Wednesday, August 10, 2011

India's naval strategy needs less corruption and shoring up....Troubled Waters: Vietnam, China and the South China Sea....

India's naval strategy needs less corruption and shoring up....Troubled Waters: Vietnam, China and the South China Sea....
By M. Kugelman

The last article published by Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Asia Times Online Pakistani bureau chief found dead in a Pakistani canal earlier this year, throws the importance of the Indian navy into sharp relief. "Several weeks ago, [Pakistani] naval intelligence traced an al-Qaeda cell operating inside several navy bases in Karachi," he stated in a story printed just days before his death. (See Al-Qaeda had warned of Pakistan strikeke Asia Times Online, May 27.)

This revelation of radicals within Pakistan's naval ranks underscores the vulnerability of India's 7,000-kilometer coastline. India now faces not only the prospect of another Lashkar-e-Taiba-led coastal breach (the previous one occurred in advance of the Mumbai terror attacks of November 26, 2008), but also the possibility of renegade Pakistani naval personnel threatening the Indian shoreline. Consequently, a robust naval defense of India's shores constitutes a national security imperative.

However, the Indian navy's importance extends beyond the need to guard against Mumbai-style terrorism. The clout of China - which many within the Indian defense establishment unabashedly declare as the greatest long-term threat to India's security - continues to grow, and the manifestations of this power are largely sea-based. Talk of Chinese "encirclement" may be exaggerated, yet Beijing's intensifying activities in the waters of the Indian Ocean Region - from port and infrastructural development off Pakistan and Myanmar to natural resource acquisitions in the Bay of Bengal - are undeniable.

Little wonder New Delhi has launched a maritime modernization program to produce a blue-water navy with enhanced power projection capacities.

It is energy security, however, that most starkly illuminates the navy's significance. With indigenous energy supplies unable to satisfy prodigious demand (the country is projected to become the world's third-largest energy consumer by 2030), India has developed a severe addiction to overseas hydrocarbons. Today, two-thirds of India's oil consumption originates abroad.

Most of these energy resources, along with the transit routes used to bring them home, are sea-based and situated in volatile regions. From offshore assets in the turbulent Persian Gulf to piracy-riven sea lanes off the coast of Somalia, India faces constant threats of energy supply shocks. Additionally, even as India strengthens its own offshore energy infrastructure (several thousand kilometers of pipeline have been laid to facilitate oil and gas flow from offshore platforms to onshore terminals), they remain vulnerable to attack by militants.

The onus for protecting these crucial assets, both at home and abroad, falls on the navy. With security problems often obstructing access to land-based energy resources - from coal in Naxalite-ravaged Chhattisgarh to natural gas in Pakistan and Afghanistan envisioned as part of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline arrangement - the navy's role in promoting energy security could not be more vital.

Fortunately, India's navy enthusiastically embraces this role. The official Maritime Military Strategy articulates the risks posed by overseas supply shocks and vulnerable domestic offshore facilities, and champions the protection of energy shipping cargo abroad and littoral-area energy infrastructure. Naval officials identify the safeguarding of far-flung energy assets as a prime motivation for modernization.

Unfortunately, desire exceeds capacity. The navy receives only about 15% of the country's total military budget - the smallest allocation of the three branches. Meanwhile, the navy numbers only 55,000 personnel, while the army boasts more than a million. Little wonder that China's navy has three times the number of combat vessels and five times the manpower of its Indian counterpart.

Some attribute these disparities to a legacy of "sea-blindness" - a strategic outlook that emphasizes subcontinental, land-based notions of security to the detriment of global, sea-based security paradigms. Admittedly, many of India's security concerns have historically been land-based (such as border conflicts with Pakistan and China), and remain so today (think the Naxalites and Kashmir).

Yet given the realities of sea-based terrorism, the maritime activities of India's neighbors, and the centrality of the sea in India's energy security strategy, it is folly to ignore the waters that lie beyond India's shores.

Indian naval capacities and resources must be enhanced. This does not merely require boosting the navy's share of the military budget. It necessitates the acceleration of efforts to overhaul an aging fleet, and to strike the right balance between indigenous naval defense production (which is marred by slowness and inefficiency) and foreign acquisitions (which get bogged down by drawn-out negotiations, such as those surrounding Russia's Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier).

To be sure, India's navy - the world's fifth-largest - is no slouch. In recent years it has showcased its burgeoning regional power through tsunami relief operations across the Indian Ocean Region, and evacuations of South Asian nationals from Lebanon during the Hezbollah-Israel conflict. It also flashed its leadership bona fides by hosting the Indian Ocean Region naval symposium in 2008.

Nonetheless, the navy remains a long way from enjoying the untrammeled ability to protect the homeland from an ever-growing litany of sea-based threats. It must not rest in its quest to reach this point. While many may dismiss 19th-century naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan as a relic of the past, for today's India his core belief remains resoundingly relevant: sea power matters.
A recent series of spats in-between Vietnam and China in the South China Sea (or East Sea as it is called in Vietnam) has attracted a fair degree of international media coverage. Over the past weeks, I was interviewed by various Vietnamese media outlets at different stages of the crisis.

Here you will find the link to a recent article, published by Thanh Nien Weekly, which discusses the announcement by both parties to attempt to resolve their outstanding territorial disputes in a less confrontational manner. I weigh in, along with veteran Vietnam watcher Carlyle Thayer from the Australian Defense Force Academy, and Ian Storey from ISAS in Singapore.

And an interview for BBC World, which appeared on the Vietnamese website a few weeks ago:

I have provided below an English translation of the interview:

Understanding China's Intentions:

Vietnamese media has now been flooded for several days with information related to the threatening actions of Chinese ships towards Vietnam seismic survey vessels operating in the East Sea.In the morning of 26/05, three Chinese ships harassed and sabotaged a PetroVietnam survey vessel.
The location of the incident is said to be deep inside Vietnamese waters, only 120 nautical miles off Lanh Phu Yen province. BBC sat down for a short interview with a specialist on regional maritime security, Iskander Rehman, to discuss the implications behind this latest incident.


How should one view this latest incident?

Iskander Rehman:

The recent incident fits into a broader pattern of Chinese behavior in the South and East China Seas, which has increasingly revolved around the use of coercive diplomacy and aggressive military signaling in order to assert Beijing’s territorial claims. This has led to tense situations not only with Vietnamese ships, but also with US, Japanese, and , more recently, Filipino vessels.
China’s approach to its maritime territorial disputes has not only become more assertive, but also more multi-layered. Indeed, Micro-level naval sparring is just one of the techniques employed by Beijing to enforce its claims over the rocky outcrops that straddle the resource-rich sea lanes of the South China Sea. Other forms of aggressive military signaling, such as mass joint exercises and increased naval patrols off the disputed Paracels and Spratly islands, have been increasingly apparent over the past few years. These provocative actions have been accompanied by what Chinese strategists refer to as “legal warfare”, with Chinese government spokesmen openly contesting in legalistic terms some of the more universally accepted features of the law of the sea.


It has been stated that there is a growing concern in China over the burgeoning US-Vietnam rapprochement. Do you think that last week's incident and the seeming hardening of China's position can also be viewed as a response to this?

Iskander Rehman:

Maybe. The recent Sino-Vietnamese naval spat cannot be entirely divorced from the changing geopolitical landscape in Southeast Asia. Vietnam, with its history of potent nationalism and staunch defiance towards the Middle Kingdom, has always been viewed by China as the unruly upstart of Southeast Asia. Although both states have resolved their land border dispute, tensions remain high on both sides over the disputed Paracel and Spratly islands. These tensions have led to small-scale naval clashes in the past, in 1974 and 1988, and it is unfortunately not outlandish to consider that such small-scale skirmishes might reoccur in the short to medium future.

Chinese officials have been rattled by the burgeoning strategic partnership in-between Washington and Hanoi, and have not taken kindly to the staging of joint US-Vietnamese naval exercises in the South China Sea. Beijing may therefore also be adopting a more hardline position vis-à-vis Vietnam in response to its growing proximity with the US-either as a form of punishment, or as form of not-so-subtle warning of the potential costs of such a rapprochement.

What kind of long-term trends or strategic calculations do you see emerging from China in light of the growing frequency of such incidents?

As China’s economic and military clout grows, so too do its power projection aspirations. For Beijing’s increasingly vocal strategic community, control over the area circumscribed by “the first island chain”, (a natural boundary formed by the Aleutians, the Kuriles, Japan's archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo); and over the offshore gas and oil deposits, strategic waterways, and straits it encompasses is considered an absolute prerequisite for the PLAN’s gradual transition from “off-shore defense” to “far-seas operations”, and , in so doing, from regional influence to global reach.

There has also been speculation in certain quarters that the PLAN wishes to establish a ring of defended maritime watch towers or bastions near Hainan in order to ensure the protection of its “second-strike” nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet newly based at Sanya. Absolute control over the strategically placed Paracels and Spratly islands would facilitate this defensive configuration.