01 September, 2010

Plan for It

by Uddipan Mukherjee

The Dragon Surfaces

The Chinese have certain compulsions, especially the domestic demand for energy and the sustainment of the export-oriented economy. Consequent fallout of that is the extension of its role in the world arena; in the form of  devising oil and gas pipelines cutting through the Central Asian topography, the forays into the Dark Continent and the creation of naval zones ranging spatially from the Hainan Island to the Gulf of Aden.

String of "Pearls"

The so-called ‘String of Pearls’ has surely spread its tentacles far and wide and the stance adopted by the PRC in the anti-piracy maneuvers off the Somali coast adduce further proof of its covetous glances. Hence it becomes contextually relevant to evaluate the current growth of the PLA Navy (PLAN) as a vital arm of the Chinese Army. The allusion of the Indian counterpart becomes pertinent too as it reminisces a bitter border struggle with the former in 1962.

When the “Commander-in-Chief” Hu Jintao inspected the PLA in 2009, there were, inter alia, some significant implications. First, it was timely as the event marked the sixtieth anniversary of the triumph of Communism. Second, after China successfully hosted the Olympics barely a year ago, the showcase of military strength was another feather to its ‘red cap’. It was an indication of the juggernaut of the Dragon which the world, and Asia and Japan in particular needed to note. Third, the choice of the locale was not merely coincidental that about two decades back, Tienanmen Square was witness to a ruthless suppression of a student-intellectual movement which could have shaped up as an urban insurgency if not tamed forthrightly.

Incidentally the PLAN had already exhibited its might in April the same year in Qingdao, headquarters of its Northern Sea Fleet. In that venue, probably for the first time, PLAN came up with its public demonstration of nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

The afore-mentioned ostentatiousness was no surprise element whatsoever. After all, this is what Mao Zedong had always dreamt of. His era comprising the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), Project 596 (first testing of nuclear weapon in 1964) and the detonation of Hydrogen Bomb (1967) was the harbinger to the present exhibition of military musculature by his country. Moreover, Deng Xiaoping’s paradigm shift in economic policy adopted over three decades ago has bestowed China with the necessary prestige as well as financial faculty to embark on the road to soldiery.

Why a solid PLAN?

To get the facts straight, China depends and naturally so, on maritime transportation for 90 per cent of its imports and exports. In 2007, the China Daily asserted that economic transactions across the sea accounted for nearly 10 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Furthermore, PRC aims to become the largest shipbuilder in the globe by 2015. To compound these, the Chinese oil demand has reached close to 8.5 billion barrels per day and at present, 40 per cent of China’s oil comes by sea. Also, it imports one-third of its oil from the African continent and hence that necessarily makes Gulf of Aden an important area to command.

Adding to these, China’s trade with the European Union is through the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Interestingly for India, 40 per cent of the vessels transiting the Indian Ocean are Chinese. This is a pointer to the fact that in case of a skirmish with its northern neighbour, India may exercise the privilege to go for a blockade of the Chinese ships. And this is no mere hypothetical scenario. In the light of churlish political posturing of PRC with regard to Gilgit-Baltistan and an undiplomatic visa-regime, the Indian state seriously needs to upgrade its military machinery vis-à-vis China.

In fact, to obviate such bellicose circumstances, PRC has by choice gone for strategic littoral locations starting from the facilities at the Hainan Island and thereafter touching the Woody Island east of Vietnam, Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh and meandering through Hambantota (Sri Lanka) and Gwadar (Pakistan) has augmented its Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) upto the Strait of Hormuz.

And though the PLAN’s recent presence at the Gulf of Aden has been logically to negate the circumnavigation of Chinese vessels around the Cape of Good Hope, it does not conceptually belie the physical extension of the ‘String of Pearls’. Furthermore, security of the SLOCs around the Horn of Africa is imperative for Chinese economic interests and more so when about one-fifth of over thousand Chinese commercial vessels were molested by the Somali buccaneers in 2008 itself.

To begin with, on 26 December 2008, PRC disbursed two fleet destroyers Wuhan and Haikou toward the Gulf of Aden and continued to replace fleets periodically. Recently, on 04 March 2010, missile destroyer Guangzhou and supply ship Weishanhu joined the missile frigate Chaohu at the same venue to supplant the last deployment. Weishanhu is PLAN’s largest supply ship and a Fuchi-class 23,000-tonne vessel. It can carry onboard over hundred crew members and is replete with 37 mm guns. Expectedly enough, PRC perceives these anti-piracy operations as nice opportunities to prepare for any future “Taiwan Crisis”.

A critical component embedded with the present formation is the Satellite Tracking and Communication System. PLAN’s Control Centre monitors all relevant Chinese merchant ships through a Ship Movement Tracking System (SMTS). Hence, video-based communications with the PRC Shanghai Maritime Safety Administration is the order of the day. A web-based IP communication network has also been developed to allow the crew members maintain contacts with mainland China.

The obvious advantage of SMTS is that real time directives emanating from the civilian authorities in Beijing can pass onto the theatre directly and ipso facto, the civilian-military symbiotic relationship would continue undiminished.

The Concerns

The above factual-analysis might go down as hawkish if some more light is not thrown on it. Though China is a party, along with India and Russia, to the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) programme of anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, it advocates a ‘patrol zone-division’ concept of managing the nautical territories. That is, PLAN is not very eager to work in unison with multinational agencies, rather is a votary of separate areas being carved out for respective nation-states. It is not averse to intelligence-sharing though.

What does this attitude of the PLAN indicate? Is it coyness in coming into contact with much more developed navies of NATO and the US, or a sense of loss of esteem in working under the command of seemingly inferior navies like Pakistan or is it an overt proclamation of its prowess as an independent naval power? Andrew S. Erickson in a paper at the Strategic Studies Institute suggests a “Cold War” type mentality in such an approach of the PLAN. Whatever be the real motive of the PLAN, it certainly does not resonate with the lofty claims of a Harmonious World as propounded by the New Diplomacy of China.


On 16 August 2010, the U.S. Defense Department released its annual assessment of China’s military. The report expressed concerns over the lack of transparency in PRC’s military growth. However, China’s defence ministry was dismissive of these allegations. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, complained that China’s suspension of military-to-military contacts with the US made it even harder for Washington to assess Beijing’s ‘real’ intentions. Beijing cut off military ties with Washington earlier this year to protest a $6.4 billion US arms sale to Taiwan; viewed as a direct transgression into PRC’s “One China Policy”.

India, Wake Up

It goes beyond sermons that India must bolster its navy, not only to thwart any Pakistani policy of sea-denial in the Arabian Sea region, but to actually counter both the covert as well as overt Chinese threat perceptions. The INS Kadamba (Project Seabird) in the province of Karnataka assumes fundamental significance in this regard. The base has a sea front of over 26 km and a total area of over 45 sq km. Reportedly; the deep-water port can easily house the entire Western Fleet of the Indian Navy. Hence, it needs to be expedited in ‘Stalinist style’ because when completed is set to be the largest in Asia.

According to India’s former Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash, “the Indian navy of 2020 will essentially be a three dimensional force (aka Varuna’s Trident), built around the core of two aircraft carrier task forces and closely networked through a dedicated communications satellite”.

Project Seabird Shipment Facility

2020 is fast approaching and one can only hope that his vision materializes, even if not in entirety. Nevertheless, as of now, Russia has assured that it will keep to the time period specified in the contract for the retrofit of the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier for the Indian Navy. A statement from the Indian government's security committee states that it would allocate $2.3 billion to retrofit the ship. The initial refit agreement of $750 million went up by an additional $1.5 billion. In line with the contract, the aircraft carrier will be handed over to India by 2012.

Admiral Gorshkov

Admiral Gorshkov is a modified Kiev-class aircraft carrier, originally named Baku. The ship was laid down in 1978 at the Nikolayev South shipyard in Ukraine, launched in 1982, and commissioned with the Soviet Navy in 1987.

According to a February 2010 report published by the NTI, the Indian Navy currently operates 16 submarines based at Vishakhapatnam and Mumbai. The backbone of the fleet is formed by ten Kilo-class Type 877EM - or Sindhugosh-class - units that are being progressively retrofitted to accommodate the Klub/3M-54E Alfa cruise missile system. In addition to its fleet of diesel-electric submarines, India is also in the process of developing an indigenously built nuclear-submarine capability. It is noteworthy that PLAN already has a fleet of six active nuclear capable submarines.

Procrastination has been synonymous with indigenous defence development in India. Likewise, the Advanced Technology Vessel (ATV) submarine, work on which began in the 1970s, is yet to come out from the cobwebs of logistical complexities. However, in July 2009 India launched its first ATV submarine, the INS Arihant,,at the Ship Building Centre in Vishakapatnam. However, the vessel will undergo at least two years of extensive sea trials before being commissioned into the Indian Navy

As per an August 12 report of Ria Novosti, INS Sindhurakshak is being upgraded under a direct contract between the Zvezdochka shipyard and the Indian defense ministry, signed on June 4, 2010. The upgradation program, which includes a complete overhaul of the submarine, as well as improved control systems, sonar, electronic warfare systems, and an integrated weapon control system, is set to cost around $80 million.


There is probably no gainsaying the fact that the Indian Navy appears to be leaning toward Russia in its development paradigm. However, that should not deter us from pursuing our goals of a defence “Autarchy”. Actually, the writing is clearly on the wall. As the lethal PLAN cruises ahead, the Indian Navy hardly can afford to schlep. And if that happens, then no homilies can safeguard India’s strategic interests in a futuristic mode.

a part of this paper has been submitted for publication to "geopolitics"


  1. Excellent analysis of Chinese Geo political influence of the region.
    The Indian stratergy is presently not clear as it is more on paper than action, regarding defence purchase and reforms in defence sector initiatives, But following old knowledge we can think of 2 sayings i.e " If you can't beat them Join them" or" If you can't beat them , arrange to have them beaten".
    The best would be follow the footsteps of china's geopolitics tentacles with Indian business accumen and Indian knowledge exchange.
    As a lesson from history a general rule is, a country enhances its military might to support and protect its business growth and resources, same was the case with british,french, later US and now China.

  2. China has already made its presence felt on the global arena, be it sports, economy and now defence. Being an emerging state in the south-Asian geopolitical setup, one can clearly estimate the pros and cons of its leaps and bounds defence development. Flaunting its naval defence ammunitions, PRC is also showing eyes to its immediate neighbour(India). India should wake up from slumber and try to counter the threats by doing something bigger and indigenous rather than being too pro-Russian in terms of defence programmes and arms procurement.