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Strategy beneath the waves
Meeting the Chinese Naval Challenge

New Delhi announced that it is fast-tracking it’s submarine modernization program in response to an increasingly active Chinese undersea presence in the Indian Ocean. Reuters reports:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has ordered an accelerated tendering process to build six conventional diesel-electric submarines at an estimated cost of 500 billion rupees ($8.1 billion), in addition to six similar submarines that French firm DCNS is assembling in Mumbai port to replace a nearly 30-year-old fleet hit by a run of accidents.

The country’s first indigenously built nuclear submarine – loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles and headed for sea trials this month – joins the fleet in late 2016. In the meantime, India is in talks with Russia to lease a second nuclear-propelled submarine, navy officials told Reuters.

The government has already turned to industrial group Larsen & Toubro Ltd, which built the hull for the first submarine, to manufacture two more nuclear submarines, sources with knowledge of the matter said.

India’s announcement is not coming out of the blue:

Just months after a stand-off along the disputed border dividing India and China in the Himalayas, Chinese submarines have shown up in Sri Lanka, the island nation off India’s southern coast. China has also strengthened ties with the Maldives, the Indian Ocean archipelago.

China’s moves reflect its determination to beef up its presence in the Indian Ocean, through which four-fifths of its oil imports pass, and coincides with escalating tension in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing’s naval superiority has rattled its neighbors.

“We should be worried the way we have run down our submarine fleet. But with China bearing down on us, the way it is on the Himalayas, the South China Sea and now the Indian Ocean, we should be even more worried,” said Arun Prakash, former chief of the Indian navy.

India’s push to grow its maritime military capacity, both under the waves and on the surface, is part of a major regional trend that portends a regional and global balance of power in the 21st century:

Elsewhere in the region, Australia is planning to buy up to 12 stealth submarines from Japan, while Vietnam plans to acquire as many as four additional Kilo-class submarines to add to its current fleet of two. Taiwan is seeking U.S. technology to build up its own submarine fleet.

Japan, locked in a dispute with China over islands claimed by both nations, is increasing its fleet of diesel-electric attack submarines to 22 from 16 over the next decade or so.

This is the dynamic that the pivot to Asia strategy, even imperfectly executed, is premised on. As Chinese military power grows, countries like Japan, Australia, Indonesia and India will do everything they can make sure that their strategic interests are secure. With the United States’ support, a countervailing force is emerging in the region which could keep China from pursuing purely revisionist goals. It’s not certain that the Chinese will react rationally, or that the strategy’s success is guaranteed. But at least for now, there are signs that it is working as intended.

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  • Anthony

    “The underreported military buildup in the area where the Western Pacific meets the Indian Ocean means that it will likely be a hinge point for global war and peace for the foreseeable future.” (Robert Kaplan)

  • Andrew Allison

    It appears to me that Chinese over-reach has had very much more to do with the buildup than the so-called “pivot to Asia”. What support has the US provided?

  • FriendlyGoat

    There is a lot to be said for strategic balance. I wish I felt more comfortable about increasing numbers of nukes sailing around, but it’s hard to not suspect that greater numbers of pieces simply means greater chances for incidents, escalations and miscalculation. But we’re moving to a more multi-polar world whether we like or not.

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