India has been moving quietly over the past few years to counter China’s ‘’ strategy to encircle India and limit its role in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The Mutual Logistics Support Agreement that India with Australia on 3 June is the latest in a series of such deals that New Delhi has been inking with friendly countries to foil China’s expansionist designs and hegemonic tactics in the IOR.
These agreements are force multipliers for the Indian Navy and allow the country’s naval ships to operate far beyond the country’s shores.
With these, the Indian Navy has become a formidable capable of maintaining open sea lanes, upholding freedom of navigation and the (UNCLOS).
China has been often and justifiably accused by many countries of violating UNCLOS and not adhering to an international rules-based order.
These reciprocal agreements allow Indian naval ships berthing and access to storage facilities in naval bases of those countries and also mid-ocean refuelling by tankers of those countries.
The first such agreement — the (LEMOA) — India signed was with the USA in 2016; it became fully operational in 2018.
Similar deals were also signed with France, South Korea and Singapore, and New Delhi is negotiating such pacts with Russia and the UK too.
A military logistics pact with Japan will be signed soon.
With these pacts in place, Indian naval ships can now berth, undergo repairs, refuel and use other facilities at the American naval bases at (at Djibouti in the ‘Horn of Africa’), , and and French naval base in the .
The agreements with Singapore and South Korea also allows Indian navy vessels access to bases in those countries.
India has also signed agreements with Indonesia and Oman that will allow Indian Navy vessels to use naval facilities in those countries.
Thus, India’s warships and submarines can berth, refuel and undergo repairs at Indonesia’s strategically located deep sea Sabang port and Oman’s Duqm port.
Hence, Indian warships can now easily patrol the entire Indian Ocean, including the South China Sea, for extended periods without having to return to their bases in India.
Also, the US, French and Australian navies have large tankers in the IOR and Indian naval vessels can refuel themselves mid-ocean instead of having to return to their bases.
This also enhances the capabilities of warships to patrol the Indian Ocean for extended periods.
All this has been necessitated by China’s growing aggression, expansionism and flouting of international conventions and practices in the IOR.
China’s boorish behaviour and unilateral actions in the South China Sea and its aggression against Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea in that region provides a good indication of Beijing’s hegemonic designs.
The IOR, especially choke points like the Malacca Strait, is of crucial strategic importance for China in order to ensure safe and unhindered passage for its ships carrying fuel, minerals and other goods that are vital for the country’s economy.
But instead of following a fair and transparent rules-based order that allows freedom of navigation to all countries, China wants to exercise control over vital parts of the Indian Ocean and establish its hegemony there, just like what it is doing in the South China Sea and, also increasingly, in the East China Sea.
String Of Pearls Strategy
China, realising that a rising India will eventually become a rival in the IOR and emerge as a crucial pivot in a broad strategic alliance that can thwart its hegemonic designs, designed a containment ‘string of pearls’ strategy.
This strategy involves China constructing ports, taking them on lease or firming up agreements on use of existing ports with many Indian Ocean rim countries for its ships, including its naval vessels.
13 such facilities that ring India and many other countries have already been set up.
The 13 such maritime bases already established by China are Hong Kong, Sanya (in the country’s Hainan Island), the disputed Woody Island (Taiwan and Vietnam also lay claim to the island), Spratly Islands (an archipelago of islands, cays, reefs and shoals that is also claimed by multiple countries), Cambodia’s Sihanoukville (virtually taken over by China), Coco Islands (Myanmar), Kyaukphyu (Myanmar), Chittagong port (Bangladesh), Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), Marao (Maldives), Gwadar (Pakistan), Lamu (Kenya) and Port Sudan.
China is also keen to develop the Kra Isthmus canal (read this) and eventually station its naval assets there to secure the shipping lanes through the canal. This canal will be an alternative route to the Malacca Strait which is China's vulnerability since it cannot control the shipping lanes through that Strait.
China is also developing the Al-Faw port in Iraq. The port, which is most likely to turn out to be a white elephant (read this) for Iraq, will be used to transport oil from the Al-Ahdab oilfield that China operates in Iraq. Analysts say that once Iraq fails to repay the huge loans that China has extended to it for the construction of this port, Beijing will force Iraq to hand over the port on lease to China. This is exactly how China took control of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. And once it gains total control of the new port, China will station its naval assets there.
China has gained access or constructed most of these ports under its beguiling ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ (BRI) and has been using them for its merchant as well as naval vessels.
It has tricked or forced some countries, such as Sri Lanka, into handing over its strategic ports through predatory economic practices.
By stationing its naval assets in these ports, China can control vital international shipping lanes.
Former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, put it succinctly: “China has used “opaque contracts, predatory loan practices, and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt to advance its own strategic interests and gain access to key ports in the region”.
India’s Strategy To Counter China
India does not have the resources or the deep pockets to buy off countries that China does.
Hence, it has evolved a counter-strategy of signing deals with other countries to gain access to ports and naval facilities of those countries.
But India needs to do more. India’s overwhelming focus has been on its land-based forces and, though to a lesser extent, on its air force.
The Indian Navy has not been allocated the resources it deserves. Indian Navy is allocated 13 per cent of the country’s total defence budget.
Compare this to the US, which spends 30 per cent of its defence expenditure on its navy, or Japan and Australia which spend about 25 per cent each.
India has just one warship — the INS Vikramaditya and the second one (the indigenous INS Vikrant) is being readied at the Kochi shipyard and is expected to be commissioned by 2022.
Despite the of the chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, India does need a third aircraft carrier, as has been asserted by navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh.
A third aircraft carrier is vital in order to ensure that two of them remain deployed in the Indian Ocean at all times.
Admiral Singh says that the IAC-III (Indian Aircraft Carrier-3) will be indigenously built like INS Vikrant, but will be a CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery) head carrier with electric propulsion.
The INS Vikramaditya and INS Vikrant have the STOBAR (Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery) mechanism.
To play its expected role in the IOR, the Indian Navy should also be provided the resources to stick to its plan to become a 200-ship force by 2027 (the Navy has 137 vessels now), acquire 57 carrier-based fighter jets and modernise its submarine fleet with Arihant class nuclear-powered attack submarines.
India also needs to put its strategically located in Andaman & Nicobar Islands to optimum use.
The tri-services command there has the mandate to protect the strategic interests of India and its allies and friendly nations in the Strait of Malacca.
But the naval and air assets deployed with that command are limited and the islands are used more for logistical use.
The Andaman & Nicobar Command needs to be developed as a prime strategic arm of the country’s military and must be equipped with the capability of maintaining and enforcing a rules-based order in the IOR.
This command should also be equipped to carry out constant surveillance on Chinese warships deployed in the IOR.
China’s strategy of building the network of key naval outposts is aimed at replicating the playbook it used in the South China Sea to challenge territorial claims of other nations, and blatantly violate international norms of freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded commerce in the IOR.
This cannot be allowed to happen.
India needs to engage itself more with the informal ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ (or the ‘Quad) featuring US, India, Australia and Japan.
India needs to shed its inhibitions about participating in security and strategic alignments like the ‘Pari-New Delhi-Canberra’ axis by France and expand its participation in bilateral and multilateral naval exercises with friendly nations.
Why IOR Is Important
The shipping lanes that pass through the IOR, especially the Strait of Malacca, are crucial for China’s energy needs and for its commerce.
This vulnerability of China needs to be leveraged by a strategic alliance of nations — and India has a critical role to play in any such grouping — which believe in freedom of navigation and a rules-based order to make China fall in line and behave as a responsible country that adheres to UNCLOS.
The Indian Ocean is vital for China, and is thus also important for other countries to make China shed its expansionism and hegemonic tendencies.
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