By Kumar David –
The Indian Ocean power balance: China, India and the USA
The befuddlement in Delhi regarding the procedural resolution on Sri Lanka to be tabled by the US at the March UNHRC meeting is seen as a reaction to its Indian Ocean strategic funk. I will address this in this essay; the UNHRC-Lanka dimension is marginal to today’s topic. The legendary pusillanimity of Manmohan Singh, above all on Sri Lanka related matters, is not explanation enough. That Indian decision makers have taken fright at a Chinese strategic threat in the Indian Ocean, if true, signals bad judgement, and if untrue, what on earth lies at the root of Delhi’s state of flummox?
To begin at the beginning, my title includes three elephants and quite intentionally omits a mouse, Sri Lanka, because, notwithstanding Colombo’s delusions, it is not of itself a vital consideration. This piece advances two propositions. The first, to put it bluntly, is that China is not, and will not for three more decades be a naval or air power that can fling its noose far away into distant oceans and continents. Its strategic obsession is the littoral waters of the motherland and its southern and westerly land borders. Indian policy makers seem to be misreading this, obvious as child’s play, reality.
Though this is my first proposition let me begin by speaking against it. The Chinese defence budget in 2012 was huge at $150 billion (US $700 billion, India $50 billion) and spending was probably larger since defence related expenditure is concealed under other headings. A more important factor is that a dollar in China goes a longer way than in the US; what a scientist costs in the US, will buy, say five scientists of corresponding standing in China, albeit with less experience and somewhat inferior education. A dollar spent on research or manufacturing in China delivers what it would cost, say three dollars, to assemble in the US. I grant all this; but notwithstanding, China is nowhere near floating a blue-water fleet or flying an air-force that can make a serious indent in the world’s great oceans and distant continents. I will focus on sea power in the next paragraphs. I will also not deal with cyber warfare, the real, not science fiction, struggle of the future, where the gap between the US and China is not as big as in naval and air capability.
China’s strategic priorities
A nuclear powered (101,000 ton) carrier of the super-Nimitz class costs $8 billion for ship alone, $5 billion for a complement of 70-odd aircraft and a fleet of 10 to 15 escort and support vessels to make a battle group, and say $2 billion for training a crew of hundreds of airmen and 7, 500 sailors. This is what it takes to float a carrier strike group or a larger carrier battle group. China’s first nuclear-powered carrier is expected in 2020 and it may take a decade to commission an operational blue-water battle group; but still without combat experience. Contrast this with the US navy which, over the years, has built 80 carriers and acquired active experience in the Pacific Theatre in WW2 and in post-war imperialist exploits in Korea and Vietnam. The US currently has 10 carriers, all super-carriers; most are in port but two or three are always out in far flung seas with strike groups. Those in port can be fitted out with escort fleets and floated quickly.
The purpose of all this is to make the point that Chinese military planners are no fools. They will not tangle with the US Navy or more seriously a US-Indian naval presence, in the Indian Ocean anytime in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, and this is the key, the Chinese have no strategic motivation for sailing out in strength into the Indian Ocean. What for, to give military support to Gothabahaya Rajapakse! On what planet do these people live, expecting Chinese sampans to come sailing in to rescue them from the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group?
China’s naval priorities are crystal clear; assertion of power in the littoral waters of the Mainland and Taiwan. The perspective is defined by the first and second island chains. These seas include the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Sea of Japan, the Philippine Sea and the Yellow Sea (Korean Sea). China has no strategic interest in looking over the Straits of Malacca and into the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea. This remark does not refer to the protection of oil import and trade routes where the Chinese Navy has an interest in protecting shipping from pirates and nuisances. This is a one or two ship operation and China has the naval resources for this; it involves no entanglement with America or India. Hambantota is insignificant for naval purposes, but useful as a bunkering point for commercial shipping which is another matter.
It is hard to understand Delhi’s paranoia with a Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean when it should be turning its attention to its northern and eastern land borders and sorting out its relationship with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Is there a struggle for resources between the Indian army and the navy – I don’t know? Typical of the paranoia is the string of pearls theory where China is seen to be encircling India by building harbours in Burma (Sitwe), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Hambantota, Pakistan (Gwadar), and Puerto Sudan in the eponymous country. To be best of my knowledge Chittagong, Gwadar, Puerto Sudan and of course Hambantota are nothing but commercial facilities. True, Chinese investment is indispensable but there is no pressure for housing naval facilities and commercial considerations are an adequate motivation.
To go further, if Hambantota were to become a strategic threat to India it will be taken out in a few hours, even without American assistance, and there is bugger all Colombo can do. Washington decided it faced a strategic threat in 1964 when the Soviet Union moved to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, and nothing short of a comparable adventure would constitute a threat to Indian security. Beijing is far too intelligent to land itself in a confrontation with the Americans or the Indians about military facilities in Hambantota (or heaven forbid Trincomalee); these are but wet-dreams the Rajapakses lust after.
China will not enter a strategic stand-off with the Indo-American alliance on anything to do with Sri Lanka. Hence my second hypothesis is this: China’s interests are in access to economic resources and protecting trade routes. Sure, economic competition puts a political squeeze on India, but thoughtful Indian policy makers should aim at enhancing economic cooperation with China to mutual benefit.
Since Delhi’s boneheads are familiar with the a-b-c case that I have argued thus far there has to be another reason for its paranoia. I think it’s to do with the Great Game (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Central Asia) and India’s wider relationship with the USA, or more exactly its limited place in the relationship. China is a threat in Indian eyes in this generic context. No sleep need be lost in Delhi about the Rajapakse sleeping with Beijing; if the fruit of these loins grows strategically troublesome it will be squashed by overwhelming exercise of power. I am repeating, so let us move on, but it would be politically savvy for Delhi to put across a tough message and bury Colombo’s illusions, than to coddle the Colombo regime.
What is it in the new relationship with America that could trouble Indian strategic thinkers? I think it is America’s political promiscuity, its admitted strategic philandering. Obama’s shift to an Asian pivot courts three wives (Japan, India and Australia) and a bunch of minor concubines (S Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and Pakistan). This is not a grand alliance but a collection of separate bi-lateral alliances between a patriarch and a bevy of subordinate partners. Areas of influence are farmed out as follows: Japan keeps China in check within the Island Chains (if Japan rearms it has the resources and technology to overtake China), India sails in the littoral seas, and Australia will suckle the South Pacific and Indonesian Archipelago. India is a subordinate partner; it is not consulted on strategy relating to China, Pakistan and Central Asia.
India is aware of this unequal relationship; Delhi knows that it must think on its feet, but it is dim-witted in so doing, hence befuddlement writ large on Delhi’s countenance. This is clear; however it’s not my business, nor do I have the competence, to say how Delhi should address its larger conundrum. If it takes a hard line with Colombo, reads the riot act as Kennedy did to Cuba in 1962, and acts firmly, it will settle accounts with a pestilential gadfly to which there will be no Chinese strategic response. It will also clear the decks in preparation for turning Delhi’s mind to the real issues vis-à-vis China: building economic relations and smoothing strategic concerns in the Himalayas and Central Asia.