The Chinese Navy — also known as PLAN or People’s Liberation Army Navy — has emerged as the world’s third largest Navy in terms of blue water capable combat units, after US and Russia.
China is also the global leader in building merchant ships, fishing vessels and ports. China has realised that sea power, if properly showcased and exploited, gives a nation greater flexibility than even nuclear weapons, in furthering its national interests.
I had written about China’s growing naval presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans in these columns (At sea, Sino-India ties need propulsion, April 11). In its eagerness to show off its sea power, China has taken some new initiatives, including a rare, embarrassing tumble, when it took the unprecedented step of cancelling, at the last minute, its much-publicised International Fleet Review (IFR) at Qingdao, scheduled for April 23.
To further showcase its growing sea power, China decided to recently host two maritime events almost simultaneously at Qingdao. The first was the 20-nation WPNS (Western Pacific Naval Symposium) comprising important Asia-Pacific Navy Chiefs, including US, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Australia, with three observer nations — India, Bangladesh and Mexico. The WPNS concluded on April 22, with a basic agreement for confidence building at sea, by reiterating well known flag signals for indicating activities like flying and diving operations etc, so that passing ships can keep clear and not impede such operations. The WPNS, is an ongoing annual dialogue, which was initiated by the US, some years ago.
On conclusion of WPNS, on April 22, China had planned to hold its second IFR, this year on April 23 (the first IFR was held in 2009, in Qingdao), to mark the 65th anniversary of the Chinese Navy (where President Xi Jinping was to take the salute of the participating ships, submarines and aircraft). The IFR was to be followed by sea exercises on April 24. Ten nations accepted the invitation and seven sent ships (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Singapore etc). Japan was not invited and the US Navy, too, decided not to participate. India sent its home built stealth frigate, INS Shivalik.
On April 16, China abruptly cancelled the IFR, citing its preoccupation with the ongoing search for Malaysian Flight MH-370 as the excuse. The real reason was perhaps, that rising superpower China, was acutely embarrassed with the low foreign participation and the absence of the US Navy. Only elementary sea exercises were held on April 23.
On May 1, China moved its newly built indigenous oil rig, HYSY 981, with an escort of 80 ships, including seven naval warships, to commence sea bed drilling exploration, within 120 miles off Vietnam’s coast (well within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone), leading to mass anti-Chinese protests and the evacuation of 3,000 Chinese nationals from Vietnam. This dispute in the South China Sea (SCS) is ongoing, and adding to the tensions there.
On May 20, peeved with Nato support to Ukraine and anti-Russia sanctions by the US, President Putin visited Shanghai, and for the first time the Russian and Chinese navies jointly exercised at sea in a scenario involving “operations in disputed island territories” (an obvious reference to the China-Japan dispute over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea or ECS).
On May 21, Russia and China signed a $400 billion deal for Russia to supply piped natural gas to China for 30 years, commencing 2018. It now appears that nuclear power Russia may also get involved in the disputes of the Asia Pacific Region (APR).
In February, Beijing surprised India during bilateral talks by proposing to include India and Sri Lanka in its earlier October 2013 proposal to Asean which is a revival of the 15th century Maritime Silk Route (MSR), which had involved seven sea expeditions, each with over 300 sailing ships, to the Indian ocean region (IOR), from 1405 to 1433, by legendary Chinese Admiral Zheng-He. The admiral was accorded a sea burial off Calicut after his death in 1431. The MSR had linked up with the famous land silk route by which China carried out trade with Europe.
China is now reviving the ancient land silk route, and its MSR proposal includes economic benefits to participating nations, the setting up of a “maritime co-operation fund”, and more ominously establishing legitimate Chinese logistical and naval facilities (read bases) in the Indian Ocean region, to safeguard China’s SLOCs (Sea Lanes of Communication) for its energy imports and commercial exports. To further sweeten the proposal, China has offered India an FDI of $300 billion for upgrading its creaking infrastructure.
India’s participation at Qingdao in the first Chinese IFR (2009), and the recent (April), WPNS and sea exercises off Qingdao, is a sign of its maturity and also indicative of the growing capability of the Indian Navy which has ships deployed on anti-piracy duties off Somalia since 2008, and off our coasts on anti-maritime terror patrols since 2008 (post 26/11 sea borne terror attack on Mumbai). These are in addition to the routine two to three months’ deployments in the South and East China seas. A spate of naval accidents since August 2013 have shown that India needs to provide more funds for not only replacing over-aged ships and submarines, but also for increased maintenance and logistics to the Navy, which is now sailing a 100 per cent more after 2008. To ensure that India sends the right signals to Beijing, Indian warships are slated to participate in a trilateral exercise “Malabar 2014”, along with warships of Japan and the US. This exercise will be held off Okinawa Island (not far from Qingdao), towards the end of 2014.
Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi while focusing on India’s rapid economic growth and diplomacy also needs to understand that a powerful Navy will give India greater flexibility in protecting its global national interests, while acting as a deterrent to any mischief by China and its proxies. The new mantra should be to trade with China (and Pakistan, if it gives MFN status to India), accept Chinese FDI, move to solve the border problem, but keep our Navy strong and ready, as the hard-headed Chinese will respect only economic power backed by sea power, along with nuclear deterrence.
The writer retired as Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam