PLA(N) Sub­marines in the In­dian Ocean: Cat Among the Pi­geons?

No other coun­try in Sri Lankas post-war his­tory has wielded the in­flu­ence, had the reach or com­manded the ser­vil­ity that China to­day does...New Delhi has al­ways been wary of Chi­nas geostrate­gic in­ter­ests in South Asia

SP's NavalForces - - FRONT PAGE - Ad­mi­ral Arun Prakash (Retd)

No other coun­try in Sri Lanka’s post-war his­tory has wielded the in­flu­ence, had the reach or com­manded the ser­vil­ity that China to­day does...New Delhi has al­ways been wary of China’s geostrate­gic in­ter­ests in South Asia.

“Our nu­clear sub­ma­rine fleet is a trump card that makes our moth­er­land proud and our ad­ver­saries ter­ri­fied. It is a strate­gic force sym­bol­is­ing great power sta­tus and sup­port­ing na­tional se­cu­rity. Ad­mi­ral Wu Shengli,

PLA Navy Chief

IT IS CLEAR THAT In­dias new Prime Min­is­ter does not al­low any grass to grow un­der his feet. Within weeks of as­sum­ing of­fice he had met his coun­ter­parts in neigh­bour­ing as well as world cap­i­tals of sig­nif­i­cance to In­dia. His lat­est voy­age took him east­wards; first to Myan­mar for the ASEAN-In­dia and East Asia Sum­mits; then to Aus­tralia for the G-20 Sum­mit and fi­nally to dis­tant Fiji.

This ob­ser­va­tion is not meant to fo­cus on the Prime Min­is­ters peri­patetic in­cli­na­tions but to ex­press a fer­vent hope that, at long last, In­dias for­eign pol­icy may ac­quire a badly needed grand-strate­gic un­der­pin­ning. Chi­nas hege­monic pos­tur­ing, on our north­ern bor­ders as well as in the Western Pa­cific is in con­for­mity with the Re­al­ist propo­si­tion that states are in­her­ently ag­gres­sive and that ter­ri­to­rial ex­pan­sion is only con­strained by op­pos­ing power.

In the face of Chi­nas undis­guised jin­go­ism, all that In­dia has had to of­fer, so far, is the va­pid nostrum of strate­gic re­straint. How­ever, as the dragon now en­ters the In­dian Ocean, our na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests de­mand the ur­gent for­mu­la­tion of a co­gent na­tional se­cu­rity doc­trine and strat­egy.

It is against this back­drop that we need to ex­am­ine the im­pli­ca­tions of two suc­ces­sive port calls by Chi­nese Peo­ples Lib­er­a­tion Army Navy [ PLA(N)] sub­marines in neigh­bour­ing Sri Lanka, that gen­er­ated ex­cite­ment in the me­dia and spec­u­la­tion in strate­gic cir­cles.

Cat among the Pi­geons

Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, on Septem­ber 7, 2014, a Type 039 Song class diesel sub­ma­rine and a support ten­der docked in Colombo Ports South Ter­mi­nal. It is note­wor­thy that this ter­mi­nal was built and has been op­er­ated by a Chi­nese company for the past 35 years. A Chi­nese De­fense Min­istry com­mu­niqu said that the sub­ma­rine was en-route Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy duty and de­scribed the sub­marines re­plen­ish­ment at a for­eign port as common prac­tice.

Th­ese state­ments could have been ac­cepted at face value, but for two facts. Firstly, it stretches credulity that a diesel sub­ma­rine could con­trib­ute mean­ing­fully to an anti-piracy mis­sion. More sig­nif­i­cantly, the Chi­nese sub docked on the day that Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe ar­rived in Colombo—a move clearly or­ches­trated by Beijing.

A few weeks later, on Oc­to­ber 31, the PLA(N) sub­ma­rine Changzheng-2 and the war­ship Chang Xing Dao ar­rived at Colombo on a five-day visit. This time it was a Type 091 nu­clear-pow­ered at­tack sub­ma­rine (SSN) of the Han class. Could it be hap­pen­stance that the call almost co­in­cided with Viet­namese Prime Min­is­ter Nguyen Tan Dungs visit to In­dia?

For quite some time now, there has been spec­u­la­tion about the im­pend­ing en­try of PLA(N) into wa­ters of the In­dian Ocean. In April 2013 In­dian me­dia was rife with re­ports that Ôun­known sub­ma­rine con­tacts had been de­tected 22 times by In­dian Navy and US Navy units in the In­dian Ocean. The wide ge­o­graph­i­cal scat­ter of th­ese con­tacts was quite re­mark­able; de­tec­tions were made on six oc­ca­sions north-west of Malacca Strait (in the vicin­ity of the An­daman and Ni­co­bar Is­lands), 13 times off Don­dra Head (south­ern tip of Sri Lanka) and twice in the Ara­bian Sea.

Ac­cord­ing to other re­ports, in De­cem­ber 2013, the Chi­nas De­fense Min­istry had sum­moned for­eign mil­i­tary at­tachs to an­nounce that one of their nu­cle­ar­pow­ered sub­marines would soon tran­sit through the Strait of Malacca. While this may or may not have come to pass, com­ing events did cast enough shad­ows for New Delhi to take note.

A Jolt for In­dia

Some in In­dia have in­ter­preted the host­ing of PLA(N) subs in Colombo as a vi­o­la­tion of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Ac­cord which calls upon the two coun­tries not to al­low their re­spec­tive ter­ri­to­ries to be used for "ac­tiv­i­ties prej­u­di­cial to each other's unity, in­tegrity and se­cu­rity", with spe­cific men­tion of Trin­co­ma­lee and other ports. Ap­par­ently, Sri Lankan De­fence Sec­re­tary Gotabaya Ra­japaksa was told that the dock­ing of a Chi­nese naval sub­ma­rine at the Colombo Port in Septem­ber was of se­ri­ous con­cern to In­dias na­tional se­cu­rity.

The Sri Lankan Gov­ern­ment has been dis­mis­sive of In­dias con­cerns, declar­ing that the Chi­nese ship vis­its were usual prac­tice. A Sri Lankan Navy spokesman breezily rat­tled off statis­tics of for­eign ships that had vis­ited Colombo in the re­cent past. How­ever, other Sri Lankans had dif­fer­ent views. Colom­bos Sun­day Times said, ed­i­to­ri­ally, on Novem­ber 6, 2014: No other coun­try in Sri Lankas post-war his­tory has wielded the in­flu­ence, had the reach or com­manded the ser­vil­ity that China to­day does...New Delhi has al­ways been wary of Chi­nas geostrate­gic in­ter­ests in South Asia. But noth­ing has raised its hack­les more in re­cent times than Chi­nas ag­gres­sive ex­pan­sion into Sri Lanka and Colom­bos un­ques­tion­ing ac­cep­tance of it.

In an ef­fort to pour oil on trou­bled wa­ters, the Sri Lankan Naval Chief, Vice Ad­mi­ral Jayan­tha Per­era, on a visit to New Delhi, ruled out any Chi­nese mil­i­tary pres­ence in Sri Lanka and de­clared, In­dias se­cu­rity is our se­cu­rity.

South Asian Re­alpoli­tik

Dis­pas­sion­ate ex­am­i­na­tion will show that the ap­pear­ance of PLA(N) subs in neigh­bour­ing Sri Lanka war­ranted nei­ther sur­prise, nor in­dig­na­tion on the part of New Delhi. With all the re­sources at the dis­posal of RAW, MEA and Naval HQ, one would have ex­pected them to be suf­fi­ciently fore­warned and even at­tempt pre­emp­tion. Sri Lankas vic­tory over the LTTE was made pos­si­ble by mil­i­tary support from a num­ber of coun­tries in­clud­ing US, In­dia, Is­rael and China, which sup­plied weapons, plat­forms, train­ing, in­tel­li­gence and ad­vice to the Sri Lankan armed forces. Chi­nas mil­i­tary support, how­ever, goes back to the early 1980s and stands out for its scale, con­stancy and re­li­a­bil­ity.

To take just one ex­am­ple, in or­der to re­spond rapidly to Sri Lankan re­quests for arms, Chi­nas North In­dus­tries Cor­po­ra­tion (NOR­INCO) es­tab­lished a bonded ware­house in the port city of Galle in 1994. The ware­house stocked mil­i­tary equip­ment and ord­nance, which were made avail­able on de­mand by Sri Lankan forces. Items not avail­able were rapidly sourced from China. At Bei­jings urg­ing, Pak­istan also met Colom­bos re­quire­ments of pi­lot train­ing as well as as­sis­tance in plan­ning of com­bat mis­sions against the LTTE strongholds. All this was cru­cial in tilt­ing the bal­ance against LTTE.

In com­par­i­son, In­dias mil­i­tary aid to Sri Lanka was slow, grudg­ing and in­ter­mit­tent. South Block re­mained hostage, not only to black­mail by Chen­nai but also to its own lethar­gic decision-mak­ing, timid­ity and my­opic vi­sion. A sav­ing grace was the strong sense of ca­ma­raderie, at the se­nior lev­els, of the In­dian and Sri Lankan navies, cre­ated by the tra­di­tional ( and on­go­ing) train­ing link­age be­tween the two. This bond was fur­ther ce­mented by the help ren­dered by In­dian Navy dur­ing the 2004 tsunami.

Thus, China has not only backed Sri Lanka with mil­i­tary as­sis­tance at a cru­cial junc­ture in its his­tory, but also pro­vided a large quantum of eco­nomic aid, mak­ing badly needed in­vest­ment in de­vel­op­ment of the coun­trys in­fra­struc­ture. China is to­day the big­gest lender to Sri Lanka Gov­ern­ment, with loans to the tune of $5 bil­lion for am­bi­tious in­fra­struc­ture projects in­clud­ing roads, rail­ways, in­ter­na­tional air­ports and power projects. In­dia, on the other hand, has been un­able as well as un­will­ing to ex­tend help on this scale.

Un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances we need to pose some ques­tions to our­selves apro­pos the visit of PLA(N) subs to Colombo: (a) Be­holden as Sri Lanka is to China was it in a po­si­tion to refuse Chi­nas re­quest? (b) Does In­dia have the lever­age to in­voke its ver­sion of the Mon­roe Doc­trine vis- à- vis Sri Lanka? and (c) What is In­dias strat­egy to re­verse or change this sit­u­a­tion?

Not­with­stand­ing the above, In­dia as a ris­ing power is fully jus­ti­fied in feel­ing deeply con­cerned about the pos­si­bil­ity of Sri Lanka, de­lib­er­ately or in­ad­ver­tently, be­com- ing China’s strate­gic ally and/or pawn, in to­tal dis­re­gard of In­dias strate­gic in­ter­ests. Sri Lankan lead­ers could not be un­aware of the Great Game in progress whereby China seeks to not only gain strate­gic su­pe­ri­or­ity vis- à- vis In­dia across the Hi­malayas, but also to es­tab­lish mar­itime dom­i­nance in the In­dian Ocean. Un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances, it would be ex­tremely short-sighted of Sri Lanka to try and play In­dia against China beyond rea­son­able lim­its. Hope­fully, early re­al­i­sa­tion will dawn in Colombo that se­cu­rity as well as eco­nomic in­ter­ests of both In­dia and Sri Lanka are in­ex­tri­ca­bly in­ter­wo­ven and any de­lib­er­ate ac­tions that harm In­dian in­ter­ests will even­tu­ally re­bound on it. Un­der th­ese cir­cum­stances, a strict pol­icy of non-align­ment on the part of Sri Lanka would be the best for it­self and the re­gion.


This episode was a test of In­dian states­man­ship and diplo­macy, and the jury is still out on their per­for­mance. How­ever, as the strate­gic com­pe­ti­tion be­tween In­dia and China gath­ers pace, such sit­u­a­tions are likely to re­cur fre­quently. At the strate­gic level, there is need to ac­knowl­edge the crit­i­cal im­por­tance of re­gional mar­itime co­op­er­a­tion. For far too long has the dis­so­nance be­tween MEA, MoD and Naval HQ thwarted the navys en­deav­ours to cre­ate strong bonds with mar­itime neigh­bours. In­stead of whin­ing and com­plain­ing about Chi­nas String of Pearls and now, the Mar­itime Silk Route, we need to craft a cre­ative and dy­namic strat­egy to counter both. Our prox­im­ity and abil­ity to ren­der timely as­sis­tance can win us many friends and al­lies in the mar­itime neigh­bour­hood.

Sub­marines—diesel and nu­clear—are likely to be en­coun­tered with in­creas­ing fre­quency in the In­dian Ocean re­gion (IOR). The na­tional se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment must ap­pre­ci­ate that a nu­clear at­tack sub is a game-changer-in the mar­itime con­text, and the only means of coun­ter­ing PLA(N) in­cur­sions into the IOR. There is an ur­gent need to ded­i­cate re­sources to the cre­ation of a small force of 3-4 SSNs to ex­er­cise sea de­nial, pose a threat to ad­ver­sary shipping, counter a pos­si­ble PLA(N) threat and, above all, to pro­tect our own nascent SSBN force.

At the tac­ti­cal level, the need to de­tect and track PLA(N) subs in prox­i­mate wa­ters re­quires the In­dian Navy to make up for huge short­falls in its anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare (ASW) ca­pa­bil­i­ties. ASW he­li­copters are in ex­treme short sup­ply and cases for ac­qui­si­tion of towed ar­ray sonars have been lan­guish­ing for years in MoD. ASW skill lev­els, too, need to be en­hanced by learn­ing the ad­vanced de­tec­tion tech­niques de­vel­oped by US and Ja­panese navies over many years of play­ing cat-and-mouse with Soviet SSBNs and SSNs.

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