India possesses a greater maritime power-projection capability and more expansionist naval doctrine than China. Does our fixation with China blind us to a hidden tiger?

Responding to increasing concern over military modernisation and to recent belligerence in territorial disputes, American policy toward China is shifting to a dual-track approach. America seeks to engage and socialise China into a responsible international stakeholder but it is also now prudently hedging against the possible need to balance against China in the future. By contrast, India is increasingly regarded as both an ally and an important part of America’s effort to hedge. Indeed, increased US military and economic cooperation aims to build India up as a regional counterweight to China. However, India also has its own great power aspirations and its military capabilities are becoming increasingly formidable too. By analysing India and China’s relative maritime power-projection capabilities and their current military doctrines, it actually transpires that India possesses the greater maritime power-projection capability and the more expansionist military doctrine. This article seeks to highlight these two trends which run contrary to commonly held China threat perceptions.

Image courtesy of Jarod Hodge, © 2007, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Jarod Hodge, © 2007, some rights reserved.

China’s primary military focus remains firmly upon Taiwan and upon countering US power in its near-abroad, whereas India’s, although heavily orientated toward Pakistan, has a greater maritime power-projection element. Furthermore, rather than being focussed against any particular state India seems to be pursuing traditionally broad capabilities and a more generalised doctrine.

The reintegration of Taiwan is a primary goal for China and it is prepared to use force if necessary. This obviously conflicts with the US-Taiwan defence pact. China views with alarm the preponderance of American power and its ease in defeating countries like Iraq. China also remembers the impact of US Carriers in ending the 1995 Taiwan Straits crisis. If American power was turned against China, the US would project naval air-power from offshore and make use of satellite intelligence and communication systems which afford it superiority. Given that China’s main population centres are on the coast this makes China especially vulnerable. In response China reformulated its military doctrine to develop the capability to fight and win local wars under high technology conditions. By developing the ability to negate America’s military advantages China could offer a major conventional deterrent. This explains China’s development of anti-satellite missiles and its pursuit of area-denial capabilities in the form of submarines, anti-ship missiles, land-based aircraft and surface combatants. If China can make it too dangerous for America to deploy its power-projection platforms, then America’s overwhelming superiority is greatly reduced. Chinese military modernisation is therefore local in scope and specifically targeted towards undermining American strengths in accordance with this new doctrine.

By contrast, India’s military doctrine is more expansionist and generalised. Although Pakistan represents the main security challenge, India has developed a maritime doctrine that targets a power-projection capability that currently exceeds China’s. This stems from a desire to exert control over the vast arc that extends from Aden to Singapore and to exercise primacy in the aptly named ‘Indian’ Ocean. The doctrine seeks to maintain autonomy and security by preventing other countries exerting influence in the Indian Ocean. Indians believe that whoever controls the ocean commands India, so this can perhaps be seen as fundamentally defensive. However, the doctrine also states that in time of war the Navy must be able to seize control of the sea lines of communication and strangle supply lines. Furthermore, India has a broad interpretation of its special responsibilities in the Indian Ocean and believes it should police it. This doctrine is much more expeditionary and expansionist than China’s, encompassing a far greater geographical area and role.

Bearing in mind the differences between the two doctrines it is possible to compare their current and planned modernisations with regard to maritime power-projection. Ultimately, given China’s larger economy, its naval expeditionary capabilities may eventually exceed India’s however, today and in the medium term, India has the greater capability. This is interesting given the concern afforded to China’s increasing capabilities by analysts and that despite the larger size of the Chinese economy India is keeping pace in key areas. China threat commentators recently had hysterics when China’s first aircraft carrier the Liaoning entered into service. This ship is incapable of combat operations, instead being used as a training vessel. Naturally the ship has great symbolic significance for China and could one day be complemented by other Chinese carriers but it represents very little increase in power-projection capability itself. By contrast, India has an operational carrier the INS Vikraat which operates Sea Harriers and this will be replaced by three new carriers by 2020. The INS Vikramaditya is a Russian-built carrier expected to enter service this year and India is also building two indigenous Vikrant Class Carriers operating the new MiG-29. This will afford India considerable naval air power-projection capability by the end of the decade far exceeding China’s.

In terms of amphibious power-projection both India and China have very modest and quite similar capabilities. Both countries are developing their amphibious forces although China’s are again primarily targeted at Taiwan whereas India’s are focussed on developing an expeditionary capability in line with Indian doctrine. India’s supply and replenishment abilities lag behind China’s although India’s advantageous geographical position, jutting into the Indian Ocean, allows the Indian Navy to mitigate this weakness when projecting power into the ocean. Although China has significantly more submarines than India their operation is limited by China’s inability to resupply them. They are more intended as area denial vessels than force projection platforms. Although, when China’s replenishment capabilities improve so too will the range of its submarine fleet. In terms of current submarine power-projection China and India are equal, both having two nuclear attack submarines. In terms of numbers and tonnage China’s destroyer and frigate fleet is larger than India’s and more of its ships are classed as modern. However, China’s numerical superiority is again negated by its poor supply capabilities.

Additionally, India’s navy has been involved in many international exercises over the years and this will undoubtedly increase as it trains with the US Navy in the future. Furthermore, India has operated a true blue-water Navy for considerable time whereas China is in many ways still learning the ropes.

China is also particularly vulnerable in terms of its energy security. Its String of Pearls strategy and the potential for these facilities to facilitate naval projection into the Indian Ocean is the other major focus of Chinese maritime strategy and it is here where the Indian and Chinese navies will increasingly interact and relations will be determined.

Given the superiority in Indian maritime power-projection capability why are we so concerned by China’s military modernisation? Its scope and focus is geographically limited to Taiwan and US area-denial.  Why are we not more worried by the other rising power, single-mindedly pursuing great power status with impressive maritime power-projection capabilities and whose military doctrine seeks to control the entire Indian Ocean and the supply routes that cross it? Why are we not more concerned with the potential friction between the Indian and Chinese navies as the Indians project power in ‘their’ ocean and the Chinese pursue their energy security in it? Does our fixation with China’s military expansion blind us to a hidden tiger?

Ref: Gilboy, George J. & Eric Heginbotham (2012) Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior: Growing Power and Alarm (Cambridge: Cambridge UP).

Leave a Reply