Avoiding Sonars: Continental vs. Maritime action for India

National interests of a country can be organized into four categories: survival, vital, major or peripheral. Particular interests may change from one category to another, depending on given circumstances. In the international realm—where weapons are instruments to implement doctrines, and information is fluid— preferences are always changing. Survival interests are however, self evidently, those that are crucial to the existence of a nation state, and these interests always find their way on top of every country’s agenda. With new advances in military technologies and artificial intelligence, the balance of power amongst countries is becoming more and more asymmetrical, with unconventional warfare changing the rules of a game many haven’t even played before. For purposes of this discussion, the naval capacities of both India and China will be discussed.

            The Indian Navy is the 5th largest navy in the world and is currently pursuing an expansive development and acquisition program to meet the evolving regional and global threats, whilst also working to expand political and economic objectives. With respect to its regional aspirations, its main concerns come from its neighbors to the west and the north. China lies to the North of India, and its role in India’s security agenda is quite important as these concerns mainly revolve around border contentions and competing regional aspirations for hegemony. To successfully project its image as a ‘great power’ India must provide the image of a nation in control of its security environment. Attempts by extra-regional actors to get involved limit India’s credibility, hindering its “great power” ambitions. And for these reasons India has explored different avenues to harness its relationship with Southeast Asian countries, especially China.         

Threat from China

            China is more of a competitor than a rival for India, sharing the same hegemonic aspirations. This theory has been most commonly used to explain China’s efforts to contain India by aligning with Pakistan in the West—contributing to the Indian perception of ‘strategic encirclement’ by China. A classic security dilemma is thus the case, even more so because of nuclear acquisition by all three actors.

            Assessing the respective naval capabilities of the two countries, it is safe to say that the People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is roughly five times the size of the Indian Navy in terms of personnel and almost twice the size of the Indian Navy with regards to major combat ships. Moreover, the presence of maritime militias adds to the asymmetry of the security conflict. With this non-military Chinese presence in the Bay of Bengal and the IOR, India does feel a need to regulate its maritime activity. Now, despite the reality that China possesses a qualitative and quantitative edge over the Indian navy, it suffers from a geographical disadvantage. There are only two routes of access for China to gain direct access into the region and that is through the Malacca strait or via the southern Indonesian passages of Sunda or Lombok. Whilst the first route is indirectly under Indian Navy by virtue of acclaimed territory (the Andaman Nicobar Command) which happens to overlook the Strait of Malacca in the Bay of Bengal, the second route is much more distant but offers an access opening that is not immediately secured by the Indian navy. Either way, the distance needed to occupy the Indian navy greatly affects the probability of the PLAN to successfully engage India—thereby providing the region with a more or less balanced equation in a naval conflict scenario in the IOR.

Power Dynamics; Status Dilemma Or Security Dilemma?

            Unpacking a region’s power dynamics will require us to take into account the preferences and doctrines of all the actors involved. Although the region involves more than just two countries, it is important to acknowledge that the intentions of these countries are massively impacted by what they assume the intentions of the other states are. Not surprisingly then, the consequences of these spiraling assumptions are then seen on television screens as unpleasant headlines, raising the temperature of an already steaming international security climate. The idea is that states are primarily self-interested agents and their priority is being safe in this not so safe world. It is possible that the states are already secure in their own capacities but what is important is that they always want more. In obtaining ‘more’ they crouch into defensive positions signaling offensive intentions. It is in this very anarchic environment that the theory of deterrence works. It is the rationale used by other nuclear weapons states to justify the acquisition of their own weapons. The main argument is if that the competing state has the capability to inflict unacceptable damage to another state, the latter will refrain from indulging in a first strike to the former, also called a ‘preemptive strike’ as it will be deterred from doing so. Proponents of deterrence theory claim that this is the sole reason for existing peace and that the role of values and ethics does not really come into play when leaders have only a few minutes to make world-ending decisions. However, it is important to bear in mind that just because over the last fifty years a nuclear war hasn’t occurred does not mean that it will not occur in the next fifty or hundred years. For that to happen, only one failure of deterrence is needed.

            Similarly, status dilemma too, can only exist between two defensive realists states that prefer status with survival instincts. The actual structure of these dilemmas always consists of comparisons. With constant social and temporal comparisons, humiliation subjectively perceived by two states provides harsh dynamics possibly escalating the status competition to a status dilemma, characterized by upward signaling and downward recognition. This upward spiral is very common amongst states, especially in regional situations where more than one state in the same region shares similar aspirations, just as India and China do.  

            Contrary to the opinion of some analysts, the maritime realm between India and China is not a zero-sum game theatre where ‘core’ interests for both countries are at stake. All gains and losses are relative with all still being within the boundaries of possible compromise. The geopolitical reality is that China’s SLOCs cross Indian naval deployments, with most of Chinese oil imports flowing through the Indian Ocean. Similarly, the Malacca and Singapore straits are where most of Indian trade flows through. From a real politik angle, this is the ideal scenario for increased defense and constant anxiety, but this could actually form the basis of an accommodative maritime relationship, because in reality these two states will probably not be willing to give up their current way of business, neither would they want to go to war (under nuclear conditions). Strategy is not about being normative, neither should it be about throwing money into a bottomless pit—it is the creative preparation of available instruments in the face of incoming threats. The mere lack of an arms race does not prove that a hypothetical aggressor has been deterred. To be sure, it is hard to prove the validity of any deterrence theory since it is difficult to demonstrate conclusively why something did not happen. In such an interdependent regional scenario the idea of unilateral security over the SLOCs and IOR can seem illogical. With the evolution of military and maritime technology, original ideas of complete sea control are pretty much obsolete. Realistically, sea denial (naval access) along with limited power-projection capabilities is perhaps the most that contemporary rising powers can aspire to.

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