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Stage set for Cold War 2.0 in Indo-Pacific: Is India ready to tackle massive Chinese naval expansion?

Cold War 2.0, Indo-Pacific, India, Chinese naval, Chinese naval expansion, china, PLA, xi jinping, Belt and Road Initiative

The Naval expansion is reflected in the Chinese to establish control over port network extending from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean and into Europe, says Commodore Anil Jai Singh, (retd), Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation

The Naval expansion is reflected in the Chinese to establish control over port network extending from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean and into Europe, says Commodore Anil Jai Singh, (retd), Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation

The defining feature of the 21st century has been the remarkable rise of China. In the four decades since Deng Xiao Ping initiated the Four modernisations, its northward trajectory has been so staggering that even though it is now the second largest economy in the world, its growth rate of over 6% is considered slow. This unprecedented rise has been largely anchored on China s economic power which is now being complemented by an increase in China s military strength with the focus being on its navy also called the PLA(Navy). The country is also well on its way to achieving the milestone set out by President-for-life Xi Jinping of becoming the global numero uno by 2049.

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This period has also witnessed the metamorphosis of the PLA(Navy) from a brown water antiquated force into a powerful blue water navy with full spectrum capability to project power well beyond its shores. In the last two decades itself, the PLA(N) has inducted about 150 ships and over 50 submarines with contemporary technology, thereby not only replacing its obsolete platforms but greatly augmenting its capability, both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Reports indicate that this Mahanian approach to the pursuit of global great power status through maritime supremacy is continuing unabated and over 20 ships and submarines are planned to be commissioned every year. These include aircraft carriers, nuclear and conventional submarines, state-of-the-art destroyers and frigates, large amphibious ships, underway replenishment ships and various other kinds of small and large vessels. China also has a powerful Coast Guard and a maritime militia comprising armed fishing boats.

This naval expansion is also reflected in the Chinese to establish control over a port network extending from the South China Sea across the Indian Ocean and into Europe. Ostensibly an economic initiative, the Maritime Silk Road which is the Road in the Belt and Road Initiative will give China a naval foothold across these regions which will be the stepping stone to its global superpower ambitions. Excuses to disguise this as an inclusive approach to regional infrastructure capacity building is fooling nobody. It is infact becoming an increasing cause for concern and is also inviting a mild backlash from the affected countries where sovereign territory is falling into Chinese hands. Sri Lanka s vulnerability to the generous Chinese loan has resulted in China acquiring a 99-year lease over the Hambantota port which it built in Sri Lanka. Recent reports indicate that Kenya may have to relinquish control of Mombasa port if t is unable to repay the Chinese loans it has taken for modernising its railway system. China s overtures to Maldives and Seychelles have had a recent setback but that will not deter it from pursuing its objectives.

In 2016, China initiated major military reforms and restructured it seven military areas into five theatre commands with the obvious though unstated intention of headquartering these in different operational theatres as is done by the US military once China has the military strength and capacity to do so.

China made its first major foray into the Indian Ocean as part of its anti-piracy deployment in 2008 and less than a decade later has established a fully operational naval base in strategically important Djibouti at the western extremity of the Indian Ocean. Ironically, it has become the first to actually understand the importance of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic entity while the others including those who coined the term are still paying only lip service to it. The PLA(Navy) also has a presence in Gwadar which is the oceanic end of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the USD 62 Bn flagship programme of the Belt and Road Initiative linking China to the Indian Ocean and riding roughshod over India s sovereign territory and India s objections to it doing so.

China presently has one combat ready aircraft carrier- the Liaoning which was the partially built Russian Varyag. It is a measure of Chinese shipbuilding skills that while it was fully operationalised and commissioned in less than 10 years, China s first indigenously built aircraft carrier (001A) has been completed in less than half that time and is at an advanced stage of sea trials at present and could be commissioned within a year. Work is already in progress on the second indigenous aircraft carrier which is expected to displace over 65000 tons and will be fitted with the ultra-modern Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS). China intends to have at least four to five aircraft carriers by 2030, a number that is well within its reach. Its modern surface combatants are fitted with advanced technologies like railguns and hypersonic missiles and China s cyberwarfare capability is well known.

The Chinese naval expansion and strategic intent notwithstanding, there is a perception that the PLA(Navy) may not have the commensurate human resource yet available to optimally utilise this impressive array of hardware. It is a well-established fact that Navies do not get built in a day it takes years and years of honing one s skills to develop the institutional capability necessary for victory at sea. Aircraft carriers do not operate in isolation thus making carrier operations complex in nature. It therefore takes a very high degree of skill and experience to operate the carrier and the aircraft that fly off it particularly in a hostile scenario. The Indian Navy has been operating aircraft carriers since 1961 but there is always more to learn. For a navy starting out with no previous experience in carrier operations, this will be a challenge and even though China will leave no stone unturned in its efforts, lack of experience will remain a factor. Similarly there could be problems in developing the required expertise in sufficient numbers to keep pace with this breakneck speed of naval expansion. Naval ships are only as good as the people who man them and in war, it is the skill and experience of the crews that shapes the outcome.

Finally, should this Chinese naval expansion be of concern to India? The answer in a nutshell is yes. India, with its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and its size and economic power is the pre-eminent Indian Ocean power and the Indian Navy, with its well-balanced blue water force structure the leading navy in the region. The permanent presence in increasing numbers of the PLA(Navy) and its bases in the Indian Ocean poses no immediate or direct threat but India will have to be alert and prepared with adequate capability to blunt any provocation. While the PLA(Navy) has every right to be in the Indian Ocean in pursuance of protecting its own trade and maritime interests, the quest for resources by both countries will lead to an inevitable competition and possible confrontation. Further, as the Indo-Pacific also becomes the stage for Cold War 2.0, the first indications of which are discernible already, the presence of other extra-regional powers could inhibit India s own options. This is what India would have to guard against and be able to hold its own in the region.

The author is Vice President, Indian Maritime Foundation