Last month, the Indian navy spotted a People’s Liberation Army navy (PLAN) submarine in the Indian Ocean, the first sighting of a Chinese sub in the region since the Doklam crisis last year, and the eighth such deployment in the region since 2013, supposedly for antipiracy duties. Expectedly, it generated some anxiety in India’s strategic community where many viewed the development with exasperation and a growing sense of helplessness.
While China’s counterpiracy contingents have been a regular presence in the Indian Ocean region for over a decade, PLAN submarines were until recently a relatively uncommon occurrence. The rise in Chinese undersea deployments in recent years shows that Beijing is now thinking strategically about the Indian Ocean. As on many previous occasions, the PLAN submarine sighted last month was a Yuan class sub (with air independent propulsion). Accompanying it was a submarine search and rescue tender – another regular companion with PLAN submarines visiting the Indian Ocean region.
Indian observers say Chinese submarine deployments appear aimed at studying the Indian Ocean’s operating environment, a prerequisite for sustained operations in an alien space. Chinese crews, reportedly, spend considerable effort collecting hydrological and bathymetric data, seemingly to finetune standard operating procedures, developing the skill and expertise needed for sustained presence in the regional littorals. Far from performing an anti-piracy function, Indian watchers say PLAN subs mark far-seas presence, attempting to project strategic capability. Not surprisingly, they add, Chinese naval deployments appear to complement Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in whose exclusive economic zones PLAN subs have often been sighted.
Beyond strategic posturing, the tactical context to China’s undersea forays is equally relevant. Unlike the surface and air assets, submarines stay undetected for long periods, providing a psychological advantage to a dominant power in a contested littoral. Consequently, an adversary’s inability to track a submarine in its near-seas is seen as a tactical setback. This perhaps explains why after first detection in India’s near-seas, Chinese submarines practically disappear.
To be sure, the Indian navy devotes considerable resource and effort in tracking PLAN subs. Days after first sighting a Yuan class sub in the Arabian Sea, for instance, Indian naval P-8I reconnaissance aircraft performed an anti-submarine warfare exercise with its US P-8A counterpart in the Arabian Sea. One reason India stands poised to sign a maritime pact with Japan is to expand ‘domain awareness’ that would help their navies share information in real time about unfriendly platforms in common maritime spaces.
None of this implies Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean are inherently provocative. With extensive overseas interests, China is entitled to secure its economic investment in the Indian Ocean. Even so, the political and operational consequences of Chinese naval presence in South Asia are worrisome, especially since there is the perception of declining Indian influence in the regional commons.
Indeed, more disconcerting for Indian observers is the delay in India’s own indigenous submarine programme, notwithstanding INS Arihant. The Scorpene submarine programme is five years behind schedule, and the follow-on P-75I yet to take off. In contrast, China has already built up a fleet of over 60 conventional submarines, and is even helping other South and Southeast Asian states beef up their undersea defenses.
One way to deter China from deploying submarines in South Asia is to erect an area-denial/ anti-access complex, possibly on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. For any balancing strategy to be viable, however, New Delhi would need to affect a deeper strategic convergence with Washington, Tokyo, Jakarta and Canberra. While India’s strategic elite appreciate the logic of military partnerships in the Indian Ocean, the political establishment in New Delhi has been hesitant to expand military engagement to a quadrilateral format, involving Japan, Australia and the US. Operational engagement with Southeast Asian neighbours too remains vastly under par.
India’s China-watchers often draw attention to the intensifying Pakistan-China nexus. Beijing’s military partnership with Pakistan – which now includes an offer of eight-Yuan class Chinese submarines – is indeed worrisome. But Indian analysts do not recognise enough the reality that China’s real sensitivities lie in the Western Pacific, where India must plan for a greater counterpresence. China’s submarine deployments in the Indian Ocean undercut the logic of India as a net security provider in South Asia. The attempt at eroding New Delhi’s strategic primacy in its own backyard makes the latter’s need for a counterstrategy in the wider Indo-Pacific region urgent and imperative.