The Need to Recalibrate India’s Maritime Strategy in the Face of Increased Chinese Assertiveness

Indian Navy flotilla of Western Fleet
Image credit: Indian Navy / GODL-India

Even as the world is currently tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, the Chinese government seems to be in no mood of giving up its assertive expansion in the South China Sea. This assertive posture is exemplified by recent incidents in the region which has led to diplomatic protests by a few ASEAN countries, Japan, and the U.S. 

Recently, Beijing unilaterally renamed 80 islands and other geographical features in the area, drawing criticism from neighbouring countries who have also laid claim to the same territory. China has also vowed to arrest fishermen from countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines if they venture into territory that is claimed by Beijing. There are also reports that China is planning to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. 

An aggressive China has always been a cause of worry for most regional countries including India. China’s actions in the SCS undermine freedom of navigation and a rules-based order, something that is central to India’s maritime policy. Even though India has never officially raised the issue of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, New Delhi must be mindful of the implications that an assertive and expansionist China will have in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) which it considers as its area of influence.

The assumption that China will respect India’s sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region if India respects Beijing’s position in Southeast Asia no longer holds true as is evident from the deep inroads that China has made in the Indian Ocean Region. In the recent past, it has conducted joint naval exercises with countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Russia off the Gulf of Oman. 

China has also announced that it will deploy its 35th Task Force of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ostensibly for anti-piracy missions here. China has also developed a   network of ports in the Indian Ocean such as Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Kyaukphyu in Myanmar apart from the military base that it has in Djibouti. 

That China has scant regard for international laws and conventions is evident from the fact that it rejected the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that China does not have any historical rights over the South China Sea. Thus it is imperative for India to take steps that do not diminish India’s role in its traditional area of influence and at the same time deters China from undertaking any adventures that may threaten India’s interests in the Indian Ocean.

China has come up with new tactics of asserting its presence in the high seas. It has increasingly made use of its fishing and research vessels that venture out in disputed waters often violating the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries. In December 2019, a Chinese research vessel was detected near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands well within India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). There are reports that the research vessel may have been used to spy on Indian activities in the region and could be surveying the characteristics of the sea water for improving submarine warfare capabilities. 

The presence of Chinese research vessels in the IOR has become more common lately. In January 2020, six Chinese research vessels had been spotted in the Indian Ocean region. According to government officials around 600 Chinese fishing boats have been present in the IOR every year since 2015.  These incidents raise serious concerns about the activities carried out by these Chinese vessels. The presence of Chinese fishing and research vessels should also be a cause of concern for littoral states in the IOR because these vessels act as a part of China’s maritime militia. 

It is a known fact that China has been actively using its fishing and research vessels to intimidate and coerce other countries. In April 2020, a Chinese research vessel entered Vietnam’s EEZ , flanked by at least one Chinese Coast Guard ship. This standoff came just days after a Chinese research vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat off the Paracel islands. There have been other instances too where Chinese vessels have violated the territorial waters of countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines that have led to tense standoffs in the South China Sea.

Lastly, the fact that China undertakes these expansionist and aggressive actions at a time when most regional countries are preoccupied with tackling the spread of Covid-19 goes on to show that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is keen on exploiting the situation and taking advantage of a deadly pandemic that has its roots in China. 

But China’s obdurate behaviour and aggressive actions will only aggravate international concerns about Beijing’s motives. China is already under immense international pressure over the spread of Covid-19 and many countries are calling for Beijing to be held accountable for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

The current situation in the South China Sea and the transgression of India’s EEZ should serve as an eyeopener to India that it is about time that New Delhi takes a stance on Chinese activities not only in the Indian Ocean Region but also in the South China Sea. Turning a blind eye to Chinese transgressions will be perceived as appeasement and will only embolden China. 

If India is to realize its ambitions of becoming a regional leader and be a Net Security Provider, then it must ensure that China is not able to encroach upon its traditional sphere of influence.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.