It would appear that the surprise and outrage expressed by the United States over obtaining satellite images of the construction of a “secret Chinese military installation” in the UAE port of Khalifa was unwarranted. Indeed, none other than the American oracle of maritime power, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, who has a significant number of followers in Chinese strategic circles, has stressed the importance of bases abroad for support a maritime control navy that monitors maritime commerce.
China is also inspired by 18th century Britain. After being transformed by the Industrial Revolution into the ‘workshop of the world’, Britain deployed the Royal Navy to protect the sea lanes so that British products could find markets all over the world. Britain has acquired bases in strategic locations across the world; from Singapore to Mauritius, Cyprus and Malta and from Gibraltar to the Falklands, Fiji and Hong Kong. As China’s overseas interests grow by leaps and bounds, requiring power projection capabilities, Beijing is also focusing on overseas locations that can help it monitor the vulnerable sea lanes of the world. ‘Indo-Pacific.
The surprise among U.S. (as well as Indian) diplomatic and security institutions might have been even less marked if they had paid attention to China’s 2019 Defense White Paper (DWP), which states that “the interests of overseas are a crucial part of China’s national interests, ”and adds,“ To fill gaps in overseas operations and support, China is building offshore forces, developing logistics facilities abroad and improve its capabilities to perform a variety of military tasks. “
When formally founded in May 1950, the PLA Navy (PLAN) was equipped with Soviet-supplied warships and submarines, which also shaped China’s early maritime outlook. Soviet doctrine envisioned the role of the Marines, primarily, in guarding the seaward flank of armies and in waging “guerrilla warfare” at sea using submarines.
Signs of China’s “maritime awakening” began to appear when the 2006 DWP expanded the responsibilities of PLAN to include “… As successive Communist Party leaders advocated modernizing and improving PLAN’s capabilities, the General Secretary Hu Jintao surprised Western analysts by declaring at the 2012 Party Congress that China aims to become not only a maritime power but “a great maritime power”.
It is now clear that this was a strategic and well-considered goal, motivated as much by China’s growing dependence on the seas for trade and energy-driven economic growth as by its ambitions. of territorial expansion and world status. The Chinese shipbuilding industry, run on the socialist model until the 1990s, had remained technologically backward and showed abysmal productivity. Seeing the giant strides made by Japan and South Korea in shipbuilding, China has embarked on an accelerated program of modernization and corporatization of this sector.
Having designated shipbuilding as a “strategic industry”, China in 2010 became the world leader in shipbuilding. China’s emphasis on “civil-military integration” ensured that the boom in merchant shipbuilding – and the availability of large modern shipyards and a skilled workforce – benefited. directly to its naval programs. While we derive legitimate satisfaction from the delivery by Mazagon Docks of a modern destroyer and submarine, in the same week our builders will have to raise the bar much higher.
Tangible examples of China’s shipbuilding prowess are: the commissioning of its first home-built aircraft carrier, the Shandong, in four years flat and the “assembly line” delivery of 30 Type 54A frigates. a few weeks apart in 24 months. In contrast, India’s native aircraft carrier had been under construction for 12 years and a frigate / destroyer takes an average of 7-9 years to build. These long construction periods are attributable, in large part, to the high import content of our ships – despite the siren song “atmanirbharta”.
China’s aspiration to become a “great maritime power” is motivated by a lucid vision which goes well beyond the “Belt and Road” initiative and its maritime component, the Maritime Silk Road. According to the Pentagon’s 2021 China Military Power Report, the PLAN has “a combat force of approximately 355 platforms, including major surface fighters, submarines, aircraft carriers, ocean-going amphibious ships, mine warfare vessels and fleet auxiliaries ”. This force already exceeds the United States Navy and is expected to reach 460 ships by 2030, far exceeding all estimates.
Reflecting on India’s response to China’s maritime boom, note the observation by historian KM Panikkar that the arrival of Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama off Calicut in 1498 “marked the beginning of four centuries of domination, by European powers, based on control of the seas ”, simply because no Indian sovereign at that time had the chance to have a maritime vision, let alone a navy. Not much seems to have changed as we note the irony that our Navy came into the limelight after May 2020, not because of pleas from Indian admirals, but because of the machinations of Chinese generals.
India has neither the economic and industrial means nor the need to compete with China in a naval arms race. But we must guarantee an adequate naval capacity to safeguard our vital interests: maritime trade and energy traffic, as well as marine wealth, present and latent. At the same time, our navies should be able to deploy capabilities (in all three dimensions) to exercise control of the seas where and when we want and to prohibit their use by hostile powers. Our interests also extend to the safety and well-being of our maritime neighbors, and while accelerating projects like Chabahar in Iran and Agalega in Mauritius, we must reach out to places like Madagascar, Comoros and Socotra.
Calls to increase the Navy’s share of the defense budget from a meager 12 percent to at least 18-20 percent are certainly justified. But, equally important, is the formulation of a “national strategy for maritime security” which goes far beyond building a capable “combat navy” and encompasses upgrading the full range of capabilities. maritime areas of India, including shipbuilding, merchant marine, ports, seabed exploration and fishing. As it stands, India’s failure to focus on maritime capacity building represents not only an economic ‘missed opportunity’, but also a yawning maritime security gap.
This column first appeared in the printed edition on December 3, 2021 under the title “China at sea, India at quay”. The writer is retired chief of staff of the navy.