At a time when China’s protracted pre-meditated military moves along India’s northern boundary are drawing the nation’s attention, it is important that India doesn’t lose sight of its surrounding seas and maritime environment.
Post the Galwan Valley clashes in Eastern Ladakh, preliminary reports indicate the Indian Army preempted China’s attempt to change the status quo at the border. Complementing the efforts of the army, the Indian Navy deployed its frontline warship to the South China Sea. Indian Navy’s mission-based deployment has produced the desired outcome as China raised objections to India’s movement during the diplomatic level talks with India. With this, the Indian Navy has demonstrated its capability to check any Chinese misadventure in the eastern or western front enabling India to assert its control around the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
The South China Sea holds strategic importance, for this geopolitical water body connects the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean through the Malacca Strait. The post – COVID-19 geopolitical world order is witnessing a fundamental transformation as China’s rise is significantly being challenged. The Indian Navy has, over the decades, steadily developed the capability of ‘Maritime Domain Awareness’ in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
India in Global Commons
The evolving situation in the South China Sea has a bearing on India’s ‘Act Far East Policy’. In the 20th India–Russia Annual Summit held in September 2019 at Vladivostok, New Delhi responded to Moscow’s ‘Pivot to Asia Strategy’ by extending its ‘Act East Policy’ to ‘Act Far East Policy’. New Delhi has taken a calibrated stand considering the significance it holds on India’s foreign policy interests, security, and well-being. It has reiterated that the South China Sea is not China’s Sea but a ‘Global Common’.
Historically due to its location, the South China Sea has been a significant sea route of communication. Indian sailors and traders have traversed these waters for well over 1,000 years ago. Historical and Archeological findings from Kedah in Malaysia documents King Rajendra Chola’s conquest on Kedah (Kadaram) in the 11th century. The related Sri Vijaya Empire relics are significant findings documenting India’s presence in the Malay kingdom. On the other hand, Quanzhou has played a major role in developing cultural exchanges between India and the Southern part of China.
In the third century BC, Guangzhou served as an important port. Quanzhou (Fujian Province) subsequently replaced Guangzhou as an important port during the Song and Yuan periods. Many traders from Southern India used to come to China, especially to Quanzhou (Fujian Province) and Guangzhou. The traders also brought with them Indian traditions, art, and culture. Many even settled down in Quanzhou for long periods of time from the 10th to the 14th century AD during the Song and Yuan dynasties. During their stay, they not only built temples and popularized Indian culture; they also influenced the local art and architecture. The French colonial records state it as the ‘Indo – China Sea’!
Indian Navy, as an instrument of India’s foreign policy, has a greater stake in the peace, tranquillity, and security in the South China Sea Region. With China having made the region a theatre of geopolitical tension, India along with other countries in the region like Japan & Vietnam is attempting to enforce FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations) as in accordance with international laws and treaties like the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). It is to reiterate India’s historical right of passage established by centuries-old practice and tradition to traverse these waters without impediment and contestations by China.
Archaeological and historical evidence dating back to more than 1,000 years shows how nations have traversed these waters in the past centuries for trade and other peaceful purposes mutually contributed to each other’s prosperity. China’s actions of aggression, negligence, denial, and unilateral actions, devoid of being neither treaty-based nor legally tenable, should be firmly resisted.
China’s Malacca Dilemma
As far as the PLA Navy (PLAN) is concerned, there are only a few straits through which they can enter the Indian Ocean and it is poised by a series of maritime geographical constraints and kept under continuous surveillance. For China, its Yulin Naval Base and the Hainan Island Submarine Base (situated in the present-day South China Sea (SCS)) are the closest to the Indian Ocean Region(IOR). Interestingly, the French colonial records state it as ‘Indo – China Sea’. For PLAN to reach the IOR, it has to sail down south and choose one of the four straits of the maritime ecosystems viz the Malacca Strait (MS), Sunda Strait (SS), the Lombok Strait (LS), and the lesser-known Ombai Strait (OS).
However, therein lays a twin disadvantage. The first lies in PLAN presence being detected by all maritime intelligence units of the neighbouring countries. Second, the average depth of the Malacca Strait is around 25 meters deep, hence posing a disadvantage for larger ships to sail through. Perhaps, for using the Lombok Strait, PLAN has to pass a long journey covering double the distance. Although PLAN can use its Aircraft carriers, its deployment is constrained in Malacca Strait due to its shallow depth. It could be deployed via Lombok Strait to reach IOR, but being detected it would have to sacrifice its strategy. Notwithstanding, PLAN Submarines will have to sail on the surface in both these MS and LS due to its shallow depth profile, again sacrificing its coveted ‘stealth’ cover!
From Yulin Base to IOR via Ombai Strait, the distance is around a whopping 9000 km which is certainly too far for small and conventional ships of the PLA Navy, including its submarines, which would need refuelling to sail underwater undetected. This route is conventionally used by PLAN Nuclear Submarine. It needs to be noted that as soon as any Chinese Vessels enters the IOR by any of these 4 routes they are under the surveillance of the Indian Navy (IN) giving India maritime leverage over China. This must be accorded due importance in our strategic calculus against China to bring China to the negotiating table and add weight to India’s negotiating position vis-à-vis China. Preemptive action is the need of the hour!
A significant amount of China’s already depressing economy is dependent on its foreign trade, which remains largely sea-borne using Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs); this gives India to negotiate from a position of reasonable strength by impinging upon ‘Commerce Raiding’ during times of way. India’s huge trade deficit with China can be strategically used in India’s favour. Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Human Rights violations & Repression of Minorities in Xinxiang, etc are some of the cards India can pull up along with a tactful mix of economic, diplomatic & military options, each being tailored on the basis of historical lessons and present realities.
The world has witnessed the myth of ‘Peaceful Rise of China’ Theory put forth by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s predecessor Hu Jintao. China’s rise came at a cost of its aggression towards Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, repression of its minorities, etc. including its hostility with neighbours like India, Japan and around 20 other countries. For India and the globe, the Chinese economic, diplomatic and defence postures are a cause for concern as they are unilaterally put forward. Their claims are tenuous, neither treaty-based nor legally tenable including disregard for international laws and regulations like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
At a time when China’s protracted pre-meditated military moves along India’s northern boundary are drawing the nation’s attention, it is important that India doesn’t lose sight of its surrounding seas and maritime environment. Given the complexities of ‘Post-COVID World Order’, India’s role in the Indian Ocean Region and its scope of engagement in strategic partnerships with other players in the South China Sea region could define its position in the new world order.
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About the author
Balasubramanian C is Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India, a premier think tank focusing on China. His areas of interest include Sino –Russia Relations, Indian Ocean Region, Geo-economics, Security, and Strategic Studies.