuclear-armed western neighbour adds an extra element of uncertainty to the equation. While the USA seems inclined to change its policy towards India, the Indian Navy, notwithstanding recent collaboration with the USN, is unlikely to forego its close ties with Russia and it needs to maintain its Russian legacy equipment. While for 50 years, both China and India have conducted their foreign policy towards each other with serenity and stateliness; India has also demonstrated adroit diplomacy in its dealings with Pakistan. So, despite the wistful thinking of some Western analysts who predict war between these two Asian powers and the nuclearisation of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, Odin thinks that there will be no such confrontation. At least, he hopes for the world’s sake that it does not happen, although, as history has shown, sometimes unforeseen, relatively minor matters can spark major wars. After all, who in the 1940s would have forecast that firm allies Argentina and Britain would, in the early 1980s, fight the first major missile-age war at sea?