[By Abhijit Singh]
As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka earlier this month, reports emerged that the Sri Lankan government had turned down China's request for a submarine docking in Colombo harbor. Beijing, apparently, wanted one of its submarines (ostensibly on its way to the Gulf of Aden for 'anti-piracy' patrols) to make a logistical stopover at a Sri Lankan port, but Colombo is believed to have quietly declined, after which the submarine is supposed to have been diverted to Karachi.
The Sri Lankan government's decision to nix the Chinese request is likely to have been shaped by an experience three years ago, when the docking of a People's Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) submarine in Colombo resulted in a firestorm of protest from New Delhi. Acutely conscious of India's strategic sensitivities around Chinese naval presence in Sri Lanka, Colombo this time around moved quickly to avoid a repeat of the incident.
If rejecting China's proposal made for startling optics, the message seemed directed at the political class in New Delhi. Indian observers found it curious that Sri Lankan sources cited in initial media reports were eager to portray Colombo's refusal to allow the submarine's docking in Colombo as an act of Sri Lankan solidarity with India. More strikingly, however, Beijing's request for the submarine docking nearly coincided with Modi's visit to Colombo, raising doubts about China's intentions in raising the matter in a manner that would ensure it soon went public.
Indeed, there seemed something strange about the whole affair. China's maritime managers are likely to have drawn up a passage plan for the submarine visit to the Indian Ocean many weeks in advance. At a time when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe was preparing to visit Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit, PLA Navy commanders would presumably be wary of raking controversy by bringing up a submarine visit. Indeed, if such a request were to be made, Chinese planners would have reached out to Colombo weeks before the arrival of the submarine in Sri Lankan waters. That China's naval elite chose to overlook political sensitivities by making a request which they knew had little chance of being accepted indicates an act of strategic signalling by Beijing – the delivery of an explicit message that the PLA Navy doesn't really care about New Delhi's nautical redlines.
This is not to underplay China's tactical imperative for sustained undersea operations in the Indian Ocean. The expansion of PLA Navy submarine activity in South Asia is quite in keeping with a powerful navy's need to familiarise itself with alien operating conditions. The pattern of Chinese submarine visits reveals that the PLA Navy has been incrementally raising the complexity of its deployments, sending both conventional and nuclear submarines to learn more about the Indian Ocean's operating environment.
Indian observers note a rise in the docking of submarine tender ships in Sri Lankan ports, suggesting the presence of PLA Navy diesel-electric submarines (SSKs) in Sri Lanka's near-seas. The deployments seem aimed at fine-tuning standard operating procedures for coastal operations, in particular the collection of vital hydrological and bathymetric data and the training of submarine crews. Indian imagery experts report the possibility of Yuan-class submarines in Sri Lanka's littoral seas, optimised for shallow water and littoral water operations. Chinese submarine crews appear to be assessing the variable 'thermocline' in the Indian Ocean, a phenomenon that directly affects SONAR performance. The prolonged deployment of Chinese conventional submarines around Sri Lanka is strongly suggestive of an attempt by PLA Navy crews to master shallow water operations in the Indian Ocean.
The PLA Navy's emphasis on 'theatre access' in distant littoral spaces seemed modelled on the US Navy's blueprint of global operations. Since May 2015, when China released its military strategy white paper, the Indian Ocean has been a focal area of interest for PLA Navy commanders. The Chinese navy has accordingly expanded its anti-piracy patrols and increased the stationing of ships and marines at an overseas outpost in Djibouti. Beijing's primary instrument for exerting coercive influence in Asia's western and southern rim, however, has been its submarines. With Beijing continuing to expand naval engagement with regional states, there has been a dramatic rise in PLA Navy submarine visit in the region, with Indian analysts reporting at least seven deployments since 2013, including three nuclear submarines. China's growing undersea presence in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, Indian naval commanders say, is meant to display increased naval capability and strategic intent in India's near-seas.
More disquieting for Indian analysts has been the strengthening of the China-Pakistan maritime partnership in the Indian Ocean. After the announcement of a special taskforce to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, there is a possibility that Beijing might set-up a maritime logistics facility on the Makran coast. With eight Chinese submarines planned for transfer to Pakistan, it is highly likely that the PLA Navy may eventually establish a dual-use commercial/military facility at Gwadar. China's interests in securing its sea lines of communications in the northern Indian Ocean has resulted in a partnership with Pakistan in modernising the Pakistan Navy, including the sale of Azmat-class fast attack craft, new frigates and Type-022 Houbei catamaran missile boats.
Despite denials by their regional leaders, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh are poised to witness a substantial expansion of China's maritime footprint. With more than 80% of assets at Hambantota under the control of Chinese state-owned companies, it seems to be a matter of time before the PLA Navy sets up a maritime repair/replenishment facility in Sri Lanka. After delivering two Ming-class submarines to Bangladesh and announcing the sale of three submarines to Thailand, Beijing has already announced its maritime ambitions in the Bay of Bengal region. In Myanmar too Chinese companies are set to acquire majority stakes in Kyaukpyu port, with the PLA Navy expanding its naval engagement with the Myanmar Navy. Indian observers fear that Sri Lanka's reluctance to allow basing facilities for PLA Navy warships and submarines immediately will lead Beijing to consider Gwadar, Maldives, Chittagong (Bangladesh) or Kyaukphu (Myanmar) as alternate basing options. For New Delhi, China's growing maritime involvement with these states indicates a tightening strategic stranglehold over the South Asian rim, a traditional Indian sphere of geo-political influence.
How then must the Indian Navy respond to the PLA Navy's enhanced undersea presence in maritime South Asia? To begin, India must take urgent measures to boost its submarine capability. With delays in the Scorpene construction program and a lack of critical armament, the Indian Navy isn't ready to face up to China's rapidly growing conventional and nuclear submarines fleet. While New Delhi has been looking to expand aerial capabilities in countering assertive PLA Navy manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean, the Indian Navy is constrained by the absence of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) assets. Despite the induction of ASW capable P-8Is, the shortage of multirole ASW helicopters on frontline warships has been telling. The awareness of ASW weakness is, in fact, a key driver for India's improved naval cooperation with Japan, in particular a proposal to set-up communication links and a line of undersea sensors in the Eastern Indian Ocean. But even here, formal approval has only been given to the installation of a submarine optical fibre cable between Chennai and Port Blair.
Meanwhile, New Delhi is yet to develop the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into a truly strategic outpost to comprehensively monitor Chinese naval activity and launch operations against threatening PLA Navy manoeuvres. While there has been some progress is creating naval air stations and deploying P8-Is for maritime patrols, the Indian Navy is yet to develop existing facilities into full-fledged military centres with active A2/AD capabilities, perhaps on account of a lack of consensus in adopting too aggressive a combat posture in the Bay of Bengal.
In friendly Indian Ocean states too, New Delhi's initiative to set-up an integrated surveillance network through the installation of a chain of radars has made limited headway. Indian maritime planners realise tracking Chinese submarines will need coordinated search operations with other friendly navies, only made possible through a formal agreement to allow Indian, American, Japanese and Australian warships to share data with each other.
On the operational front, progress has been steady but slow. As a response to growing Chinese submarine deployments in its maritime neighbourhood, India has moved to include Japan in the India-US 'Malabar' series of maritime exercises. But a request by Australia for observer status has been turned down by New Delhi. It will, at some, point need favourable consideration. With Canberra and Tokyo keen to partner India in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi will need to take a clear position on seemingly controversial proposals such as the maritime 'quad'. To counter Chinese maritime presence in the Indian Ocean, India realises it needs to raise its operational coordination with other friendly Indo-Pacific states.
Ultimately, China's submarine operations in the South Asian littorals portend greater Chinese force projection in the Indian Ocean. This is detrimental to New Delhi's geopolitical influence and strategic leverages in the region. If India does not move to protect its equities, South Asia could soon fall under the sway of Beijing's rapidly expanding maritime power.
Abhijit Singh is a Senior Fellow and head of the Maritime Security Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in New Delhi.
This article appears courtesy of the Lowy Interpreter and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.