International Affairs Forum:
India has said it wants to play a bigger role in tackling piracy off the coast of Somalia. What do you expect India will do next?
Cdr. Gurpreet Khurana:
I'd like to see more cooperation as part of a multi-tier approach. India has already sent its warships there. So first what it would like to do is to coordinate patrols and share piracy-related information with the other warships patrolling there, like the Task Force 150 and the NATO ships.
Second, it has approached the defense attaches of various regional littoral countries of the north-western Indian Ocean, so as to get these countries ‘onboard’ to contribute to some kind of a combined/coordinated anti-piracy force. This could be seen as an effort to translate the synergy achieved during the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (I.O.N.S.) meet to practical security cooperation. I.O.N.S. was inaugurated at New Delhi in February this year. But I don't see that happening very easily, because the costs of contributing naval assets are high, and unless a country's direct, vital interests are involved, it may not want to contribute.
Third, India would like some kind of U.N. mandate so a taskforce under the U.N. can be formed. This is very important because as happened some days ago, an Indian-flagged merchant ship radioed to a western warship a request for help to ward off an imminent pirate attack. The warship's captain asked the merchant vessel details about the cargo, place of registration and crew-nationality. But since it was not a western-flagged vessel and was not manned by western crewmen, the request was politely declined. This is of course not because the warship did not want to help, but because of its rules of engagement, which forbade such assistance that could have led to adverse legal ramifications in case of collateral damage. So, once a U.N. task force is created, this problem will be taken care of.
Do you think India wants to play a bigger regional maritime security role more generally?
Yes, most certainly. And the clearest example is the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, materialized through India’s initiative.
So what kind of things is India investing in, in terms of maritime security?
India is building its own capacity for maritime security. It is augmenting the force-level of its coast-guard to enable the force to respond to security threats in India’s extensive maritime economic zones and the search-and-rescue areas. It wants to buy sufficient long-range maritime patrol aircraft to achieve maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean. Last year, India bought the landing platform dock (LPD) from the U.S. This was after the Tsunami, when it realized its sealift capabilities in the event of a maritime disaster were insufficient. Lately, India has also taken some significant measures to bolster its coastal security. One of these is the institution of marine-police in all coastal states (provinces), which would eventually be responsible for security in the entire 12-nautical-mile swath of Indian territorial waters.
China's military buildup has drawn much comment in recent years. What kind of maritime capabilities is it working on, and do you think there is any cause for concern?
China's longer-term intentions are not very clear. Its lack of transparency has lately led to concerns in security establishments of many regional countries, including India. In any case, intentions are difficult to fathom, and moreover, these can change fairly quickly. Hence, per force, threat assessments have to based on current and projected capabilities. In terms of its purported benign intentions, China does not fare well here either. Supported by an accelerating monetary allocation, its military modernization program is going on in a big way, with the key focus being on sea-denial capabilities like submarines, anti-ship missiles, offensive sea-mines and surface strike aircraft.
However, the main problem for China is that its energy sea lines pass through the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits. So now China's fear is that it would be possible for the Indian Navy to interdict its strategic imports in concert with the U.S. in case of a conflict in the Western Pacific. So it would like to have some sort of deterrent capability in the Indian Ocean, which could be in form of submarines. The center of gravity of China's naval strength has been shifting southwards to the South Sea Fleet, as best indicated by reports in April this year of the Hainan submarine base.
Between India and China, there are some major contentious issues like Tibet and China's strategic nexus with Pakistan aimed against India, which also has a nuclear/missile proliferation angle. The foremost issue is of course the unresolved border dispute. As part of China’s overall grand-strategy of territorial consolidation, it would not like to resolve the issue right now, but when it acquires greater power and leverage.
The lingering adversarial potential is therefore likely to continue for some time. India's concern is China’s deployment of its submarines in the Indian Ocean, especially nuclear submarines with land attack missiles. In case of a China-India border conflict, this will open a new seaward flank for India. And even if there is no conflict it will give China leverage for coercion to resolve the dispute over the border issue on terms favourable to itself. However, is will be difficult for China to deploy submarines in the Indian Ocean before 2020-25 Moreover the guidance system of the land attack missiles on its nuclear submarines have not been perfected – its still work in progress.
Cdr Gurpreet S Khurana (Indian Navy) is a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses in New Delhi
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