Sixty years ago, on April 23, defections from Chiang Kai-shek’s navy gave the People’s Republic of China its first naval vessels. This event was commemorated in April this year at Qingdao in an impressive display showcasing the expanding naval prowess of a nation predicted to be the largest economy in the world by about the middle of the 21st century.
Speaking on the occasion, the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, assured a world wary of his nation’s growing military power that the Chinese Navy’s objective is to safeguard “world peace”. The carefully chosen theme of the celebrations, ‘harmonious ocean’, provided the right setting. The President’s words that China’s armed forces will “never be a threat to other nations” were carefully calibrated to convey the message that none has to fear from the ‘peaceful’ rise of China.
Not many were convinced though. As the US report on the ‘Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, 2009’ states: ‘Much uncertainty surrounds China’s future course, particularly regarding how its expanding military power would be used.’
Riding high on defence budgets that have seen double-digit growth in the last two decades, the Chinese Navy has swelled to 860 vessels. Its defence budget has become the second largest after the US. With such increasing outlays that are estimated to be two to three times the official figures, the US intelligence agencies have forecasted that the Chinese Navy could grow to be the largest within a decade.
Every nation has the right to acquire weapons and platforms to protect its legitimate security interests. But there is a lack of nexus between China’s declared peaceful intentions and its deeds. The Chinese Navy lends credence to this fear by its aggressive manoeuvres at sea. In March 2009, Chinese ships and aircraft harassed the US surveillance ship Impeccable near the Hainan Island — the home of China’s new underground facilities with caves to hide submarines from prying satellites. The US had to dispatch a destroyer to escort the harassed ship. Its embassy in Beijing lodged a protest with the Chinese government. But in May, another US ship — Victorious — was harassed in the Yellow Sea by Chinese vessels.
While China may have an ostensible reason to oppose the US for supporting Taiwan, what can the growing Chinese Navy portend for India? Despite declarations of friendly ties between the two nations, there is a hidden distrust for each other. India and China have land disputes and Beijing is unrelenting in its claim of Arunachal Pradesh. The latest blocking of the Asian Development Bank’s assistance to India is yet another reminder that China would loath to miss an opportunity to oppose India.
China would not evidently countenance a competitor in India. New Delhi would, therefore, have to guard against the dragon in the water. India is critically dependent on the Sea Lines of Communication for economic growth and energy needs. India would also have to build a stronger navy to prepare for the impending competition for natural resources. Unfortunately, it may already be getting too late for India.
First, China has quietly obtained a string of naval facilities around India, called the ‘string of pearls’. These could enable the Chinese Navy to project power further away from its shores. Second, the pace at with China is augmenting its naval power doesn’t augur well for India. For instance, the phenomenal growth in submarines is worrisome. While the Chinese have commissioned more than three submarines, on an average, every year since 1995, India’s submarine level has decreased since 1999. All its submarines are old and, as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report 2008 has pointed out, more than 50 per cent of them have completed 75 per cent of their operational life. Some have already outlived theirs.
Third, when China acquires multiple carriers, a plan it is pursuing diligently, it could signal a quantum jump in its capability to project power. In contrast, India’s lone aircraft carrier — INS Viraat — is on perpetual life extensions and requires upgrades to keep her afloat. India’s indigenous carrier, being built at the Cochin Shipyard, may not be available to the Navy before 2015 and the carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, from Russia, is embroiled in a price war. India needs multiple carriers. The navy should establish a dedicated yard at Cochin, the only facility in India capable of building large ships and which is ideally located, opposite to the naval base in Cochin.
The Chinese threat is for real, as Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of the Indian Navy said, “The Chinese Defence Minister, Liang Guanglie, has announced that a class of 4-6 Chinese aircraft carriers is on the way...It is time for India to shed her blinkers and prepare to counter PLA Navy’s impending power-play in the Indian Ocean”.
Therefore, India has to allocate more for defence, particularly for the navy, and put in place an acquisition organisation to give the armed forces the teeth they require. India cannot drift into a slumber on remixes of ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’. Having learnt a bitter lesson in 1962, it bears repeating that it would be unwise to be militarily unprepared when it comes to China.
Thomas Mathew is Deputy Director-General, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi.