Submarine game: How China is using undersea vessels to project power in India’s neighbourhood
By Sandeep Unnithan
Four decades after the 1971 India-Pakistan war, India’s intelligence agencies are once again scanning a stretch of coastline in southern Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar was rocketed and strafed by INS Vikrant’s fighter aircraft to cut off the enemy’s retreat into the Bay of Bengal. Today, 43 years later, it sets the stage for China’s dramatic entry into India’s eastern seaboard.
Assessments from the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and naval intelligence say the Bangladesh Navy will station two ex-Chinese Ming-class submarines on bases that are less than 1,000 km away from Visakhapatnam, home to the Indian Navy’s nuclear powered submarine fleet and the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) missile test ranges at Balasore.
The developments on India’s Arabian Sea flank are equally ominous. Intelligence officials say that over the next decade, China will help Pakistan field submarines with the ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles from sea. Submarines, analysts say, are China’s instrument of choice to not just challenge the Indian Navy’s strategy of sea domination but also to undermine India’s second-strike capability. These developments have been accompanied by a flurry of Chinese submarine appearances in the Indian Ocean this year-Beijing sent two nuclear submarines and a conventional submarine. Two of them made port calls in Colombo, triggering concern in New Delhi.
Toehold in the Bay
“No one interested in geopolitics can afford to ignore the Bay of Bengal any longer,” geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan wrote in a seminal essay in Stratfor in November. “This is the newold centre of the world, joining the two demographic immensities of the Indian subcontinent and East Asia.” For India, the Bay of Bengal is the launch pad for a ‘Look East’ policy that has received renewed attention under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Indian Navy is enhancing force levels at its Visakhapatnam naval base even as it has begun building a secret base for a proposed fleet of nuclearpowered submarines at Rambilli, south of Visakhapatnam. Equipped with the 700-km range B05 submarine launched missiles, the Arihant-class submarines will have to patrol closer to the shores of a potential adversary. But equipped with the 3,500-km range K-4 missiles currently being developed by the DRDO, the Arihant and her sister submarines can cover both Pakistan and China with nuclear-tipped missiles from within the Bay of Bengal, providing the “robust second-strike capability” as stated in India’s nuclear doctrine.
Inputs suggest Bangladesh has acquired land and fenced locations at the Kutubdia Channel near Cox’s Bazar and the Rabnabad Channel near West Bengal. Kutubdia, intelligence officials say, is likely to feature enclosed concrete ‘pens’ to hide submarines. The possibility of Chinese submarines using this base provides a fresh equation to the strategic calculus.
“Our submarines become susceptible to tracking from the time they leave harbour,” says veteran submariner and former Southern Naval Command chief vice-admiral K.N. Sushil (retired). “But a far more worrying strategy is China’s ability to be able to threaten our assured second-strike capability. That effectively tips the deterrence balance.”
Of greater long-term worry to Indian analysts is a strategic submarine project China finalised with Pakistan in 2010. Intelligence sources say this three-part programme will transform the Pakistan Navy into a strategic force capable of launching a sea-based nuclear weapons strike. Pakistan will build two types of submarines with Chinese assistance: the Project S-26 and Project S-30. The vessels are to be built at the Submarine Rebuild Complex (SRC) facility being developed at Ormara, west of Karachi. Intelligence sources believe the S-30 submarines are based on the Chinese Qing class submarines-3,000-tonne conventional submarines which can launch three 1,500-km range nuclear-tipped cruise missiles from its conning tower. A Very Low Frequency (VLF) station at Turbat, in southern Balochistan, will communicate with these submerged strategic submarines. The Project S-26 and S-30 submarines will augment Pakistan’s fleet of five French-built submarines, enhance their ability to challenge the Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier battle groups and carry a stealthy nuclear deterrent. “Submarines are highly effective force multipliers because they tie down large numbers of naval forces,” says a senior naval official.
Steel sharks on silk route
Speaking in Indonesia’s Parliament last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping articulated a “21st century Maritime Silk Road”. His vision calls for investments in port facilities across south and south-east Asia to complement a north Asian route. This year, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) put steel into Xi’s vision. In February, a Shangclass nuclear-powered attack submarine made China’s first declared deployment in the Indian Ocean. This was followed by port calls made by a Han-class submarine in Colombo to coincide with a state visit by President Xi and a visit by a Song-class conventional submarine in November.
China’s heightened activity in the Indian Ocean region is underscored by investments in a new port in Gwadar at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, a container facility in Chittagong and Kyaukpyu port in Myanmar. “Such developments have sharpened China’s geopolitical rivalry with India, which enjoys an immense geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean,” says Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research. “Aspects related to their (Chinese) deployment in international waters are part of securing their maritime interests,” Navy chief Admiral Robin K. Dhowan told journalists in Delhi on December 3.
China’s new military posture reflects the ‘Malacca dilemma’ faced by the world’s largest oil importer. Close to 80 per cent of China’s crude oil imports of 11 million barrels per day, the life blood of its economy, is shipped through the narrow Malacca Strait. Any disruption to this could threaten its economic growth. “Hence, China’s economic interests in the Indian Ocean have now taken on an overt military dimension,” says an intelligence official.
Naval intelligence officials who correctly predicted that China would use anti-piracy patrols as a pretext for deployments in the Indian Ocean feel vindicated. Their prognosis of this game of ‘weiqi’-a game of Chinese chess which uses encirclement, is gloomy. “A full-scale Chinese deployment in the Indian Ocean is inevitable,” an admiral told India Today.
“You can only watch it and prepare yourself for it.” The preparations include acquisitions of long-range maritime patrol aircraft such as the US-made P8-I Poseidon, investment in anti-submarine warfare and inducting new submarines and helicopters to fill up critical deficiencies in force levels.
China’s submarine thrust into South Asia coincides with Narendra Modi’s renewed emphasis on securing India’s perimeter. “India’s response has to be nuanced, a mixture of coercion and largesse,” says Jayadeva Ranade, a former RAW official and member of the National Security Advisory Board. While the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government scoffed at encirclement theories, the new Government is clearly concerned over the creeping Chinese presence.
National Security Adviser Ajit Doval voiced India’s concerns at the ‘Galle Dialogue’ in Sri Lanka on December 1. He cited a 1971 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution mooted by Sri Lanka calling on the “great powers to halt further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the Indian Ocean”.
India’s defence diplomacy has been severely limited by its inability to offer military hardware to offset the Chinese presence. Over half the military hardware of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are of Chinese origin. In 2008, India called off a plan to transfer the INS Vela to the Myanmar Navy when it discovered the vintage Russian-built submarine was past its service life.
When plans to transfer hardware materialise, they are too feeble to make a difference-a solitary helicopter such as the one gifted to Nepal by Modi in November and a small ex-Indian naval patrol craft gifted to Seychelles recently. Often, there is a demand for capabilities where India itself is deficient. Bangladeshi officials stumped Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials last year when they asked India, and not China, to provide submarines. The Indian Navy is down to just 13 aging conventional submarines. The MEA suggested Bangladesh buy Russian submarines instead. Their efforts are yet to bear fruit. It is a gap China willingly fills.
– Follow the writer on Twitter @SandeepUnnithan.