When in 2003 a team of Booz Allen consultants, in a report for the Pentagon, coined the term ‘string of pearls’ to describe China’s attempts to gain a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean, they were in all likelihood little aware of how rapidly their colourful image would gain currency in turn of the century geopolitical discourse. Amidst Delhi’s vibrant strategic community, in particular, the expression has come to embody, occasionally more metaphorically than factually, India’s innate, almost visceral fear of maritime encirclement. What, however, is the reality behind China’s so-called string of pearls? And in what way does it pose such an existential threat to Indian security? It will be argued here that China’s naval positioning in the Indian Ocean is not only legitimate to a certain degree, but also, paradoxically, to Delhi’s tactical advantage in the event of a Sino-Indian conflict. This tactical edge can only be guaranteed, however, by the dogged pursuit of certain diplomatic and military measures.1
The term ‘string of pearls’ was coined to describe China’s increasing forays into the Indian Ocean , discernible through its efforts to establish ‘nodes of influence’ in the region, via an assertive diplomacy primarily geared towards strengthening its economic and security ties with countries as diverse as Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In some cases this firming up of ties has led to joint port construction or enlargement deals, such as with Pakistan at Gwadar, or with Sri Lanka at Hambantota.2
When evoking its Indian Ocean Policy, Beijing tends to paint it in broader economic and maritime security-related terms. Increasingly dependent on foreign oil, China is to some extent a prisoner of its own geography, as it is positioned far from some of the world’s most strategically salient shipping lanes, where the US and Indian Navies hold sway. It is in order to remedy this ‘Malacca dilemma’, argue Chinese strategists, that Beijing is compelled to venture further afield into the balmy waters of the Indian Ocean. For India, which has been entrapped in an often tension-fraught relationship with China for over half a century, China’s strategy bears greater resemblance to a noose woven to encircle and constrict India within its own backyard rather than a sparkly, peace-imbued constellation of trade linkages. In short, it could be argued that both nations are imprisoned in a textbook security dilemma.
The String of Pearls has become one of the most widely commented subjects in contemporary strategic debate, despite the fact that it is also one of the most factually opaque. This paradox is especially blatant in India, where there seems to be an increasing disconnect between strategic commentary and official declarations,3 with the latter taking great pains to emphasise that China has currently no naval bases in the Indian Ocean. Regularly stories surface in the press that are subsequently disavowed or contested, ranging from the supposed presence of a Chinese submarine base at Marao in the Maldives to conflicting accounts of the extent of Chinese military presence in the Coco Islands off Burma.
What is clear, however, is that there is no compelling evidence yet to suggest that the PLAN has engaged in basing activities of an overtly military nature. Nevertheless, this does not mean that it has no future intention to do so. Chinese naval commanders have said as much, recently stating that China may also seek to obtain a base in the Gulf of Aden. The deep-sea water port of Gwadar, of which the first phase of construction has been completed, is projected to undergo militarization by the Pakistani Navy, which means that Chinese surface and sub-surface platforms could easily be stationed there. Most of the ports the PRC is helping to develop, be at Hambantota or Chittagong, can have a dual use, by hosting both merchant and military vessels. And the absence as yet of Chinese warships at berth does not mean that China is not busy conducting naval espionage be it via the alleged SIGINT facilities it is erecting in places such as the Coco Islands or via discreet hydrographic research.
It seems clear that China’s string of pearls strategy is still very much in a nascent, or even embryonic, phase. If it were to take on a decidedly military nature, however, what would be the security implications for India?
While many in India lament the supposed military emasculation induced by the presence of permanent Chinese bases in the region, it will be argued here that such a development would actually be to India’s tactical benefit provided it takes certain preparatory measures that will be detailed later on.
The unresolved land border issue and Tibet, both of which are intrinsically linked, are the focal points of Sino-Indian tension and are likely to remain so in the future. This means that if a conflict between these rising powers does occur, it would most likely be a largely land war, most probably in the Himalayan Northeast. As of now, the Indian Navy can only be expected to play a minor role in such a conflict. With the future presence of Chinese naval bases in the region however, this could change, by providing the Indian Navy with a novel warfighting role.
A cursory review of the tactical options available to the Indian fleet in the event of a Sino-Indian war reveals the tactical flexibility on offer:
This option would require a long, protracted conflict in order to be effective. This effectiveness is likely to take ever longer to attain as China continues to build up its strategic oil reserves over the next decade, until it reaches its avowed goal of six months self-sufficiency.4 Furthermore, as the recent tragedy off the coast of Gaza starkly brought to light, naval blockades can be messy affairs, resulting in collateral civilian casualties. This risk would be further compounded if Chinese merchant ships started to provide their crew members with small arms to fend off Somali pirate attacks. Finally, such a blockade would severely disrupt international trade, and would put into question India’s role as a responsible stakeholder in the international system.
Not only would this escalate the conflict into a full-spectrum war, it would also result in disaster for the Indian fleet. Even if by 2020 the Indian Navy can boast two immediately deployable carrier groups, they would not be able to withstand a sustained aerial assault from Chinese fighters stationed on the mainland or on Hainan, especially when combined with a salvo of DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missiles. In addition, the Indian Navy would have to face down the rapidly expanding South China Sea Fleet, as well as the latest Jin class SSBNs and Shang Class SSNs stationed at Sanya.
If one looks at a potential naval conflict between both powers in the Indian Ocean, it makes no sense to compare each force in its totality, ship for ship, missile for missile. Theatre dominance is all that matters, and in this respect India will display two unalterable advantages:
Firstly, by virtue of India’s immense geographical advantages in the region, it is difficult to imagine China ever being able to wield as much military clout in the region as India can. India’s natural peninsular formation means that it has been described by some as akin to an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” jutting out into the Indian Ocean. Any naval taskforce venturing into the Bay of Bengal with hostile intentions would have to contend with India’s airforce and naval aviation, operating not only from the mainland, but also from the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Andaman Sea, whose airstrips are currently being extended, and which is slated to eventually host Sukhoi squadrons, and possibly MiGs and Mirages.5
Secondly, China’s naval presence in the region will be dispersed along the several, often distant, nodal points that constitute its string of pearls. Assuming that these forces together are superior in both quantity and quality to the Indian Navy, which is, all in all, most unlikely, India will still have the immediate advantage of force concentration and hence superiority if it decides to conduct a rapid strike at an isolated group of Chinese vessels. A direct attack on a naval base would be highly undesirable, as it would trigger a severe crisis with the hosting country. A massive naval deployment outside one such base could have the desired effect however, by compelling the Chinese to de-escalate their land assault, much as the Indian Navy’s stationing of its fleet 13 nautical miles outside Karachi during the Kargil War prompted, some claim, the Pakistani Army to accelerate the withdrawal of its forces from the disputed areas.6
The Andaman and Nicobar Command, which was inaugurated as India’s first joint command structure in 2001, is of absolutely vital strategic import. Separated from the mainland by almost 1200 kms of sea, the island chain, which lies only 18 km from the Coco Islands, constitutes India’s first eastern maritime defence perimeter. It has been also been described by certain Chinese analysts as a ‘metal chain’ which could lock China out of the Indian Ocean.7 It goes without saying that the command will play a first-line role in the event of a Sino-Indian naval clash in the Indian Ocean. Although measures have been taken to strengthen India’s force presence on the islands, most notably by enlarging airstrips for Sukhois, or by announcing the stationing of India’s first full-bodied joint amphibious force and the ramping up of its existing 3000 strong 108 Mountain Brigade to a division level force of 15000 troops, the ANC is still having to making do with an assortment of fast offshore patrol vessels, LSTs and aging Dornier-228 Maritime Patrol Aircraft.8 More needs to be done to accelerate the strengthening of India’s military deterrent in the Andaman Sea. This can be done by stationing one or two large warships there on a permanent basis, by setting up Brahmos cruise missile silos on some of the larger islands, and by providing the ANC with its own separate budget so that its platform acquisition efforts no longer fall victim to inter-service turf wars.
As the Chinese Navy extends its presence into the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, the region will be witness to a growing strategic congruence between both Washington and Delhi in their desire to carefully monitor the PLAN's comings and goings. Both navies already share very strong ties and have begun to display an ever increasing degree of interoperability, in large part thanks to the Malabar bilateral or multilateral exercises held each spring. India and the United States have recently upgraded their intelligence sharing in the field of counter-terrorism. In future, both states may well find that the surveillance of China’s naval activities in the region is an equally pressing concern.
It would be in India’s interest to press for a maritime intelligence sharing agreement, which would result in the linking of India’s new ocean surveillance satellite with the US’s own satellite-based surveillance system. India could also offer to share radar and sonar data compiled in the Andaman Sea with US Naval Intelligence in exchange for US satellite imagery, thus gifting the Indian Navy with a bird’s eye view of everything that goes on in the Indian Ocean. This would be a good stop-gap measure while waiting for India’s own burgeoning satellite-based surveillance system to attain the capability of covering the entire region in real time. In order to not make the measure appear too overtly directed against China, both countries could ‘sell’ the initiative as being part of their larger effort to ensure maritime security in the region, and help protect maritime shipping from non-traditional threats.
While much has been said of China’s inroads into the Indian Ocean, India’s own charm offensive in the region has also been bearing fruit over the past two to three years, whether it be through the establishment of electronic monitoring systems in Madagascar in 2007, or more recently, in August 2009, in the Maldives. Indian officials have also become more reactive to the attempt of their Chinese counterparts to woo small but strategically placed nations such as the Seychelles or Mauritius. For example, Delhi reacted to Beijing’s offer of military assistance to the Seychelles by rapidly bestowing on its minute navy one of its own patrol aircraft.9 This sort of rapid, reactive diplomacy, when combined with more long-term institutionalized efforts such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium launched in 2008, will help sustain the strength and visibility of India’s presence in the region.
China’s so-called string of pearls strategy, the degree of advancement of which has frequently been overstated, is not likely to immediately put Indian maritime security in jeopardy. Nevertheless, there will inevitably come a time when India will have to face the reality of a Chinese naval presence in its own backyard. Beijing cannot afford for its Achilles heel, i.e. its acute vulnerability to any interruption of its overseas trade, to be bared for much longer.
Only when India’s strategic community grasps that India is already squarely poised over China’s energy jugular, will they be able to break with an acutely ingrained sense of vulnerability. Not only would the presence of Chinese vessels present no real existential threat to Indian naval dominance in the region, it would also, paradoxically, provide the Indian Navy with a far greater degree of tactical flexibility in the event of a future conflict with China, be it on land or at sea. This advantage can only be guaranteed, however, if India undertakes certain preparatory measures designed to effectively lock down its control of its maritime surroundings, and curb Chinese influence among certain key oceanic ‘swing’ states.
Finally, as China edges its way into the Indian Ocean over the course of the next few decades, both nations would do well to agree to draft a “Sino-Indian Incidents at Sea Agreement”, which could be loosely modelled on the Cold-War era INCSEA, and which helped prevent routine US-Soviet naval encounters from spiralling out of control. The quest for adequate military readiness and tactical flexibility does not, after all, render the prospect of a future Sino-Indian naval conflict any less dire.