The South China Sea is already well-known disputed water, with China always on an aggressive stance so as to ensure safe and uninterrupted navigation of its cargo ships

With Lieutenant General-level dialogue between Indian and Chinese armies taking place on Saturday, in an effort to resolve the month-long standoff in eastern Ladakh, the Indian Navy has been reporting Chinese naval presence closer home in Indian Ocean Region (IOR). According to strategic experts, “Within the IOR region, the Chinese interests are far greater than a mere border dispute since the free passage of cargo ships are essential for the interest of the very existence of China’s mammoth industry. The South China Sea is already well-known disputed water, with China always on an aggressive stance so as to ensure safe and uninterrupted navigation of its cargo ships.” With American rhetoric against China rising and, further keeping in mind its relationship with neighbours like India, China has been preparing itself gradually over the past few years for IOR operations.

China’s Naval Modernisation Efforts

China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has been undergoing a rapid modernization for more than a decade and has already successfully launched an indigenous Aircraft Carrier, with follow-up carriers also under construction. According to a former Indian Navy officer, “Various new primary surface combatants and amphibious assault ships, along with a major increase in PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC) have been undertaken as a part of PLA’s modernization effort. Its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was introduced in 2012 and there are plans to field additional carriers. A Carrier-based Task Force fleet truly indicate China’s ambitions beyond the South China Sea and Taiwan. Beijing has already established a naval base in Djibouti, Africa, and is working on a network of ports and airfields in the Indian Ocean.”

China’s IOR Presence

Large traffic of Chinese ships and submarines in the IOR has been recently reported by the Indian Navy while they were traversing the oceans in COVID support from Malacca Straits to the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. The submarine picked up were both conventional and nuclear types, aspiring doubts on the nature of such covert activities.

Also, there have been reports on the deployment of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUV) by the Chinese in IOR since last year December, which had completed 3,400 observations until last month.

“The presence of such extensive UUVs measurement is merely to profile the IOR by the Chinese side to know the underwater arena for an advantageous Anti-submarine Warfare operations, while the Indian Navy is short of such advanced resources. Knowledge of underwater sea profile is a major factor in the calculation of acoustic signals by sonars (fitted onboard a warship or a submarine). With the advantage of the underwater information, a Chinese submarine lurking in water can today detect and make a silent approach towards an Indian warship or a submarine with a higher chance of success with the torpedo attack than its adversary. This makes operational missions of Indian Naval warships in IOR highly risky for Fleet Task Force even though these are operating within the Anti-submarine Warfare (ASW) screen formed by ships and Naval aircraft (like P-8Is multirole maritime aircraft),” explains Milind Kulshreshtha, C4I expert.

China’s Space Dominance

China has an advance Space programme, which is several decades ahead of India’s efforts. China had successfully launched the first manned Space mission in 2003 and by 2008 completed the maiden spacewalk by a Chinese Taikonaut. A Chinese Space Station was positioned in Earth Orbit in 2011 and was followed with the first crewed Space Station docking in 2016. In Kulshreshtha’s view “Such feats indicate the Space prowess China has achieved and it had tested an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons since 2007. China has successfully coursed the Space effort under the dual-use technology ploy so as to avoid any undue military attention. Today, China has a network of satellites in space which are capable of scanning complete IOR with digital technology, and thereby considerably reduce Indian Navy’s stealth during combat operations. In fact, with the use of Cyberwarfare, Indian defence satellites too are vulnerable to Chinese cyber attack.”

“For an efficient ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) over the vast IOR regions, Indian Navy requires additional resources in terms of ships and maritime aircraft. With a limited induction of P-8Is, the large IOR oceans requires Space-based monitoring in terms of a robust indigenous Space Command, but this too in India is still at nascent stages (as part of a tri-services Space Cell). Despite the best of the efforts by the Indian Navy in all the three dimensions viz. Air, Surface and Underwater, additional resources in waters are to be positioned as a fool proof deterrent against hostile forces from freely carrying out their activities on high seas,” the C4I expert observes.

“A Chinese Carrier-based Task Force positioned and operating in the IOR region closer to Indian shores as part of Power Projection by China, shall be a nightmare for India’s sea dominance, unfortunately, a situation which can be a possibility in the near future,” he adds.