By Manzoor Ahmed
From confronting India’s INS Airawat, engaging Southeast Asian neiughbours in diplomatic battles over sovereighty of South China Sea and setting on sail its first aircraft carrier, China has conscipously and confidently unveiled its naval plans that the world cannot but take note of. Although the Goivernment of India has officially stated that there was “no confrontation” between INS Airawat and any other ship, it is evident that the Indian vessel that was on a friendly visit to Vietnam and was on the high seas, 45 km off the Vietnamese coast, did get a message purported to be from the Chinese Navy. And although no ship was visible from Airawat, either physically or on its radar, the Indian ship did get a radio message saying “You are in Chinese waters’ and asking it to clear out.
China obfuscated on the reports, with its spokesperson saying there was “no information.” Nor had any party complianed. While not engaging in a war of words, India and the United States took to diplomacy. They took an identical stand supporting “freedom of navigation in international waters, including in the South China Sea, and the right of passage in accordance with accepted principles of international law. These principles should be respected by all.” The incident of July 22 indicates that the Chinese were irked by the Indian [resence. INS Airawat’x visit to two ports in Vietnam and the incident of July 22 coincided with the meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the post-ASEAN ministerial meetings in Bali in Indonesia from July 16 to 28. At both these meetings, the continuing dispute on the question of sovereignty over the South China Sea and over the island territories in the Sea figured. The dispute involves the Chinese claim of sovereignty not only over the island territories, but also over the South China Sea, which China claims as its territorial waters. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan do not accept the Chinese claims on both counts. They reject the Chinese claim that the South China Sea is China’s territorial waters. At the same time, they claim some of the island territories as belonging to them.
Concerned over the increasing assertiveness of the Chinese Navy in the area, the Philippines and Vietnam have been moving closer to the US. Their navies have been holding joint exercises with the US Navy in their respective coastal waters without unnecessarily provoking China. They have not allowed repeated Chinese protests over these exercises to come in their way. So far, the Chinese frictions in the South China Sea have been mainly with Vietnam, the Philippines and the US. Despite India’s developing strategic relations with Vietnam, the Chinese , while maintaining a close watch over India-Vietnam relations, had maintained a discreet silence and avoided any statements or actions which could impact on their bilateral relations with India. These developments coincide with a study by Pentgagon that gives details of China’s deadly long-range nuclear missiles and an expanding blue-water Navy. It talks of its potent space and cyber warfare abilities and states that China will have a “modern” military capable of prolonged high-intensity combat operations by the end of this decade. It paints a scary picture of the frenetic pace at which the 2.25-million People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is being modernized, in the backdrop of uncertainty over its long-term intentions.
The PLA has replaced its older liquid-fuelled, nuclear-capable CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles with the “more advanced” solid-fuelled CSS-5 medium-range ballistic missile systems along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to “strengthen its deterrent posture” against India.
“A high level of mistrust continues to strain the bilateral relationship…India remains concerned over China’s close military relationship with Pakistan and Beijing’s growing footprint in the Indian Ocean, Central Asia and Africa,” says the report. All this might not startle the Indian defence establishment, which also keeps a close tab on PLA, but the fact remains that China can now move over 30 divisions (each with over 15,000 soldiers) to the LAC within a month to outnumber Indian forces by at least three-is-to-one due to the huge military infrastructure build-up in Tibet, the report notes.
India has taken some steps in recent years to counter China, which range from planning a new mountain strike corps (over 35,000 combat troops) in 2012-2017 after raising two new divisions (over 15,000 soldiers each) in Nagaland and Assam to deploying Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, missile batteries and spy drones in the North-East. But India needs to take note of China’s projects to build its first stealth fighter, the J-20, and multiple aircraft carriers after its first, the 67,500-tonne Varyag acquired surreptitiously from Ukraine, began sea trials recently. In a closely related contesxt, india also needs to note that China helps Pakistan to boost its military capabilities, with the clear intention to bog down India in South Asia. Pakistan remains China’s primary customer for weapons, with sales ranging from JF-17 and F-7 fighters, F-22P frigates and early warning and control aircraft, tanks and missiles, says the report. As for the aircraft carrier, India, that has taken more than a decade to complete negotiations for its third aircrfaft carrier from Russia, should take note that it is fast losing whatever advantage its navy has enjoyed so far.
China’s first aircraft carrier left the home shores on August 9 to begin sea trials. The refitted carrier platform left its shipyard at Dalian Port in northeast China’s Liaoning Province.
That the refitting is being done at home by China is a point the Indian planners, depending upon the Russians, who have repeatedly jacked up the costs, need to take note. The sea trials are in line with China’s programme to rebuild the carrier. Beijing has spent almost 10 years retrofitting the Ukrainian carrier Varvag. Refitting work will continue after the vessel returns to the port, Xinhua news agency has said without specifying the duration of the sea trials. Defending the decision to acquire the carrier, Chinese officials have said that currently, China is the only nation among five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that does not have an active-service aircraft carrier, they say.
“US operates 11 carrier battle groups and has deployed six of them in the Pacific region,” Real Admiral Yin Zhuo, director of the Expert Consultation Committee of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has said. China’s neighbours such as India and Russia also have carriers and continue developing their weapon systems, while Japan and South Korea have acquired large-tonnage warships which could be used as aircraft carriers. Li Jie, a researcher with the PLA Navy’s Academic Research Institute has named India as the first Asian country to have a carrier acquiring first Vikrant and later Viraat, both refitted old British war ships. An official commentary in Xinhua said aircraft carriers will not change the Chinese navy’s strategic deployment, nor the country’s “defensive” national defence policy and thus should not be viewed as a threat. Besides the military presence on the waves of the Indian Ocean, China is stepping into the Indian Ocean for the first time, something it has been unsuccessfully seeking through alliances with Myanmar and Sri Lanka. India and others in South Asia cannot but take note of this.