The recent developments in Ladakh on the disputed border between India and China were shocking and tragic. The clash in Galwan Valley last week has opened up a deep fissure in India–China ties, spawning tensions that could even escalate into an all-out-war. The latest reports suggest the Indian armed forces have begun a rapid mobilisation and the Chinese military has been shoring up its positions, even as political efforts are on to defuse the crisis.
With a spiral of escalation building, a conflict so far limited to the Line of Actual Control with China could see other theatres open up, including one in the Indian Ocean. Unlike on the land border, where China has a relative advantage of terrain, military infrastructure and troop strength, India is better placed at sea. In the Eastern Indian Ocean through which most of China’s cargo and energy shipments pass, the Indian Navy is the dominant force.
In recent years, the Indian Navy has sought to consolidate strength in India’s near seas through its mission-based deployments. Since 2017, Indian warships have patrolled Indian Ocean sea lanes and choke points, including the approaches to the Malacca Strait. In its bid to keep track of Chinese submarines in the Eastern Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy has also been operating P-8I maritime patrol aircraft from the Andaman Islands. A chain of radar stations along the Indian coast has helped in providing better information about maritime movements, and a fusion centre in Gurgaon near New Delhi is helping manage tactical information in the near seas.
China, too, has been probing the subcontinental littorals. Since 2013, when it first sent a submarine to Sri Lanka, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has significantly expanded its military and civilian expeditions in South Asia. In recent months, China has sent intelligence ships and survey and research vessels into the Andaman Sea, attempting to track Indian naval activity in the region. While it has so far desisted from challenging the Indian Navy, the PLAN’s pattern of deployment suggests an aspiration for a sustained presence in areas of overlapping interest with India.
Three aspects about a possible India–China maritime conflict seem relevant. First, unlike with Pakistan, when the Indian Navy established a loose blockade in the northern Arabian Sea during Operation Talwar in 1999 and Operation Parakram in 2001, and again after the Balakot attack last year, an aggressive barricading approach in China’s near seas would be unviable. India has virtually no presence east of Malacca, and unless it acts in concert with the US, Vietnam and Japan in the Pacific littorals, the Indian Navy cannot hope to take on the PLAN in its backyard.
What seems more realistic is an interdiction strategy aimed at choking Chinese trade passing through the Indian Ocean sea lines of communication. A vast majority of China’s oil shipments, container vessels and bulk cargo traffic approaches the Malacca Strait through the 10 degree channel between Andaman and Nicobar. Observers say the Indian Navy could stifle the flow of Chinese traffic, while aggressively patrolling the Indian Ocean chokepoints, keeping an eye on Chinese naval reinforcements.
Here too, however, there are likely to be complications. With a significant share of seaborne trade moving in Chinese-flagged vessels, an Indian interdiction strategy could result in regional blowback against New Delhi. Many Indo-Pacific states would view India’s disruption of regular shipping in an international sea lane as a hostile act that imposes unacceptable costs on neutrals. To avoid such a scenario, Indian warships will need to be careful in targeting Chinese-flagged vessels, and refrain from the unnecessary use of force.
Second, the Indian Navy will need to focus on denying the PLAN tactical space in India’s near littorals. Through the use of submarines and anti-submarine-warfare-capable air assets, India would seek to restrict China’s freedom of operation in the littorals. Part of the strategy would be to position Indian naval assets on the east coast and in the Andaman island bases to keep up a high tempo of operations in regional hotspots.
Denying China use of India’s near seas won’t be easy. With a vast fleet comprising nuclear attack submarines, guided missile warships, amphibious carriers and a host of other capable war-fighting platforms, the PLAN is the world’s second most powerful navy, and should not be underestimated. But it is constrained by the absence of operational logistics, ship-based air cover and land-based maritime reconnaissance capabilities in the Indian Ocean—gaps that the Indian Navy would hope to exploit.
Third, India should expect China to use its Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia to reduce its tactical deficit in the Indian Ocean. In Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Myanmar, where China is building maritime infrastructure, the PLAN is likely to press for a greater presence to overcome logistical constraints in the Indian Ocean. Already China is constructing a naval base for Bangladesh in Cox’s Bazar that could be used to position naval ships and store military supplies.
The imperative for India is to track Chinese naval activity and warship movements along the Bay of Bengal rim. As it seeks to expand basing facilities for submarines and ASW aircraft in the Andaman Islands, the Indian Navy would look to position long-range surface-to-surface missiles on the island chain to more directly threaten Chinese naval deployments.
Needless to say, a naval conflict with China in the Indian Ocean would be an ‘acid test’ for India—one that would require considerable planning and effort to prevail over the adversary.
Abhijit Singh is a senior fellow and the head of maritime policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.