Countering China’s strategy to stunt India’s maritime growth
By Rustom Zabuli
China wants to stunt the growth of India’s maritime capability and keep it tied up expending resources on ground forces – but India can counter this by rebalancing and investing smartly in air power and other fungible assets even as it grows its naval capacities.
During a webinar recently organised jointly by Takshashila Institution and Hudson Institute, Lt Gen Prakash Menon, Director of Strategic Studies Programmes at Takshashila, pointed out that one of the aims that China likely has in ratcheting up tensions with India in Ladakh and other areas is to continue to have India invest a disproportionately high portion of its limited defence budget on land forces. This makes sense – if India is tied up on its land borders with Pakistan and China, it will have to allocate an ever-increasing chunk of its modest resources on costly high altitude and other military deployments, which are mainly ground force-centric. That means even less money left over for the Indian Navy, which is the key to India growing its power projection in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), where for logistical and operational reasons, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has restricted abilities.
China has vital energy and other supply lines in the IOR, and is today hard pressed to defend these effectively. Additionally, the PLA Navy is facing increased pressure from the US Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force in the South and East China Seas. In this situation, China certainly would not want India to have maritime capabilities in those areas that can be used in conjunction with the US, Japan and Australia as part of a broader developing Quad partnership. Thus, escalating border tensions and indulging in salami slicing on the land borders is likely seen by the Chinese as an effective way to compel India to enhance Indian Army deployments and logistics commitments along the Indo-China borders. The calculation here is that India will also simultaneously continue to keep high levels of land force deployments facing Pakistan, forcing India to enhance its ground forces.
At this stage, it is important to consider why India has massive ground forces tied up on its western borders vis-à-vis Pakistan. The goal here is not to counter an unlikely Pakistani conventional offensive, but rather to keep force levels high enough to deter Pakistan from being too ambitious in its sub-conventional operations against India, particularly through infiltrations in Kashmir and Punjab. This is important, because while terror strikes by Pakistan-supported non-State actors do not pose a direct strategic threat, they do have important consequences in terms of domestic political and public pressure, and can create severe internal security problems if they are allowed to drive communal fissures in India.
The question then becomes – how does India avoid falling into the Chinese trap and continue to grow its maritime power without compromising on deterring Pakistan’s propensity for sub-conventional actions? Lt Gen Menon has suggested rebalancing Indian Army deployments to make them more China rather than Pakistan-centric without enhancing overall ground force levels. This makes sense, but how can this be done without Pakistan seeing it as a green signal to provide support for cross border infiltration and terror actions?
One of the answers is to substantially increase Indian air power capabilities even as India steadily enhances its Navy. Air power is a fungible asset – it can be primarily deployed against a particular adversary, but with the right mix of platforms, can also be quickly redeployed against another adversary, if needed. In the Northern and Western sectors, several air bases can be used to counter both Chinese and Pakistani threats. Some aerial platforms can also easily be used to bolster Naval requirements from land bases in India’s southern peninsula and outlying islands, acting as a force multiplier for the fleet when needed. India’s multiple defence partnerships – with the US, France, Russia and Israel – also potentially give it access to a combination of both high end and cost-effective aerial platforms, though weaving these together into a network can pose challenges. A substantive increase in air power also means a boost for India’s own domestic manufacturing and upgrade industry.
Being able to assert air superiority quickly in a limited conflict or retaliation action with Pakistan will make the leaner Army deployments far more effective in offensive ground actions, especially shallow incursions aimed at extracting costs for terror strikes. Additionally, the ability to assert quick and effective air superiority would provide a wider choice of retaliatory actions to Indian military planners.
Apart from air power, India should also ramp up its special operations capabilities. Again, like air power, certain special operations forces can be used in different theatres against varied adversaries, and can be redeployed more quickly than conventional forces. While continuing to invest in Army special forces, the time has now come for India to significantly expand its maritime special and expeditionary forces. This should be seen as a vital adjunct to growing India’s naval reach will give India additional power projection, deterrence and retaliation abilities in the IOR.
Another cost-effective component of deterring Pakistan from sub-conventional adventurism even as India reorients its ground forces towards China is covert operations. This is more in the realm of intelligence agencies rather than defence forces, but is nonetheless an important vector in inducing the certainty of retaliation and costs in Pakistani minds. Doing this effectively also means that a significant chunk of the Pakistani armed forces will remain focused on internal operations, and make Chinese investments in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor harder and more expensive to protect.
To conclude, India can avoid China’s strategic trap, by rebalancing its ground forces while maintaining deterrence with Pakistan through a combination of enhanced air power, special and covert operations capabilities – some of which would also better India’s options in a conflict with China. This will allow India to continue to steadily invest in increasing its maritime presence and abilities – making it more difficult for the PLA Navy to protect Chinese interests and supply lines in the IOR while also allowing India to make a more meaningful contribution to the Quad’s naval components in the Indo-Pacific.
__ The author is a corporate lawyer, private pilot and student of geopolitics. Views are personal.