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Examining Sino-Indian Maritime Competition


Jan 18, 2009
Monday, 09 December 2013

Lindsay Hughes
FDI Research Analyst
Indian Ocean Research Programme

Key Points

  • The re-emergence of China and India has forced a re-evaluation of geo-strategic paradigms.
  • Their growth has led to competition between the two states. It has also led to the growth and modernisation of their respective navies.
  • This modernisation, each claims, is to protect their economies, but each, however, remains suspicious of the other’s strategic motivations.


To protect their growing economies, China and India have securitised their sea-borne trade routes by enhancing their naval prowess, which act enhances their seapower. This enhancement, however, causes each other concern by making each suspicious of the other’s intention. Thus, they further strengthen their navies, leading to a cycle of enhanced naval power and growing suspicion.

For strategic reasons – sometimes referred to as the logic of their growth – China and India deploy – or plan to deploy – their navies near each other’s maritime borders. China is creating strategic relationships with littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and India does likewise, with the same states and others in the East and South China Seas. This leads each to further debate the other’s intentions to understand how those may impact upon their own interests. What remains unclear to the independent observer, however, is whether the intention of both countries in developing their navies is defensive or if each has an underlying agenda for its naval enhancement.

This study, therefore, will examine the reasons for the enhancement of Chinese and Indian naval capability, to determine if these are benign or otherwise.


The second half of the Twentieth Century witnessed the re-emergence of China and India as major players on the world stage. The two countries share many commonalities, both being populous Asian powers with contiguous territory, both ancient, once economically powerful civilisations. India was colonised and Chinese territory governed by foreign powers; importantly, both states were reduced to penury by their colonisers, leaving them with ambivalent perceptions of the West. These commonalities led India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to publicly aspire to a joint leadership with China to create an Asian revival.1 India and China, he felt, could be leaders in Asia without impinging upon the other; China and India could accommodate each other’s growth and aspirations.

The growth of both states, however, led to competition between them, markedly in the maritime dimension, which is the subject of this paper. It examines the reasons for the modernisation of the Chinese and Indian navies and asks if power projection is a means to their goal of hegemony. It asks:

  1. Why are China and India upgrading and modernising their navies?
  2. Are their maritime strategies defensive or offensive? If offensive, are India and China striving to be regional hegemons?
In answering these questions this paper will show that both states seek regional hegemony. Their actions are those of rising powers who wish to project their power. It will show that both states are modernising their navies to protect their economic interests but also use their naval might to project their influence regionally. In turn, the ability to project influence impacts upon their foreign policy, as Booth notes.2

The emergence of China and India as major powers has forced a re-thinking of geopolitical boundaries. The West previously saw little connection between the regions of Asia,3 opposing late nineteenth and early twentieth century geo-strategists. The American admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan,4 arguably the doyen of seapower studies, noted the interconnectedness of Europe and Asia and the implications of Japan’s economic development, India’s political awakening and China’s latent force.5 He argued that within the region extending from Asia Minor to Korea, ‘are to be found … the most decisive natural features, and also … political divisions the unsettled character of which renders the problem of Asia in the present day at once perplexing and imminent.’6

Mahan’s British successor, Halford Mackinder, extended Mahan’s observation by defining Eurasia – the area comprising Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia - as a “pivot”, the domination of which would allow the domination of Asia.7 The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s subsequent bids to regain its influence in Central Asia and China’s actions in acquiring the hydro-carbon resources available there via the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation reinforced the idea of Eurasia.

Ahead of his time, in the 1940s, Nicholas Spykman, the Dutch-American geo-strategist, wrote of China and India becoming future major powers.8 Both countries turned inwards in the mid-1950s, degrading their international economic relations. Their re-emergence and growth, coupled with East Asia’s growth in the early 1990s, saw the Indo-Pacific emerge as a geo-strategic entity. As Medcalfe observes,

[The] Indo-Pacific, or Indo-Pacific Asia, is the best available shorthand for an emerging Asian maritime strategic system that encompasses both the Pacific and Indian Oceans, defined in large part by the geographically expanding interests and reach of China and India and the continued strategic role and presence of the US.9

China and India had different reasons for their re-emergence. The United States sought closer relations with China in 1972 in order to create a new front in the West’s battle against the Soviet Union.10 Consequently, market forces enabled the Chinese economy to become the world’s second-largest. India, though, found itself in trouble in 1991 when its foreign currency reserves dwindled to three weeks’ worth of imports.11 Fiscal reform and commercial re-engagement with the world enabled rapid economic growth, making its economy the third-largest in Asia today.12

China and India now seek to protect their economies.13 Bull’s anarchical theory14 recognises that states must rely upon themselves to survive, so must develop the military capacity to protect their commerce.15 Thus, China and India enhance their militaries. Their military growth, however, has led to suspicions by each of the other’s intentions.16Furthermore, their growth makes regional states view the competition between them with concern.17

Competing economies are not the sole or main reason for the less-than-cordial relations between the two states. India views China through the lens of the Sino-Indian War of 1962.18 In late October 1962, Chinese troops invaded India’s north-east territory, routing the Indian army. Though it lasted only a month, the war etched itself into India’s psyche, colouring all future relations with China. Hence, when China acquired nuclear weapons, India embarked upon its own nuclear programme comparatively soon after; when China began to modernise its military, India upgraded its own. China, for its part, sees India as a potential economic and military rival in Asia. While they claim to have cordial relations, they often portray each other as an adversary.19 This stance extends into the political and commercial spheres; they compete internationally for energy resources and try to balance each other by developing political, economic and military relations regionally. Effectively, they have moved from accommodation to competition.

Having secured most of its land borders, China has turned its attention seawards. The world’s largest exporter, it cannot afford any disruption of its sea-borne trade. Simultaneously, it is a net importer of energy products, sixty per cent being imported by sea. This energy fuels the factories manufacturing the goods to be exported. If China’s economy is to survive, it must securitise its sea lines of communication (SLOCs), the maritime routes by which energy is shipped into China’s ports. To do this, it requires naval capacity, armed ships capable of plying the routes tankers and other cargo-bearing ships take to ensure their safety. But China’s actions in the East and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean are not purely defensive. Consequently, India has enhanced its navy, extending the competition for security and influence with China into the maritime dimension.

This paper will assert, though, that India’s reaction is not completely defensive, either. It also has a vested agenda in developing its naval capacity. Both India and China seek to acquire enhanced seapower.

This examination will comprise four sections. The first will examine seapower, its components, and why it is perceived as an offensive instrument. This analysis will provide the theoretical underpinnings of the following examinations of China’s and India’s maritime strategies, which follow in the second and third sections respectively. The second section will analyse why China is placing as much emphasis on its naval growth as it is and its application of that growth to its situation in the Western Pacific region. It will also examine China’s perceptions of, and maritime activities and policies in, the IOR. By doing so, it will determine if China’s naval ambitions are defensive in nature or offensive. The third section will similarly examine India’s naval modernisation, its naval policies and activities in the IOR and the western Pacific. It will determine if India’s emphasis on its naval development is a response to China’s or part of its independent desire to acquire regional hegemony. Essentially, it will ask if India’s maritime activities and policies in these two regions demonstrate a defensive or offensive motivation. The concluding section will summarise the preceding ones and provide the determination of this study.

Examining Sino-Indian Maritime Competition, Part I

Key Points

  • States exist in an anarchical system so must develop the ability to survive in it.
  • They can only rely upon themselves, so they develop their military abilities.
  • One outcome of this development is their desire to acquire Seapower.
  • Seapower enables states to project influence.
  • Combined with its inherent military capacity, Seapower thus becomes an offensive instrument.


This section of the study will analyse seapower, its components, and the desire of states to possess it. It will demonstrate that seapower derives from the Realist tradition and that it is an instrument that permits states to project their influence.


Realism is, arguably, the most widely-held tradition in International Relations20 based on three core assumptions: 1) that politics takes place within and between groups since people require the cohesion provided by “groupism”; 2) when individuals and groups interact politically, they are motivated by self-interest, or “egoism”; and 3) groups are invariably characterised by inequalities of power between them; some possess more than others, i.e. power-centrism.1 These assumptions lead to the main realist argument: these three qualities cause conflict unless a higher authority exists to enforce order. Minus that authority, groups will exist in a state of anarchy wherein any one can use force to achieve its goals. Even if a state is certain there is not another which can or will use force today, it cannot be sure that the same situation will prevail indefinitely.2 Therefore states arm themselves against this contingency.

The term “classical realism” is used to denote realism in its entirety up to the 1970s. Its major influence was Hans J Morgenthau’s work, Politics Among Nations, which brought realist arguments to illustrate issues of war, peace, international law, diplomacy, alliances, etc.3 A lack of cohesion in the argument, however, led to several sub-schools of thought, the most prominent of which are neoclassical realism, defensive and offensive realism. Kenneth Waltz, an American political scientist, writing in Theory of International Politics, sought to clarify earlier realist ideas using a top-down realist framework which eventually became known as “neorealism”.4 Defensive and Offensive realism emerged in the 1990s based upon Waltz’s theory. Defensive realists held that under common conditions, the ability of anarchy to cause war is reduced. They argued that, based upon groupism, the stronger the group identity, the harder it is to conquer or subjugate other groups;5 the harder to conquer, the more secure all states will feel. Offensive theorists argue that anarchy lends itself to conflict, that minus authority, an evolved peace today may not hold in future. Further, even if technology engenders peace today, there is no guarantee it will continue to do so.

The basis of Realism is power.6 Bull posits states exist in an anarchical environment and must be self-reliant in order to survive.7 They require power to protect themselves from other states. Defensive and Offensive Realism differ on the issue of the quantum of power a state desires. Defensive realism holds that the international system provides little incentive for states to obtain additional increments of power, encouraging them instead to maintain the existing balance of power. It is the preservation of power rather than the acquisition of more which is the goal of a state.8 Offensive realism, though, postulates that status quo powers are rarely found in the real world. It holds that the international system provides incentives for states to obtain power at the expense of its rivals.9 Corbett interprets this as,

The political theory of war… give us two classifications. … f our aim is to wrest something from the enemy – then our war … will be offensive. If, on the other hand … we simply seek to prevent the enemy wresting some advantage to our detriment, then the war … will be defensive.10

In defining his theory of offensive realism Mearsheimer makes five assumptions about the international order, viz. 1) states are the principal actors in international politics, i.e. there is no higher power, so they exist in an anarchical system; 2) the principal goal of states is to survive; 3) no state can be sure of the intention of other states; 4); all states have offensive military capability; 5) states are rational actors. Collectively, these five assumptions produce three forms of behaviour: 1) states feel fear for two reasons: a) another state could have greater offensive capability, or b) that state could have malign intentions towards it; 2) if there is conflict, there is no higher body a state may turn to in the international system, requiring states need to rely upon themselves; they thus acquire the means to do so; 3) the best way to survive in this anarchical system is to acquire great power, i.e. to be a regional hegemon. To do this, states need to take two actions: a) ensure they have the power to be a regional hegemon and b) ensure they do not have a peer competitor.11 The steps states take to defend themselves, however, are often seen as offensive by others, leading to a cycle of suspicion and counter-measures. This, says Mearsheimer, is the tragedy of great power politics.

States, Mearsheimer further informs, possess latent and military power. Latent power is a state’s economic capacity, comprising the quantum and value of its assets, resources, and the size of its population. A state may draw from these elements to build military might and fight wars. The potential includes resources, money, skills and expertise inherent in its land and people. Its military power lies in its capacity to project force and in how that capacity compares with the military force of other states.12 It is the ability of a state to force another to do something.13 Dahl states this as: “A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.”14

Implicit in the foregoing is the fact that the more powerful states (the great powers) seek to maximise their share of the power available on the world stage. They do this by achieving regional hegemony and maximising their wealth.15 Although great powers ideally prefer to have global hegemony, this goal is blocked by other powers and the fact that the globe is covered by large bodies of water. Oceans make it difficult for a state to dominate overseas regions which can only feasibly be reached by ships. Thus, though the USA is a great power, it seeks alliances with Japan and South Korea in order to influence East Asia. On the other hand, great powers do not need alliances in their own region to dominate it. The USA dominates North and Central America through sheer economic and military power.

Mearsheimer also notes that an army is the main instrument of power projection, asserting,

A state’s power is largely embedded in its army. Simply put, the most powerful states possess the most formidable armies. Therefore, measuring the balance of land power by itself should provide a rough but sound indicator of the relative might of rival great powers.16

Sir Julian Corbett, the eminent British naval historian and geo-strategist of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, agrees, stating, “… it scarcely needs saying that it is almost impossible that a war can be decided by naval action alone.”17

Nevertheless, navies and seapower are perceived in realist terms as “a measure of hierarchy and as instruments of state competition”.18 Mahan aside, writers such as Robert Gilpin, George Modelski and William Thompson identify access to the sea, the control of trade routes and the development of port hinterlands as keys to the rise of states and empires.19This realistic perspective is underlined by literary works on coercive naval diplomacy, crisis management, presence, poise and showing the flag from a realist-centric perspective.20 In the same vein, navies are realistically seen as instruments of national power and prestige par excellence.21 In fact, so highly regarded were navies as individual entities of national prestige that it took close to twenty years from the creation of NATO to the establishment of the integrated Standing Naval Force Atlantic in 1968, and even more time for its full effectiveness to be developed.22

Still viewing navies as instruments of realist policy, we observe that their ambits extend past those of armies and air forces. As Commodore Alam of the Bangladeshi Navy observes,

Unlike the army and the air force, whose size and firepower have to be related to that of potential adversaries, the size of the navy is determined by the quantum of marine assets and interests that you have to safeguard.23

He adds that while armies and air forces have distinctly military functions, the navy’s remit extends into the economic sphere. While Corbett could not have envisaged the degree of globalisation and its impact on the international system today, Mearsheimer has largely ignored it in his Tragedy of Great Power Politics. Till, though, has no doubt as to its centrality in the world economy. He opens his treatise on seapower with,

Because of its effect on the state, and state practices, globalisation is the central fact of the strategic environment of the early twenty-first century. … [T]he present and future shape of globalisation is and will be a major determinant of the shape and nature of world politics of states. Governmental … attitudes to globalisation will in turn be a major determinant of strategy and defence and naval policy and therefore of the size, shape, composition and function of navies.24

If a state cannot easily project its influence across oceans, it must employ a navy which enables it to do so. Since seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water and the land area is not contiguous, a state wishing to project its influence must create a navy which can fulfil that function. While Mearsheimer is correct about the sea’s stopping power on armies, however, it also possesses attributes which permit power projection.

The Sea’s Power-Projection Attributes

The sea is the primary medium of transportation and trade, facilitating 95 per cent of world trade. Sea-borne trade has existed from ancient times. In the Indo-Pacific region, the Cholan Emperors of South India conducted maritime trade with kingdoms in South East Asia from around the First Century CE. Prior to that, there is some evidence of Mauryan Emperors conducting trade by marine routes in the Third Century BCE as part of their quest for gold bullion.25 Further East, the Makassars sailed from Indonesia to Northern Australia as early as 1640 AD in search of sea cucumber which they sold to China.26 Similar trade occurred in the Atlantic Ocean, the Asia-Pacific region, and the Arabian and Mediterranean Seas leading to exchanges of goods, news and ideas. Trade led (and still leads) to wealth and power.

Sea-borne trade grew from 2.6 billion tons in 1970 to nine billion tons in 2013 and could reach 19 billion to 24 billion tons by 2030.27 In contrast, rail and road account for 6 per cent of world trade, pipelines 9 per cent, and air 0.3 per cent.28 The sea offers faster, cheaper and safer transportation than land. Adam Smith, the economist, writing in 1776 asked rhetorically,

What goods could bear the expense of land-carriage between London and Calcutta? Or if there were any so precious as to be able to support this expense, with what safety could they be transported through the territories of so many barbarous nations? Those two cities, however, at present carry on a very considerable commerce with each other, and by mutually affording a market, give a good deal of encouragement to each other's industry.29

He could have asked that question of globalisation today. If economic power leads to military might, the sea offers the most direct route to acquiring it.

The sea is equally important a medium for the exchange of ideas. The spread of cultures has strong maritime connections. Christianity spread via sea routes from Rome to Northern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, and from there to the Americas, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the Far East. Islam spread along trade routes around the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and Indonesia. Prior to these, Hinduism and Buddhism spread from India to South-East Asia, China and Japan.30 The sea also facilitated scientific enquiry. Captain James Cook, for instance, assisted cartographers by mapping sea coasts and navigation in general by measuring the transit of Venus across the sun from Tahiti.31 It facilitated strategic interest, enabling Great Britain, for instance, to acquire Norfolk Island pine wood and Australian hemp, reducing its dependence on the Baltic region.32 If ideas and technology are the currency of power, the sea is the most important medium of projecting those.

A third attribute of the sea is its propensity as a medium for dominion. As Till observes, the Romans, for instance, conquered Britain by sea in the First Century AD. Trade took the Portuguese to India in the Fifteenth Century and, later in 1492, the Spanish to the Americas. To protect their assets, the Portuguese, for instance, established military outposts at strategic points. However, when the Dutch and the British navies outgrew Portugal’s, it went into decline a century and a half later.33 The British Empire which supplanted the Portuguese in the IOR was, similarly, based on seapower. To British strategists, the empire was one vast region divided by bodies of water. They needed to control these waters in order to control the land areas; they needed to control the seas.34 It is precisely this thinking that underpins the USA’s naval strategy in the twenty first century, even if there is no formal empire to protect.35 The USA’s conception of control of the sea as depicted in US Admiral Vern Clark’s policy document, Sea Power 21: Projecting Decisive Joint Capabilities, which envisages projecting power inland, follows Mahan’s dictum that,

Control of the sea by maritime commerce and naval supremacy means predominant influence in the world … [and] is the chief among the merely material elements in the power and prosperity of nations.36

It is critical, therefore, that any state which desires to become a great power must possess the capability to project power via the sea; it must possess seapower. In order to ensure it does possess seapower, a great power aspirant must understand what that is.

Seapower is, essentially, the measure of a state’s capacity in its maritime trade and commerce, its control of ocean resources, and its ability to project military force into and from the sea.37 Accordingly, it is more than a solely military issue. Till perceives seapower as a set of inputs and outputs. The inputs are navies, coast guards, the marine and civil-maritime industries and the contributing land and air forces. Its outputs are its capacity to influence the behaviour of other people or things by what it does at or from the sea.38 He believes it is the capacity to determine events both at sea and on the land, reiterating Corbett’s observation,

Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided – except in the rarest cases – either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.39

Corbett’s view is reflected by US Admiral Vern Clark’s policy document, Sea Power 2140 as are those of Bruce and Dahl.41

Till alleges seapower is more than merely building warships.42 This observation closely reflects Chief of the Soviet Navy, Admiral Sergey Gorshkov’s, that “The military aspect of seapower is of but transitory importance”.43 Seapower also considers the influence the army and air force can have on events at sea just as it must consider the influence of the navy on land and in the air. It also comprises non-military aspects of the use of the sea, such as ship-building, merchant shipping, fishing, ship repair, training at sea, etc.

Moreover, seapower is an exercise in relativity. Whereas most nations have a degree of seapower, some have more than others. The US, for instance, has a well-developed ship-building industry and is commonly seen as the greatest sea power at this time. South Korea, though, has a large ship-building industry but is not generally perceived as a sea power. The relativity of seapower implies that its effectiveness depends on an adversary. Therefore, while India’s Navy may have overwhelming strength against, say, Pakistan’s, the distinction is not as clear when compared to China’s. Also, seapower may enable the army and air force to win a conflict, as in the India-Pakistan War of 1971, while being the decisive instrument of war as in, for instance, the USA’s Pacific war against Japan during World War Two.

Seapower’s Proponents

The two main Western proponents of seapower were the American, Mahan, and the Briton, Corbett. Their Soviet counterpart was Gorshkov. Mahan noted that command of the sea was a dominant theme of European history. He perceived the world ocean as a single highway facilitating the world economy. Having served in the US Navy during the American Civil War, he was aware of the power of naval blockades. Mahan foresaw a world where trade was global, requiring access to the sea. He also saw the USA as a maritime power, given that it traded more with Europe at the time than it did with Canada or Mexico.44 Consequently, nearly all the large US cities were on the Atlantic coast, and thus vulnerable to attack by European navies. Therefore, the sea had to be controlled to ensure European powers did not use it to attack the US, as the British did against Washington in 1814 and their blockade of the Mississippi River delta. In his view, the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) did not end due to American strategy but because the British were exhausted by their war against Napoleon.45 He also saw the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 as one fought for profit.46 Combining the sea’s characteristics with those of commerce, Mahan saw the need for merchant ships to travel in convoys guarded by warships in case an enemy attacked the convoys. This required strong battle fleets to protect merchant shipping.

Corbett, though, sought to use seapower to gain leverage in land wars. He saw seapower as a means to prevent a continental European power from gaining so much strength that it could dominate the land and sea and threaten Great Britain. Thus, in general, British policy was to back the second-greatest European power so as to balance any possible threat to British interests. As long as Great Britain could use the sea around Europe, British troops could be landed in a place which would cause a continental enemy the greatest loss. Corbett was therefore interested in how seapower aided Great Britain’s coalition partners ashore.

According to the USSR, history was a conflict between different political and economic systems: essentially Capitalism and Communism. Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev observed that nuclear deterrence made an all-out nuclear war between the USSR and the West unlikely. He created a merchant fleet mostly to connect with Third World liberation movements, believing that by doing so the West could be deprived of the resources of the Third World upon which they depended.47 Gorshkov believed Soviet fleets could interpose itself between the liberation movements and the West. He pointed out that Western governments which attacked liberation movements on land, as in Vietnam, were reluctant to attack Soviet ships. He also noted in his work, The Sea Power of the State, that in war time a strong Soviet navy could help shape events. He believed that even if a conflict between the USSR and the West, which eventually led to nuclear war, was to occur, Western naval forces would attack Soviet nuclear-armed submarines in the pre-nuclear period of the war – just as the Soviet Navy would do. Thus, a strong surface fleet was required to dominate sea areas (bastions) in which the submarines could operate.48 Gorshkov attempted to demonstrate that a navy could offer advantages independent of a land force but, like Corbett, conceded that the Soviet Navy was an extension of the army.

Despite these reservations, all three saw the navy as an essential part of power projection; differing only in the degree to which they perceived its use and role.

States and Navies

Approximately seventy per cent of the world’s population lives within one hundred miles of a coastline49, and only twenty nine states do not possess a coastline. The oceans are the major means of transportation, a source of food, and a means of sustaining life. On the other hand, their misuse, including environmental damage and unlawful impediment to transport, is seen as a threat to a state’s security. Effectively, the oceans have become political instruments and subject to political control. Navies thus evolved as a means of a state to control the oceans or those oceanic areas of strategic interest to them. As instruments of state policy, navies function in five ways: they uphold national and international laws governing the use of the oceans; they protect trade and provide for self-defence; they can be used to maintain control over bodies of water or land; they can be used to compel, coerce or intimidate other states to accept a particular outcome or policy; and they act as a method of conducting diplomacy.50

The first four of these functions involve the threat or use of force. To demonstrate force, a navy makes use of the ocean’s attributes, including tracklessness and surveillance, its depth and the ability to attack the land from the sea, which lend themselves to that function. Oceans, by their nature, permit ships to travel at will with no set paths or highways. They are “trackless”. Given its size, it is difficult to find a ship despite today’s sophisticated technology. The mobility the oceans offer encourages an indirect approach to war. An enemy’s strategic flanks become targets; the forces available cannot be spread widely enough to cover them all. The West’s strategic deterrent during the Cold War is an example of this. Minus naval force, its bombers could follow fairly well-defined routes either across the Arctic or through the “Iron Curtain” in Europe, permitting Soviet forces to concentrate their defences along these routes. Once the West developed its naval power and could access the Mediterranean Sea, the problem for the Soviet forces grew exponentially since there were no longer defined attack routes. Similarly, surveilling an entire ocean is difficult if not impossible. Naval ships use these attributes to “disappear” if they do not wish to be seen. Conversely, they could attack ships or even littorals by surprise. Submarines add to the problem. They travel beneath the ocean’s surface to wherever they choose, appearing without prior notice. Essentially, the oceans lend themselves to seapower.51

The fifth function, diplomacy utilising the navy or naval diplomacy, leaves unstated the naval threat factor. John Stuart Mill stated, “Our diplomacy stands for nothing when we have not a fleet to back it.”52 This was expanded upon by Gorshkov, who believed navies could:

[D]emonstrate graphically the real fighting power of one’s state. Demonstrative actions by the navy in many cases have made it possible to achieve political ends without resorting to armed struggle, merely by putting pressure with one’s own potential might and threatening to start military operations. Thus, the navy has always been an instrument of the policy of states, an important aid to diplomacy in peacetime.53

Gorshkov was referring to the coercive power of navies. Also referred to as coercive inducement, coercion comprises deterrence and compulsion. Deterrence seeks to prevent a state or, in this context, opposing navy from doing something because the implicit costs will outweigh any potential benefits. Compulsion, however, aims to induce a state or navy to adhere to the will of another state or navy. This aligns with Dahl’s observations on power.54

Maritime Population and Geography

A maritime populace is conducive to seapower. Whereas some people would not readily go to sea - witness ancient India’s Brahmin community and ancient China’s ruling elite – others like the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British saw the sea as a means to commercial wealth. Over time, the sea-farers accrued a wealth of knowledge of and experience at sea that led to further advancements in marine technology and, eventually, a greater maritime ability which could be used in times of peace and war. This was the root of seapower.55 Thus the sea became a major trade medium, sea-faring a tradition, and navies were established.

Mahan wrote that a country’s trade and its maritime power are so intrinsically bound that,

The necessity of a navy springs from the existence of peaceful shipping and disappears with it, except in the case of a nation which has aggressive tendencies, and keeps up a navy merely as a branch of the military establishment.56

Other factors such as ship-building, ship repair, ports, land-sea communications, marine insurance, etc. constitute maritime commerce which is, in turn, an element of seapower.

As noted, the sea’s size and tracklessness give ships flexible mobility, which makes the act of finding an enemy fleet central to naval warfare.57 Nevertheless, the sea creates its own SLOCs. Sail ships followed wind patterns according to the seasons. Today, ships usually follow the shortest distances between ports. Thus, geography determines the routes ships take. SLOCs can be blocked by land masses. There is a finite number of routes leading from one ocean to another. The most strategic in the context of this paper is the Strait of Malacca. China imports most of the energy it requires from the Middle East by tankers across the Arabian Sea and through the Malacca Strait to the South China Sea. An opposing navy could blockade this strait making it a strategic choke point.58

Geography is also closely associated with sea control – the ability of a navy to control large areas of the sea, thus denying opposing navies access to or passage through those areas. For instance, Great Britain’s navy was dominant in the nineteenth century because Britain lies amid the sea routes from Northern Europe to the rest of the world. The Royal Navy could block access to the Atlantic Ocean from the North and Baltic Seas and the English Channel.59

Geography also leads to the sea base. Mahan wrote on this aspect of seapower.60 Sea bases are the principal centres of naval activity in a given region.61 A strategically-situated base that can accommodate many naval assets, like the USA’s base at Guam, can be a major asset in wartime. A fleet may return to its base for repair and replenishment and not to its home country, saving time and retaining its presence in the area. Sea bases enable combat reach, allowing a fleet to carry the conflict to an enemy’s territory. Thus, a base “offers significant advantages for deployment, manoeuvre and redeployment of one’s fleet forces.”62

Naval power, however, is only one facet of seapower, which itself derives from a state’s desire for security. While Mahan defined this concept in economic and naval terms, Corbett saw seapower as an aid to a continental strategy, and Gorshkov to a political one. Mahan too later admitted that seapower “is but the handmaiden of expansion; it is not itself expansion”.63 Concomitant with that view, Baer states,

Central to the theory of seapower was the expectation of conflict. When a nation’s prosperity depends on shipborne commerce, and the amount of trade available is limited, then competition follows, and that leads to a naval contest to protect the trade.64

According to Mahan, Corbett and Gorshkov, seapower has martial overtones. It derives from a state’s maritime population, experiences and endeavours, its maritime industry, and from the sea’s characteristics. These attributes lend themselves to power projection. Therefore, a state which seeks to project its influence abroad must possess seapower to a greater degree; as a corollary, a state which desires seapower usually seeks to project its power beyond its borders. By extension, seapower is in the main an offensive concept aligning closely with Mearsheimer’s offensive realism.

This principle will be applied in the next part of this study which examines China’s naval growth and maritime activity.

Examining the Sino-Indian Maritime Competition: Part 2 - Seapower

Lindsay Hughes
FDI Research Analyst
Indian Ocean Research Programme

  • China’s national strategy is dependent upon its economic growth.
  • It needs to securitise its SLOCs and, especially, its energy imports upon which its entire economy rests.
  • It therefore needs to employ a navy capable of performing this function.
  • China’s rapid naval growth and maritime activities in the last two decades has followed directions not congruent with the protection of its SLOCs
  • This has caused regional and other states to question its motives.


Mahan believed economic growth leads to increased naval prowess, which often leads to a desire for hegemony. He saw this progression as a zero-sum construct, pre-dating Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism.1 Mahan’s exposition on seapower was integral to the changing worldview of a rising power, the USA. This correlation was shown in the preceding section. This part of the paper will try to understand why China has turned to the sea, its naval growth, and if its maritime endeavours are defensive or offensive in nature. These findings will, in turn, determine if India should be concerned by China’s activities, especially in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This examination begins by studying China’s economic need for the sea, its naval growth and, finally, its maritime objectives. It will apply some of the previously-discussed elements of Seapower to understand these issues. It will examine China’s economic growth in Mahanian terms and determine if its primary desire is to protect its economy by developing its naval prowess or if that development is, simultaneously, the outcome of a desire for regional hegemony.


The Maritime Emphasis of China’s Strategy

It is because of the perception of navies being realist instruments of state power that national strategic culture is closely allied with them. Strategic culture is “an inherited body of political-military concepts based on shared historical and social experience”.2 It shapes a state’s perception of international events, producing considered military actions. Strategic culture is learned by a state’s succeeding generations through texts which embody a national political-military literary tradition which allows leaders to form ideas on how the world works and to develop preferences for types of responses. Thus, in the context of this paper, many Chinese scholars see Chinese strategic culture as unique, possessing an emphasis of ethical and human factors in security issues, as opposed to Western cultures which emphasise military might.3 In this perspective, Chinese strategic culture shows a preference for non-violence. This is disputed by Alastair Iain Johnston who believes China’s strategic culture demonstrates a large degree of realpolitik, permitting its leaders to view war as a central feature of interstate relations.4 Scobell argues that China’s history inclines it towards the use of force. He argues that strategic culture should be studied in relation to China’s security policy for two reasons: first, because Chinese policy is severely influenced by its civilisational history affecting its tendency to use force and, second, because China has a “unique traditional philosophy”.5 In his view, Chinese assumptions about its perennial justness increase its propensity to use force by giving it a “defensive moral rationale for using force, even offensive force”.6

China’s economic growth over the last three decades has been rapid, making it the world’s second largest economy. China has made manufacture and export a fundamental element of its growth strategy. Consequently, its trade has soared from $115 billion in 1990 to $2.9 trillion in 2010. Trade constituted 32 per cent of China’s GDP in 1990 and a 62 per cent in 2007.7 By 2030 China’s share of global sea-borne trade is expected to be twenty-four per cent of an estimated twenty-four billion tonnes, necessitating an enhanced infrastructure.8 Thus, in 2004 Shanghai’s ports ranked second in the world by volume of cargo handled and surpassed Hong Kong in 2007.9 The volume of cargo handled at Shenzen port alone surpassed the combined total from Tokyo, Kobe and Yokohama, Japan’s three busiest ports.10 Reports indicate the Pearl River delta ports in Guangdong province will overtake Hong Kong by 2015 if current progress is maintained.11 The port of Qingdao in Shandong province increased its sea freight handling by thirty per cent in 2002, making it the dominant maritime hub north of the Yangtze River.12

China has become the world’s largest ship-builder, surpassing Japan and South Korea.13 The Cosco Shipyard Group, China’s largest ship-builder, has increased manufacturing capacity in all its shipyards. In Dalian capacity rose by 73 per cent by 200514, including the creation of the world’s largest dry dock, which caters to very large crude carriers (VLCC).15Also in 2005, citing national security concerns due to a shortage of ships, China’s Department of Transport stated the country needed a fleet of VLCCs capable of transporting more than fifty per cent of its energy products in Chinese hulls,16 leading to the observation that China’s VLCC fleet will more than double by the middle of this decade.17

China’s ship-building efforts also include naval hulls. Its naval modernisation includes the building and creation of platforms, weapons systems, infrastructure and the software to manage these assets.18 According to The Military Balance 2012, the PLAN comprises 876 vessels including 78 principal surface combat ships and 71 submarines.19 Arguably the most impressive element of China’s naval modernisation has been the growth of its submarine fleet. Since the mid-1990s, it has acquired twelve Kilo-class attack submarines from Russia in addition to building its own Song and Yuan classes. Reportedly China inducted twenty three indigenously-built conventional submarines between 1995 and 2007.20

Submarines, however, are not suitable instruments of power projection, so China has also constructed surface strike ships with extended ranges. Over the last decade it has bought or built several destroyers and frigates. These include four RussianSovremenny-class destroyers, five classes of indigenous destroyers and four classes of frigates.21 It has also designed and built large amphibious (landing) ships, supply ships to service its long-distance destroyers, and developed naval command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities.

A Possible Rationale for China’s Naval Emphasis

China’s stated first priority is to “re-integrate” Taiwan, explaining its need for amphibious ships. It is also creating blue-water capacity beyond the “first island chain” – the Kuril Islands, Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. The “second island chain” runs roughly north to south from the Kuril Islands, through Japan, the Bonin, Mariana, and Carolina Islands, and Indonesia. These two lines extend approximately 1,800 nautical miles from China’s east coast. Breaking free of the USA’s domination of the two lines is a key goal of its maritime strategy, explaining why it conducted naval exercises through the first island chain in April 2010.22

This strategy is a direct emulation of the USSR’s strategy of equally-spaced, roughly parallel sea lines of defence (“thresholds”) situated at varying distances from its coasts, each defended by weapons systems to deny the USA sea access and dominance. The first threshold consisted of surveillance ships, aircraft and, satellites, the second land-based, long-range bombers, and the third submarines. Having acquired the submarines, the rationale for China’s emphasis on developing electronic surveillance systems and an indigenous global positioning system is now apparent. Writing of the Chinese Admiral Liu, who is often referred to as the Chinese Mahan, McDevitt states,

When one compares the Soviet strategy of fifteen years ago (in the mid-1980s) to what we believe is China’s first- and second-island strategic construct, the parallels are striking. … When Liu’s thinking is compared to Soviet naval strategy, especially Admiral Gorshkov’s notions of positioning a series of increasingly powerful defensive layers the closer one approached Russia’s coast, the Soviet influence is clear. Arguably, Liu’s strategy could be characterised as Soviet naval strategy with Chinese characteristics.23


Liu proposed a “three island chain” approach in 1988, according to which China would establish a permanent blue water presence in the first “island chain”, along a Japan-Taiwan-Philippines axis including the South China Sea by 2010. By 2025 it would establish a similar presence in the second “island chain”, stretching from the Aleutians through the Mariana Islands, to the east coast of Papua New Guinea, and including the Strait of Malacca. By 2050, its reach would extend to the third “island chain”, starting in the Aleutians and ending in Antarctica, including waters off New Zealand and Australia.24

Effectively, Liu was distilling Mahan’s theories of seapower and adapting those to China’s geographical constraints. Given the fluctuating relationship China had with the USA and USSR, however, Liu could not mention either Mahan or Gorshkov in his writings. More recently, however, Chinese analysts have no inhibitions about citing either. At a 2004 “Symposium on Sea-Lane Security” held in Beijing, Wang Zaibang, Vice President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, quoted directly from Mahan’s works, almost without exception, his most aggressive statements and precepts, equating command of the sea with overbearing power that negates an enemy’s access to the sea.25

Xu Qi, a senior PLAN captain argues that while China’s economic growth demands a turn to the sea, it is threatened by the USA’s naval dominance in the South and East China Seas. He notes that China’s “passage in and out of the open seas is obstructed by two island chains. [China’s] maritime geostrategic posture is in a semi-closed condition”,26adding, “From a geostrategic perspective, China’s heartland faces the sea, the benefits of economic development are increasingly dependent on the sea, [and] security comes from the sea”.27 The solution, he argues, is to develop naval power. He calls for an “unceasing move towards a ‘blue-water navy’ [and] expand the scope of maritime security defence”.28A blue-water navy would need to “cast the field of vision of its strategic defence to the open ocean [and to] develop attack capabilities for battle operations [along] exterior lines”.29 This argument could well have been taken from Mahan’s writings.

Similarly, Professor Ni Lexiong of the Research Institute of War and Culture reminds China of its humiliation by Japan in 1894 – 1895 when the Japanese fleet crushed its navy. Asserting that “the key to winning that war was to gain command of the sea”, he writes that Mahan,

… believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement.30

The foregoing examples make the point that China’s naval strategists are becoming increasingly assertive and Mahanian in their outlook. If is therefore probable that China will seek to maintain the security of its commercial SLOCs. In other words, if Chinese strategists apply Mahanian theory to the Yellow, East China and South China Seas, they must seek to assert command of these seas, which parallels Mahan’s writings on USA’s need to dominate the Caribbean. Using Mahanian theory, China must guarantee sea-going communications along its coast; these could be threatened by, say, US forces situated in Okinawa which could easily be positioned at the junction of the East China and South China Seas.

Since China will not willingly depend on a security umbrella provided by another state, it must securitise the SLOCs which carry its trade and commerce, which is best done by claiming the South China Sea as its own body of water. It claimed virtually the entire sea in 1992, putting this position into domestic law.31 China has made clear its willingness to use force to back up its maritime claims. In 1976 its naval forces took the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, and in 1988 the PLAN fought a Vietnamese flotilla to occupy part of the Spratly Islands and install anti-ship missiles on Woody Island. In 1995, after the USA withdrew from the Philippines, China seized Mischief Reef from within the Philippines’s two hundred nautical mile exclusive economic zone and fortified it in 1998.32

In this, China has once again conformed to Mahanian theory: establishing forward bases, extending its outward defence perimeter, strengthening its SLOCs and seeking control over the approaches to the Strait of Malacca, itself the conduit for a full sixth of world trade and the SLOC for vital energy imports for China, Japan and other East Asian countries.33Thus, while some analysts might emphasise the potential under-sea hydro-carbon deposits of the East and South China Seas, these seas are strategically important to China because of their geography too. China views them as one continuous ocean. In order to command it, China’s navy must be able to operate freely within it. Thus China claims them and their resources.

This thinking was first presented by China in its Defence White Paper, China’s National Defence in 2004. It provides an appraisal of China’s strategic environment and the strategies it requires to flourish. It was more or less re-stated in the 2006 paper, China’s National Defence in 2006 and again in The Diversified Employment of China's Armed Forces, published in April 2013.34 The 2006 paper notes that “Security issues relating to energy, resources, finance, information and international shipping routes are mounting”,35 requiring the military to diversify its roles and missions, a concept elaborated upon in the 2013 paper.

This need to defend its international shipping routes requires China to focus on the regional environment, in the first instance, since its SLOCs pass relatively close to Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and the Strait of Malacca. To China, Taiwan represents the most tangible and immediate impediment to the securitisation of its SLOCs and any maritime ambitions it may have in the region and further afield. Its geographic position allows it to thwart virtually all power projection from the mainland. As the map above demonstrates, the island chain of which Taiwan is a major part stretches from Japan to the Philippine archipelago, virtually encompassing the Chinese mainland which arcs into the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan lies off-shore in the centre of the Chinese coastline; it has, therefore, the potential to block all of China’s access to the sea. In naval terms, Taiwan can potentially block the Chinese north and south fleets from amassing. It is also the most effective barrier to Chinese naval operations beyond the first island chain. China learned the value of Taiwan in the Korean War of 1950 - 1953. After US President Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet to the Taiwan Strait, General Douglas MacArthur stated that Formosa (Taiwan) was “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”, able to project American power along China’s coast in a containment strategy.36 The island’s position along with its ties to the USA have caused resentment in Beijing since the CCP cannot achieve its goal of national unification and also poses a major security threat to China’s development. The Chinese analyst Lin Zhibo sums the situation up:

“Militarily, Taiwan is a potential which the USA could use in the western Pacific. The use of Taiwan could enable effective control of sea lines of communication between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia and the Middle East.37 … Thus the USA sees Taiwan as “an unsinkable aircraft carrier”, giving it a maximum degree of control over China’s East and South Sea fleets.38

Lin probably had the implied threat posed by two US carrier groups deliberately positioned in the vicinity during the Taiwan Crisis of 1996 in mind when he wrote that.

To overcome this handicap, China must possess a navy capable of circling the island at will. This could explain its massive ship-building program. On the other hand, “unifying” Taiwan with the mainland will be more to Beijing’s liking since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will have taken another step towards its stated goal of “unifying” China. It could be argued that nationalism presses the CCP to integrate Taiwan with the mainland. While true to a degree, it is equally arguable that it is Mahan’s theory which drives China’s desire to achieve this objective, nationalism being the vehicle used in the process.39

Like Taiwan, Japan poses another maritime security risk to China. The lay of the Japanese home (four main) islands, the Ryukyus and the outlying islands and atolls all constitute an impediment to any Chinese maritime power-projection aspirations. The length of the Japanese archipelago, when combined with its situation close to the East Asian land mass, virtually guarantee tensions with a maritime-constrained China. The Japanese home islands stretch approximately 1,200 km, forming a crescent which shadows China’s eastern seaboard. It thus poses an obstacle to any projected Chinese naval power from most Chinese ports north of Xiamen.40 Furthermore, the Ryukyu Islands, according to Wu Qingli, a Chinese analyst, “plays a major role in effectively controlling the Asia-Pacific coast”.41 In fact, any Chinese notions of a freely-mobile navy were undone when in 2004 a Chinese Han class, nuclear-powered attack submarine, which had left Qingdao and circumnavigated Guam, moved into Japan’s maritime territory between the Miyako and Ishigaki Islands. According to Taiwanese sources, the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force had tracked the submarine from the moment it left Chinese territory.42

More recently, there has been increased tension over the ownership of the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan. China, as it does with Taiwan, places the dispute in the realms of nationalism, sovereignty, and its long-term access to the resources in the surrounding sea-bed. While this may be true, a regional map demonstrates that control of these islands allows China the opportunity to outflank Taiwan, which could also explain Taiwan’s claim to the islands.


Tokyo has well-developed maritime defence strategic thinking. It needs to protect 27,000 kilometres of coastline with little strategic depth (Honshu Island, for instance, stretches two hundred and fifty kilometres from West to East at its widest). Japanese defence planners, therefore, have always considered forward defence at sea, necessitating an advanced navy.43 Combined with this, its latent major-power potential, its huge maritime defence area in comparison to its much lesser land area, and its recent gradual departure from its post-World War Two pacifism all conjoin to make Japan a formidable adversary to China.44

It is reasonable to assume that Beijing will turn its attention to the Indian Ocean once it has secured the East China, Yellow and South China Seas to its satisfaction. That is of little surprise. Since it is energy products which fuel China’s economy, and since China is a net importer of energy, it must necessarily secure its energy-focussed SLOCs. The question, however, must be asked: are China’s efforts in the Indian Ocean an attempt to securitise its energy SLOCs or aimed towards something else? This question will be answered by examining China’s activities in the region.

China’s energy consumption has more than doubled over the last two decades. Without domestically-available energy products, its dependence on imports has blown out.45 In 2003 China became the world’s second-largest consumer of petroleum, surpassing Japan. Also in 2003, imported energy products accounted for more than 30 per cent of total Chinese oil consumption. In 2013 China became the world's largest global energy consumer according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).46 US analysts predict that oil demand in China will at least double over the next two decades,47 and foreign supplies will account for over 75 per cent of that demand.48 The US National Intelligence Council estimates that oil consumption needs to grow by 150 per cent by 2020 to sustain China’s current growth rate. Essentially, its demand for oil will be almost equal to the demand of the USA at the time.49

The demand for oil pressured Beijing to secure an uninterrupted flow. China imports the bulk of its oil from the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa, forcing it to look carefully at its energy SLOCs, especially as they converge at the Strait of Malacca, through which over 75 per cent passes.50 Chinese analyst Shi Hongtao states,

It is no exaggeration to say that whoever controls the Strait of Malacca will also have a stranglehold on the energy route of China. Excessive reliance on this strait has brought an important potential threat to China’s energy security.51

This thought is echoed by Zhang Yuncheng52 and Zhu Fenggang.53 Other Chinese strategists see the USA’s recent pivot to Asia as an attempt to “encircle China”54 and “blockade the Asian mainland (China in particular)”55 from Guam and Diego Garcia.

The USA, however, is not the sole cause for China’s concerns in the Indian Ocean. It sees India as a challenge to its interests in the IOR. The importance China gives to India is gauged by the attention it pays to India’s rising maritime power.56 Some Chinese strategists allege India is the dominant power in the IOR and, given its great-power aspirations and potential, could become China’s equal,57 countering its attempts to exert control in the IOR. Added to this, India’s energy requirements will likely create a zero-sum approach at sea.58 Consequently, they see India’s maritime ambitions in geopolitical terms. Zhang Ming posits, “The Indian subcontinent is akin to a massive triangle reaching into the heart of the Indian Ocean, benefitting any from there who seek to control the Indian Ocean”.59 Xie Zhijun, another Chinese commentator alleges Mahan declared,

Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate India and the coastal states of the Indian Ocean as well as control the massive area between the Mediterranean and the Pacific Ocean.60

Quoting Jawaharlal Nehru and the Indian strategist, K M Panikkar, Zhao Bole, Professor of South Asian Studies at Sichuan University, argues that India’s rise is due to four main geopolitical factors. First, India and its surrounding areas possess many natural resources; secondly, it is the most powerful state in the IOR; third, the physical distance between New Delhi and Washington gives India space to manoeuvre despite the primacy of the US navy in the Indian Ocean; and fourth, India borders economically dynamic regions such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China itself.61 He claims India’s non-aligned stance during the Cold War camouflaged its concern with maritime issues.

After the Cold War, however, India has taken a close interest in South-East Asia via its “Look East” policy. Zhao Gancheng argues the policy has major geo-strategic implications for India’s great-power aspirations. Acknowledging its strategic motivations, he states India’s increased interaction with ASEAN will tempt the USA to view it as a potential balance to China.62 Hou Songlin, a Chinese scholar, argues that the policy has maritime implications for ASEAN states. He alleges its second stage will expand into Indo-ASEAN cooperation on counter-terrorism, trans-national crime fighting and maritime security which “represent an Indian grand strategy to control the Indian Ocean, particularly the Malacca Strait”.63

China enacted a considerable response. A 2005 report by US defence contractor Booz, Allen and Hamilton alleged China had a long-term geo-strategy to construct military bases and facilities in areas proximate to its trade and energy SLOCs.64 Called its “String of Pearls”, the document alleged China was creating bases in the South China Sea, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Africa, the Suez Canal, Venezuela and the Panama Canal - all sources of China’s energy imports or close to its trade and energy SLOCs. In the IOR they stretch from Hainan Island in China’s south to the Horn of Africa and include Woody Island in the South China Sea, Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Harao in the Maldives, Gwadar in Pakistan, and points in Kenya and Sudan. The strategy included a proposal to create a canal through Thailand’s Kra Isthmus so as to bypass the Malacca Strait.65 One report indicates China has concluded a secret treaty to construct a submarine base in the Maldives.66


While each “pearl” provides China fast access to its SLOCs, they provide two other functions: the ability to watch over and balance India’s ports and naval bases in the IOR, and to, potentially, encircle India. It has established at least four electronic listening ports in the Andaman Sea at Manaung, Hainggyi, Zadetkyi Island, and the Cocos Islands (close to India’s naval base in the Andaman Islands) in Myanmar.67 China has also constructed an integrated transportation system linking its Yunan Province with Kyaukpyu Port at Sittwe in Myanmar, passing close to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as South Tibet.


In March 2001, Pakistan announced China would help it to create a new port at Gwadar. Though discussed earlier, planning was hastened after the 1999 Kargil Crisis between India and Pakistan. During the conflict, the Indian Navy blockaded Karachi harbour, which carries over ninety per cent of Pakistan’s trade and the greater part of its oil imports, exposing a critical Pakistani vulnerability.68 The Pakistani government saw Gwadar as a means to empower the Pakistani Navy to challenge India’s.69 The port was deepened from eleven to nineteen metres, enabling it to host aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.70 Gwadar is strategically significant for two major reasons. First, it reduces India’s ability to blockade Pakistan during a war. Second, it turns Pakistan into a major route for trade and transport with the Central Asian Republics. From the Chinese perspective, a stronger Pakistan is better able to balance India, an essential part of China’s security.71

Thus, Garver and other analysts of Sino-Indian relations argue that both countries are engaged in an offensive-realist struggle for power balancing,72 resulting in a situation Jervis described as a “security dilemma”.73 They link China’s growing energy interests to its security policies, characterising it as a “revisionist” (i.e. not a status quo) power.74 China characterises its increasing competitiveness, based upon its rising economy and military might, in zero-sum terms, a trend they see as dangerous as it could lead to regional conflict.

There are a number of compelling reasons that drive China to modernise its navy. Its energy imports play too important a part in its economic development to risk its safety. China must be able to protect its trade and energy SLOCs, and it has taken the necessary steps to do so. The issue, however, lies in their nature.

Its “island chain” strategy demonstrates China’s use of its circumstances, its need to securitise its SLOCs, to achieve ends beyond its stated need. The attention and effort given to “integrating” Taiwan with the mainland and the claims made regarding the sovereignty of the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands - and the South China Sea itself - negate security in the East China and South China Seas.75 This is an expansionist strategy, not a defensive one. To this extent, China displays the strategies enunciated by Mahan and falls in line with Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism.

Similarly, China’s strategy in the IOR shows Mahanian characteristics. Here, even more than in the western Pacific Ocean, China demonstrates that its strategy could be put to dual use. While it is in place ostensibly to protect its SLOCs, its “String of Pearls”, for instance, could be used to contain India, which fact has not escaped the attention of Indian strategists. This examination, then, provides grounds to assume that China’s strategy is offensive in nature.In adhering to Mahan’s theory of seapower, China aspires to regional hegemonism and sees the modernisation and enhanced capability of its navy as a key stratagem in achieving that goal.


- See more at: Examining the Sino-Indian Maritime Competition: Part 3 – China goes to sea

Examining the Sino-Indian Maritime Competition: Part 3 – China goes to sea

Key Points

  • India is modernising its navy.
  • This is an outcome of a perceived maritime threat posed by China’s naval growth.
  • Another dimension of this modernisation, however, is the hard-power and naval capacity India is now able to project in the IOR.
  • India is simultaneously developing relationships with states in South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, causing some in China to question its motives.
  • India is, essentially, pursuing a Mahanian policy in its maritime relations


India has adopted a policy of upgrading its naval capacity since the 1980s.Given China’s growing presence in the IOR and its long-standing power competition with India, this section will consider whether India’s on-going naval modernisation aims to achieve an active force posture driven by its strategic intent to have secure open-ocean access or if China’s growing naval ambitions compel New Delhi to respond. It will do this by examining India’s naval growth, its force posture and its maritime policy in relation to extending its influence in South-East and East Asia.


India’s Maritime Tradition

Indian strategic culture parallels China’s. Whereas Buddhist and Jain ideals of tolerance, restraint and idealism influenced Gandhi and Nehru, realist principles increasingly influence its security and foreign policy today. Increasingly, the ancient Indian text on strategy and military thought, Kautilya’s Arthashastra, a complex work which lends itself to interpretation, is quoted by Indian strategists.1 It espouses the pursuit of power through realpolitik and offensive force, stating that conquest and hegemony is the proper policy of the good leader, that power is the objective of inter-state relations, and “dissension and force” are the state of international relations.2 A second classical Indian text, the Mahabharata, emphasises the annihilation of an enemy through systematic attrition,3 leading one writer to allege it remains relevant today, with its views of force-on-force attrition warfare influencing elements of Indian military doctrine.4 Given this strategic culture, it is no surprise that India, like China, has a realist outlook.

India boasts a long-established maritime tradition. But just as the Ming Dynasty scrapped Admiral Zheng He’s fleet after his seven voyages to trade with and explore the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, by the fourteenth century Hindu rulers in India similarly prohibited their citizens from sailing beyond the immediate environs of the subcontinent. As retired Indian Admiral Rakesh Sharma observes,

Quasi-religious orders prohibited Indians from making voyages overseas ostensibly to stem the brain drain of Indian mathematicians and philosophers migrating to Baghdad, the Silicon Valley of the times (sic).5

Nevertheless, India profoundly influenced South-east Asia. Its export of religion and culture over the centuries to that region has led to it being seen as a distinctly non-threatening state. Lucian W. Pye distinguishes between the Indian and Chinese influences, noting,

Not only did India introduce Buddhism to Tibet, Central Asia, China, Japan and Southeast Asia, but its Hindu and Mogul cultures introduced the concept of god-kings and sultanates which shaped the traditional systems of Southeast Asia. Although Sinic culture has had an impressive impact on Korea, Japan and Vietnam, it has come in a poor second to the Indian culture in attracting other peoples.6

As previously seen, these concepts, religions (Buddhism and Hinduism) and cultures were conveyed to Southeast Asia via marine routes by the Chola Empire of South India and others.7 Indian kingdoms traded with those of Southeast Asia. In time, though, this trade ceased and India turned inward. Consequently, trade with other regions was left to Arabs in the west and other civilisations in the east. In colonial times, the British Raj, too, was more concerned with continental issues than maritime, leading to the further neglect of the navy.

India’s Naval Modernisation

Between 1980 and 2009, however, the Indian Navy progressed from being a “brown-water” to almost a “blue-water” force; i.e. from one relatively bound to a land base to one almost capable of projecting power at considerable distances from its bases. In 1980 the Indian Navy’s core comprised of ten Soviet-origin Petya-class frigates, two Whitby-class frigates, five Leander-class frigates, and three Nanuchka-class corvettes. In total, there were twenty three major warships, including one aging aircraft carrier.8 Unsurprisingly, when during the so-called “Tanker War” period of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 – 1997 the largest number of tankers to be hit in the Persian Gulf were Indian, the Indian Navy did not deploy, leave alone take action to protect them. While government policy may have been responsible to some extent for this lack of action, the fact that long-range ships were so scarce as to make any retaliatory action impossible provides a better reason.9

By 2010, however, these older ships had been decommissioned. In their place are one more modern aircraft carrier, fourteen operational submarines and 34 major war ships. There are also eight world-class hydrography vessels, which have completed several major oceanographic surveys in the Indian and Western Pacific Oceans for the Indian Navy.10However, the planned 140-ship navy is still a far way off, since various Indian governments have allocated more of the defence budget to the air force and army.11 Nonetheless, the modernisation of the Indian Navy has advanced considerably.

By 2013, ninety five per cent of India’s foreign trade by volume and seventy five per cent by value was conducted by sea; also, more than seventy per cent of its oil was imported by sea.12 With India’s economic growth, its navy has grown in importance. This growth may be measured by three parameters: the number of ships, their size and the number of missile batteries per ship.13 The following Table gives an indication of the Indian navy’s growth.

Indian Navy in 1991 - 2012


The Indian Navy has remained more or less static in the number of its ships. It is the number of ship-borne missile cells available today that indicate its modernisation. This begs the question, why is India modernising its navy? Does it, like China, seek regional hegemony? Does it conform to Mahan’s theory of sea power and Mearsheimer’s offensive-realism? These questions are best answered by examining its process of modernisation, the types of vessels being built and acquired, and its maritime strategy.

Missiles first made their appearance in the Indian Navy in 1971 during the Indo-Pakistani War, when they were used in Operations Trident and Python to effectively neutralise the Pakistani Navy in Karachi for the term of the war.15 This success led the Indian Navy to convert the main armament of their ships to missiles. More recently, the Shivalik and Talwar-class ships have been fitted with modern Klub (Russian Novator KH-54 TE) active radar-homing missiles as well as the Russo-Indian supersonic Brahmos missiles. The Klubs have been replaced by the Brahmos missiles on the very latest Talwar-class ships being built in Russia.16 However, missiles are a standard part of a ship’s armament today and can be offensive or defensive in nature, making it is difficult to gauge India’s strategic maritime intent from their numbers alone; other facets of the Indian Navy’s modernisation must be examined to reach a reasonable conclusion.

Building an aircraft carrier is one of the biggest and most complex tasks of any navy. India planned to build a twenty thousand ton carrier, but its tonnage was soon expanded to forty thousand. Additionally, the Indian Navy has purchased the refitted Russian aircraft carrier, the Admiral Gorshkov, as its second carrier. A third carrier, designed to accommodate thirty fighter aircraft, is being built at the Kochi Shipyard in Kerala, India.17

Aircraft carriers are the most conspicuous symbol of a nation's ability to project maritime power. They carry fighter aircraft, primarily to take the battle to an enemy and move it away from the homeland. As such, they are offensive by their very nature. The Indian Navy plans to operate three carriers by 2017.18 This demonstrates India’s desire to be acknowledged as a maritime power and, more broadly, a rising world power. To an extent, it also demonstrates India’s aspirations towards projecting its power over distances, which could demonstrate aspirations towards regional hegemony. However, while the general contours of a move towards regional hegemony are discernible, further examination is needed to determine if this is the case.

India’s ship-building industry is no match for China’s. Nevertheless, it is a collaboration between shipyards, ship designers, technical specialists, equipment suppliers and an arm of the Indian Navy called the Weapons Electronics System Engineering Establishment (WESEE).19 This body was established to ensure the compatibility between Russian-supplied missiles and Western electronics systems. The Indian Navy also has engineers at Mazagaon Docks in Mumbai, where the Godavari-class ships were designed and built from 1983, and the previously-noted facility at Kochi.

There is an obvious mismatch between China’s and India’s ship-building capacities. Since ship-building is an important facet of seapower, the question must be asked: does this mean India has no aspirations to regional hegemony? Up to this point, this study shows that the Indian Navy has not increased in size but has been modernised, it has plans to obtain three aircraft carriers, and it has a comparatively minor ship-building industry. These observations produce conflicting signals, making it difficult to determine if India has regional naval aspirations. This study must examine its maritime doctrine to make a determination.

The Indian Navy’s Changing Force Posture

Despite traditionally being perceived as adhering to pacifist principles, India has undergone a dramatic shift in its stance on self-defence. Correspondingly, its military doctrine has also undergone significant change. India has fought four wars since independence in 1947 and as its economic and political power grew, its military situated these experiences into its doctrine. For instance, in 2004 the Indian Army began to roll out its “Cold Start” doctrine. This grew from political and military frustration with India’s inability to deter or respond to incursions such as those which led to the 1999 Kargil incident and terror attacks like that which occurred in December 2001 on the Indian Parliament. Indian leaders wanted the military to rapidly mass its troops on the Pakistani border, threatening overwhelming conventional attack on that country if it did not cease its support for attacks on India by groups based there. The military, however, was incapable of such rapid deployment.20 Cold Start emphasised forward deployment, decisive offensive strikes launched from a standing start with a minimal mobilisation period, and pre-emptive strikes on enemy forces.21 It had three main objectives: 1) to avoid triggering an enemy’s nuclear response; 2) to move so fast that Indian political leaders could not halt or terminate it; and 3) to secure India’s objectives before the international community could intervene.22

Concomitant with this change in the Army, the Indian Navy’s Maritime Doctrine released in 2004 also shows a major change in its outlook.23 Echoing the statement of Indian strategist, K. M. Panikkar, the document implies that the Indian Ocean is, in a singular way, Indian.24 Thus, Admiral Mehta, the Navy Chief of Staff remarked, “The Indian Ocean is named after us. … If required in this IOR, we will undertake humanitarian missions, stop piracy and gun running, and all those kinds of things in asymmetric warfare.”25 Left unstated was the role of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines in achieving these goals.

The Maritime Doctrine is designed to maintain Indian autonomy and security against any regional threat.26 China is defined as a competitor, but as Sakhuja writes, the Navy is required to “provide maritime security in all directions – the classical doctrine of ‘tous azimuths’”, a clear reference to the US, which, unlike China, is accepted as a comparatively benign presence in the region.27 However, the Indian Navy does not see itself as primarily a defensive force. Specific undertakings of the Indian Navy include exercising sea control in designated areas of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and at the entry/exit points of the IOR; in case of war to carry the conflict to the enemy’s territory, to strangulate his trade/oil arteries, to destroy his war waging potential and naval assets and to ensure a decisive victory; to provide power projection force; and to work in conjunction with the two other services to preserve, protect and promote India’s national interests.28

The 2004 Maritime Doctrine notes China’s naval-building and pays close attention to its submarine acquisition. It also considers the PLANs power projection abilities using aircraft carriers. The 2007 Maritime Military Strategy emphasises three new issues: power projection including the development of expeditionary forces, securing Indian interests in a wide arc including the Indian Ocean, the Middle East / Persian Gulf and East Asia, and strike capabilities in littoral warfare to support land forces in war.29 It also lays emphasis on developing a sea-based nuclear deterrent.

The Indian Navy is primarily focussed on a possible confrontation with Pakistan. This was made evident during the Kargil Crisis in 1999 when it was used to blockade the Pakistani Navy, preventing vital supplies from reaching Karachi. Margolis believes it could be used in any future confrontation to overwhelm Pakistan’s aging navy.30 He further notes, “Pakistan could not fight for longer than a week in the face of an Indian naval blockade – unless the U.S. Navy challenged it.”31 This assertion appears to have its roots embedded in history; many Indians believe that a US carrier group in the Arabian Sea to support Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War forced New Delhi to halt its plan to crush West Pakistan.32 This has led for calls ever since for a naval build-up to counter any future US intervention.

Pakistan aside, Indian strategists are today very aware of China’s increasing activity in the IOR. China’s development of a blue-water navy has caused a great deal of concern in New Delhi. Margolis again observes,

In coming decades, geopolitical tensions between the two uneasy neighbours and rivals easily could intensify as they vie for hegemony over South and Central Asia, Indonesia and even the South China Sea, political influence, oil, resources and markets.33

In India’s perception the IOR holds the same interests for itself as Central America and the Caribbean do for the USA.34 As such, China’s activity in the region causes India concern. This concern partly stems from the Communist takeover of China in 1949, when the Indian politician, Vallabhbhai Patel, enunciated his concerns with China in the IOR.35 This concern grew after India’s defeat by China in the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Since relations were normalised in 1988, this view has been modified to an extent but fundamentally remains the same.36 As Indian strategists see it, any Chinese activity in the IOR diminishes India’s security. These concerns have been compounded over the last twenty years with five categories of Chinese activity in the IOR. These are (1) covert and overt assistance to Pakistan’s nuclear and missile development, assistance to its military development and enhancement of its military-industrial capability, (2) initiation of defence relations and intelligence-sharing with Nepal, (3) military and deep economic co-operation with Myanmar including development of its transport and maritime infrastructure, (4) growing PLAN activity in the IOR including ship visits and the creation of electronic monitoring facilities, and (5) the cultivation of ties with Bangladesh and the normalisation of ties with Bhutan.37

It is likely with this in mind that the Indian strategist, C. Raja Mohan, conceives of an Indian maritime strategy premised on three concentric geographic circles.38 The innermost circle contains India and its immediate neighbourhood, a view consistent with that of the Indian Navy’s doctrinal statement, Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy.39 The neighbourhood also contains Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar (Burma), Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Mohan alleges that India’s goals in this region are to ensure its primacy and to retain the capacity to veto actions seen as infringing on India’s interests. Needless to add, this is not stated in the Navy’s public document. Primacy implies India’s capacity to impose its will and influence the states of the region, including militarily.40 While the naval document is less aggressively stated than Mohan’s article, the section titled “Strategy for Employment in Conflict” envisions the conduct of sea-control and sea-denial operations in wartime in India’s vicinity, including at the entry/exit points of the IOR. This appears to be aimed at China, it being a prerequisite to denying China’s ships access to and from the Straits of Malacca. Such an action would shut off China’s and other “hostile extra-regional powers with inimical intentions”41 access to India’s immediate maritime neighbourhood.

Mohan’s middle circle encompasses the rest of continental Asia, including China. Again the naval document does not treat this area in as starkly plain terms as Mohan does. It instead emphasises its role in naval diplomacy and maritime cooperation so as to prevent “incursions by powers inimical to India’s national interests by actively engaging countries in the IO littoral and rendering speedy and quality assistance in fields of interest to them.”42 This clearly alludes to China’s increasing activity in East Africa, Persian Gulf, and the rest of the IO littoral. It was likely this thinking which saw the Indian Navy dispatch four warships on a two-month journey along the coast of East Africa to engage in “naval diplomacy” and offer a counter to China’s influence and activity there.43

Mohan’s third circle, consisting of the rest of the world, envisions India as a world-power in maintaining international peace and security. Prime Minister Singh endorses this view in his introduction to the doctrinal statement, stating “current power projections indicate that India will be among the foremost centres of power”.44 He also notes that military capacity will be a critical component of India’s increased power.

Given India’s interests in acquiring aircraft carriers and its doctrinal statements regarding sea-control and sea-denial, it appears that India, like China, seeks regional hegemony. It could be argued, however, that the acquisition of aircraft carriers is purely deterrent in nature and cannot be construed as being offensive in this case. To place the matter beyond reasonable doubt, therefore, it will be instructive to examine India’s activities in this regard to determine if its intentions are defensive or offensive in nature.

India has emphasised its requirement for a dominant position in the north-eastern IOR and more so towards the western approach to the Malacca Strait since the 1990s. This, according to Brewster, is part of a broader strategy of projecting power into the main entry and exit choke points of the Indian Ocean. These points include the Mozambique Channel, the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb around the Arabian Peninsula and the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits in the east. These choke points, recognised as being vital to the control of the Indian Ocean, apparently guide India’s regional maritime strategy.45 This may also be gauged from the Indian Navy’s doctrinal document, Freedom to Use the Seas:

By virtue of geography, we are … in a position to greatly influence the movement/security of shipping along the [sea lines of communication] in the [IOR] provided we have the maritime power to do so. Control of the choke points could be useful as a bargaining chip in the international power game, where the currency of military power remains a stark reality.46

Over the last two decades, India has constructed a new base for the Eastern Fleet south of Vishakhapatnam and sophisticated naval and air force facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These islands constitute a seven-hundred mile chain at the western approaches to the Malacca Strait, and provide the perfect basis for projecting power into the Malacca Strait. The Eastern Fleet apart, the aircraft stationed at this base have an operational radius sufficient to project power into the Malacca Strait and into extensive areas of the South China Sea.47 Additionally, Indian Special Forces conduct regular training operations from the Andaman Islands base.48 The islands have received much attention in Beijing, with one Chinese analyst describing them as a “metal chain” which could lock the western end of the Malacca Strait.49 The militarisation of India’s east coast and the approaches to the Strait of Malacca are a clearer indication of India’s intention to be the predominant power in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.50

India’s maritime Engagements

The potential power of the Indian Navy is not the only aspect of sea power which is growing increasingly visible. It has also undertaken several functions to prove itself a useful partner to South-east Asian states in dealing with instances of disaster relief, piracy, smuggling, refugee issues and terrorism. Since 1995 it has also conducted the biennial MILAN (Togetherness) naval meetings at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. In 2012 the five-day meet had fourteen participating countries including Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritius, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore and the Seychelles. This meeting is not a naval exercise, per se, but an opportunity to increase military-to-military relationships with the navies of regional states. Neither China nor the USA is invited, presumably to assert India’s regional primacy. Since 2008 the Indian Navy has also sponsored the biennial Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) at which the heads of the navies of littoral states may express issues of concern.51 The Indian Navy has emphasised its strengths in maritime policing and counter-terrorism since 2001. It has interdicted supply routes in the Andaman Sea by Indonesian and Thai separatists, drug smugglers and refugees. It made a strong contribution to disaster relief in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami. Furthermore, joint India-Indonesia naval patrols off Sumatra and similar patrols (and training) between the Indian and Thai navies (as “funnel states” to the Malacca Strait) arguably demonstrate a general acceptance of India’s role in Southeast Asia.52

In 2002, India began to provide naval escorts to high-value commercial shipping through the Malacca Strait, after being requested to do so by the USA, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Singapore, which hosted Indian naval ships, supported this request. India consulted with Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia.53 Indonesia, however, rebuffed India’s request for a more permanent role in the Strait, stating that the strait’s safety lay with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. This led Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, to deny India had any intention of patrolling the Strait.54 Malaysia has since accepted an Indian presence in the Strait and was ready to accept a strategic relationship with India, provided India’s security ties with Thailand are scaled down.55 Malaysia, however, agreed to an Indian aircraft presence in the “Eye in the Sky” project to provide air surveillance over the Strait.56 In return India has offered to provide training and support for Malaysia’s MiG-29 aircraft and Scorpène submarines. This has led some analysts to believe Malaysia is now more amenable to an Indian presence in the Malacca Strait.57

It would be naïve, however, to believe India’s interests remain confined to the Indian Ocean. It also has strategic ambitions in the West Pacific region including the South China Sea.58 Daly, for instance, claims India is a factor in the balance of power as far as the Taiwan Strait.59 Likewise, Mohan believes that India will become an East Asian power because of its military and economic growth.60 More importantly, the Indian Navy, agreeing with Mohan’s three circles, itself identifies the South China Sea as an area of interest after the Indian Ocean.61 This, though, is not new. In 1945 K.M. Panikkar recognised Vietnam’s importance in controlling China’s entry into the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea,62probably underscoring India’s attempts to secure a deep security relationship with Vietnam.

Since 2000, India has extended its reach into the South China Sea through regular naval visits, unilateral exercises, and bilateral exercises with regional states. In 2000, Indian warships visited ports in Vietnam, China, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan.63 In 2004 the Indian Navy deployed ships to the South China Sea on “presence cum surveillance” missions on three occasions, and in 2005 the aircraft carrier, INS Vikraant, and a task force visited Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Perhaps as a sign of China’s concern, in September 2011 an Indian Navy ship, sailing from Nha Trang port in Vietnam to Haiphong, was challenged by an unidentified radio call in which the announcer identified himself as the “Chinese Navy”.64 Early this century India sought long-term access to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay air force and naval bases. The then Indian Defence Minister, George Fernandes, suggested Indian ships could patrol local sea lanes and contain local conflicts.65 More recently, it was reported that India would train around five hundred Vietnamese submariners as part of the expansion of their military ties.66

In October 2013 the Indian External Affairs Minister, Salman Khurshid, visited the Philippines to upgrade Indo-Filipino ties to a comprehensive partnership prior to Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit in 2014.67 Khurshid and his Filipino counterpart, Albert del Rosario, agreed to expand defence cooperation between the two countries; reportedly Manila may purchase two frigates from India.68 Saliently, their joint statement calls the South China Sea the West Philippines Sea, by which name Manila refers to the disputed sea, contradicting India’s policy until now of calling the area the South China Sea so as to avoid upsetting Beijing.69

India has had a fairly stable relationship with Japan, despite Japanese debate on whether India is Asian.70 During the Cold War, Japan saw India’s non-alignment as untenable and its economic policies unattractive to investment. This has changed. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s statement in 2007 that the India-Japan relationship “will be the most important bilateral relationship [for Japan] in the world” gives some indication of the extent of the change in perception.71 Despite a brief interregnum after India’s 1998 nuclear tests, Japan enhanced its ties with India because Japanese officials realised they could be left isolated due to India’s growing regional relationships. A strategic relationship was proclaimed in 2005 and was extended to include the formalisation of defence ties, especially maritime co-operation, in 2006. Foreign Minister Taro Aso proposed closer ties with India, Australia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) states on the basis of shared values.72

This translated into the proposal by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a “Quadrilateral” initiative in which Australia, India, Japan and the USA would hold a security dialogue. April 2007 saw the first trilateral naval exercise between India, Japan and the USA in the Western Pacific, and in August of that year, the annual India-USA Malabar exercise was transformed into large-scale exercises involving Australian, Indian, Japanese, Singaporean and US ships. Speaking in the Indian parliament in the same year, Prime Minister Abe referred to an India-Japan relationship which could “evolve into an immense network spanning the entirety of the Pacific Ocean, incorporating the US and Australia”.73 In 2008 the Indian and Japanese Prime Ministers formalised an India-Japan Joint Security Declaration, “an essential pillar for the future architecture of the region”.74

Both Prime Ministers emphasised that these treaties did not seek to isolate or contain China. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the April – May 2013 border stand-off between China and India, and barely a week after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited New Delhi on his first international trip as Premier to calm the situation, Prime Minister Singh visited Japan. During this visit the stand-off was discussed by the USA, India, and Japan at their fourth trilateral dialogue, emphasising “greater security cooperation at a time all three countries are facing what they perceive to be an increasingly belligerent China”.75 Though not a formal ally, India has reportedly “signed up for the dialogue that goes beyond security cooperation.”76

The relationship has grown since late 2013. Prime Minister Abe was Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day parade on 26 January 2014. Japan has, furthermore, been asked to invest in areas that are strictly off-limits to China, notably in the north-eastern states. This is all the more telling since China, which claims the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as South Tibet, worked to deny an Asia Development Bank loan in 2007 to Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it was ‘disputed territory’. Furthermore, Japanese organisations have been invited to construct a new port in Chennai.77 The two countries will hold their third 2 + 2 Dialogue and fourth Defence Policy Dialogue later this year (2014). Also, in the immediate wake of the Imperial visit to India by the Emperor and Empress of Japan, Japanese Defence Minister Itsonuri Onodera spent four days in India, which culminated in a joint statement with his Indian counterpart, A. K. Antony, that Japan and India will “further consolidate and strengthen their strategic and global partnership in the defence arena through measures ranging from regular joint combat exercises and military exchanges to cooperation in anti-piracy, maritime security and counter-terrorism.”78

As with Japan, India seeks to develop closer strategic ties with South Korea and Taiwan. Though not as sophisticated and formalised as Indo-Japanese ties, these are being gradually developed. South Korea sees India as a potential market for its defence and civil nuclear technology and, importantly, as an important security provider in the Indian Ocean.79India has sought to deepen its defence ties with South Korea by purchasing eight mine-sweeper ships from Seoul.80 Similarly, India and Taiwan have increased their non-official and non-public security contacts in recent years.81 The non-official description of these contacts enables India to maintain its claim of non-alignment and non-interference in the affairs of other states. It also enables India to maintain its façade of adhering to a one-China policy.

It comes as little surprise, then, that some Chinese observers see these actions as a subtle Indian attempt to encircle China by itself and together with the United States and Japan.82

To conclude, this study notes that while India does not display Mahanian principles as overtly as China does, these are observable upon closer examination. For instance, while India’s modernisation of its navy may be seen as a step towards ensuring its own maritime security, the use of the navy to project force into and beyond the Strait of Malacca is not defensive. This is the action of a state which seeks a degree of power beyond that which is purely defensive in nature. Similarly, while India’s ship-building capacity may not match China’s, its actions – political and maritime – in the Western Pacific demonstrate a trend towards countering China’s actions in the Indian Ocean. The principles behind these actions may be discerned by an examination of the Indian Navy’s doctrinal statements published over the years. Furthermore, formalised agreements between India, Japan and the USA, naval exercises between these three states, and further nascent relationships between India and South Korea and India and Taiwan, point to at least indirect or consequential Indian efforts to encircle China, just as it believes China is attempting to do to it.83 These actions are not defensive in any way. These are Mahanian principles cloaked in politics and security ties. They are, furthermore, the actions of a state which, recognising its maritime shortcomings, seeks to alleviate those through shared security relationships against a perceived common (potential) enemy.

By seeking to project its power through the Strait of Malacca and into the Western Pacific, India demonstrates its adherence to Mahan’s principles of sea power and Mearsheimer’s tenets of offensive realism. Its actions are aggressive in nature, which lead this examination to conclude that it seeks to counter China’s emphasis on regional hegemony by firstly securing its own region, the Indian Ocean, and then projecting its power while taking into account its presently limited ability to do so, into the Western Pacific region. To this extent, at least, India also seeks a degree of regional hegemony and, again like China, seeks to use its modernised and upgraded navy to achieve this end.

Examining the Sino-Indian Maritime Competition: Part 4 – India’s Maritime Strategy
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