As the two giants stare each other down in the Himalayas, the real conflict may erupt at sea.
- By James HolmesJames Holmes is a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, a combat veteran of the Gulf War, and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.
Right now China and India are glaring at each other across Doklam, the contested ground along the Sino-Indian frontier high in the Himalayas. It was the Himalayan border that prompted their last serious fight, when China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) dealt the Indians a short, sharp defeat in 1962. But any future war might not be fought on the high mountains, but the high seas.
A Sino-Indian naval war seems improbable, for sure — but so do most wars, before they happen. It’s certainly not unthinkable, and so it behooves Asia-watchers to lay out the odds now rather than be guilty of a failure of imagination should the worst transpire.
Bottom line: Don’t be taken in by numbers indicating that China would steamroll India in a sea fight. Martial enterprises are seldom that neat.
China has settled its border disputes with most in the region — but it prefers to leave the contest with some of its neighbors simmering, especially India. A spokesman for China’s defense ministry, Col. Wu Qian, warned Indians not to “push your luck” in the Doklam dispute. For good measure Wu added that the Indian Army would find it “easier to shake a mountain than to shake the PLA.” Beyond the present conflict, Chinese and Indian media have a long history of competing to see who can shout “By jingo!” in the other’s direction the loudest.
History shows that rancor on land or in the air can easily sprawl out to sea. Or a saltwater conflict could ensue independently of events ashore. Both contestants take a proprietary view of waters off their coasts. China thinks about the South China Sea as a zone of “indisputable” or “irrefutable” sovereignty where Beijing ought to make the rules and others ought to obey. In a similar vein, India models its foreign policy and strategy in part on the Monroe Doctrine, and thus regards the Indian Ocean as an Indian preserve.
Such claims should have a familiar ring to Americans. During its own rise to regional and world power, the United States sought to exclude powerful outsiders from the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico — its outlet to the Pacific Ocean. The Monroe Doctrine started off as a joint defense of the Americas against European imperial powers. It ended up with Washington proclaiming that its “fiat [was] law” throughout these waters, and that it could exercise an “international police power” there — meddling in fellow American states’ affairs to preclude European seizures of territory in the Western Hemisphere.
The sense that nearby seas constitute a rightful mare nostrum — ancient Romans thought of the Mediterranean as “our sea” — means that Indians and Chinese are predisposed to resent, and oppose, apparent encroachment by outsiders in these seaways. Fishing disputes or undersea drilling take on particular resonance; natural resources concentrate minds in Asian capitals. Indians look askance at China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which aims to build infrastructure and aid economic development along Eurasia’s historic silk roads, land and sea.
And Chinese courtship of South Asian coastal states looks suspiciously like an effort to construct a “string of pearls,” or network of naval bases in the Indian navy’s traditional operating grounds. Most recently Beijing negotiated a 99-year lease of the Sri Lankan seaport of Hambantota, lodging itself firmly in the subcontinent’s environs, while Chinese engineers have fortified their naval station in Djibouti, in the extreme western reaches of the Indian Ocean.
In short, the kindling for marine conflict is increasingly in place while any number of quarrels between New Delhi and Beijing could strike the match. So, who would come out on top in an armed conflict? Well, the two navies are roughly comparable in aircraft-carrier aviation, operating one modest flattop apiece. That parity in numbers appears set to persist for some years, but carrier aircraft aren’t the whole of naval striking power.
On paper, the Indian Navy looks massively outgunned across the board. Consider: In 2020 the PLA navy will have 73 attack submarines, or “attack boats” in U.S. Navy slang, in its inventory. Attack boats are subs built to hunt other subs or pummel surface fleets from the depths. The Indian navy will operate 17 such craft in 2020. That looks like a 4:1 deficit for New Delhi.
China’s navy will also field an increasingly modern mix of 30 guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) by 2020. DDGs act as a carrier’s “shotgun,” using their missiles to fend off aerial, missile, or subsurface assault. They can also serve as capital ships in their own right, leading surface action groups against other fleets or shore targets. By comparison, the Indian navy will have a paltry eight DDGs. The PLA navy will have a mix of 92 frigates and corvettes, light combatants for duty in less menacing settings. The Indian navy will have 32 frigates and corvettes.
And so forth. These are overpowering numbers. They imply India will play Bambi to China’s Godzilla in any maritime conflagration – and we all know what happens when Bambi meets Godzilla. Even Adm. Horatio Lord Nelson, Great Britain’s virtuoso of sea battle in the age of sail, insisted that “only numbers can annihilate.”
But numbers seldom if ever tell the whole story in marine combat.
Consider several factors that will blunt what looks on paper like an insuperable edge. First, think about the human factor. A force inferior in numbers can outfight a larger antagonist through superior seamanship, tactical dexterity, and élan. It might escape annihilation. It might even defeat that antagonist’s aims. The weak can win — and often have in the annals of warfare.
Do Indian mariners command a human advantage? Hard to say. There’s little history by which to judge. Neither modern India nor modern China has fought a major naval engagement. In fact, the 21st century marks the first time in over half a millennium that the twin giants have both fielded formidable oceangoing fleets at the same time.
The historical databank is conspicuously bare as a result. Indian rulers proscribed sea voyages back in the 14th century, ostensibly to prevent scientists and mathematicians from decamping to Baghdad. China’s Ming Dynasty broke up the world’s largest and most technologically advanced navy, Adm. Zheng He’s “treasure fleet,” following a triumphal series of voyages to Southeast and South Asia — including full-on gunboat diplomacy in Sri Lanka centuries before the West learned the trick.
Asian powers thus evacuated the sea a historical eyeblink before Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama arrived on the subcontinent, ushering in an age of Western maritime dominance that is only now subsiding. Only in recent years, consequently, have Chinese and Indian fleets started jostling against each other, mainly in the Indian Ocean but on occasion in the South China Sea. Sino-Indian maritime competition is something novel, rendering it even tougher than usual to make predictions.
My own guesswork: Both navies would acquit themselves about equally well in action. They have gone out of their way to avoid common pitfalls, such as skimping on peacetime naval readiness for the sake of saving taxpayers’ money. British Adm. Sir Herbert Richmond warned that denying ships regular upkeep and overhauls, keeping a fleet in port, and curtailing at-sea exercises depletes materiel while “rusting” officers’ and sailors’ proficiency at navigation, engineering, and weapons. After all, sailors only learn seamanship and tactics by going to sea early and often to practice.
To most appearances neither India’s nor China’s navy has let rust encrust ships or crews. The Indian navy has always maintained a regular presence in Indian Ocean waters. Until recent years the PLA navy tended to stay in port a lot, getting underway only intermittently. That is less and less true of late. China has kept a squadron on station in the Gulf of Aden for pushing a decade now. PLA navy vessels have turned up in expanses as remote as the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea, and, most recently, the Baltic Sea. In so doing China has demonstrated its capacity to mount a naval presence in what Chinese strategists term the “far seas” beyond the China seas and Western Pacific.
What the PLA navy once lacked in training, it is striving to correct — reducing the chances of human or material corrosion. The deep military corruption that once led jingoistic Chinese Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan to make comparisons to the Beiyang Navy — the graft-ridden fleet that failed spectacularly against the Japanese in 1895 — appears to have been curtailed in the anti-corruption campaigns since 2012. The Chinese navy, like the Indian, seems ready to fight.
That’s about as far as guesswork takes us. As strategist Edward Luttwak counsels, ships and planes are “black boxes” in peacetime. It’s hard for outsiders to peek inside to see how smoothly their internal workings perform, either from an engineering or a human standpoint. Nor can peacetime maneuvers perfectly simulate the dangers, hardships, and sheer orneriness of war. A force that excels in canned exercises might be just that: a force that excels at exercises. Battle is the true arbiter of combat effectiveness and efficiency.
But if the human factor is a wash, geospatial strategy is definitely on India’s side. It’s doubtful in the extreme that any clash between Indian and Chinese forces would take place in the South China Sea or elsewhere in East Asia. The Indian Navy has plenty to do superintending events in the Indian Ocean and a bare minimum of assets to do it with. It has little to spare for extra-regional enterprises. Ergo, any probable naval war would unfold in India’s home region, where the Indian military enjoys “interior lines” and Chinese expeditionary forces must contend with “exterior lines.”
What that means in plain English is this: The Indian navy enjoys direct, relatively short routes to potential scenes of battle while the PLA navy must project forces across long, distended, potentially contested sea routes just to reach the fight. Distance favors the defender while debilitating its adversary.
Fighting across vast geographic distances imposes wear-and-tear on hardware while wearying crews. It imposes severe logistical burdens. After all, an expeditionary force must carry all the fuel, stores, and ammunition it needs to reach the scene of action and fight the battle. And fighting at a distance grants the antagonist opportunities to make mischief along the way.
The foe or its allies could harry the expeditionary force, taking up station at key geographic sites — the Strait of Malacca, anyone? — to snipe away. The PLA navy force could suffer losses. At a minimum, a forward defense would compel Chinese mariners to expend scarce resources defending themselves.
In short, powerful Indian forces reside near likely trouble spots, while China must operate along long, convoluted routes just to gain access to the region. It is no simple feat for a faraway great-power navy to overpower a rival naval power — even a weaker one — in that navy’s home waters. Advantage: India.
Which brings us to geography. India is blessed by favorable nautical geography. The subcontinent juts into the Indian Ocean, adjoining potential battlegrounds in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. Its geographical layout amplifies the advantages of the interior lines. Furthermore, New Delhi is sovereign over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an island chain athwart the western approaches to the Strait of Malacca. Suitably fortified with missiles, aircraft, and ships, the island chain would constitute a barrier to east-west Chinese maritime movement — enfeebling any force that ventures onto India’s turf.
Chinese strategists are acutely conscious of the potential of island-chain warfare. It confronts them every day in East Asia, where U.S. allies occupy the “first island chain” paralleling China’s coastline. Back in 1987, Adm. Liu Huaqing, the modern PLA navy’s founding father, gave an address likening the first island chain to a “metal chain” barring China’s access to the Western Pacific. Small wonder Chinese strategists have taken to describing the Andamans and the Nicobars as a metal chain inhibiting China’s access to the Indian Ocean. The same logic holds.
Geography, then, could represent India’s great equalizer against a more numerous Chinese navy. New Delhi can stage an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy of its own, harnessing geographic features for strategic gain.
Competing strategic imperatives will encumber PLA navy operations in the Indian Ocean. The overwhelming advantage on paper is misleading. The Indian navy will never feel the full weight of those numbers. PLA navy commanders cannot simply designate the entire battle fleet as an expeditionary force and send it sailing to the Indian Ocean to do battle. Doing so would expose the homeland to a formidable U.S.-Japanese fleet poised at China’s door.
In short, like statesmen and commanders throughout history, China’s leadership must juggle competing commitments — apportioning resources to keep the most important commitments while putting lesser commitments on hold or demoting them to secondary status. Martial sage Carl von Clausewitz sets the bar high for undertaking secondary theaters or campaigns: Such an endeavor must promise “exceptionally rewarding” gains, it must not risk too much in the primary theater or campaign, and therefore strategic leaders should forego it unless they boast “decisive superiority” of resources in the primary theater. Reward, risk, resources — call it Clausewitz’s three Rs for setting and enforcing priorities.
In Clausewitzian parlance, the Indian Ocean constitutes an exceptionally rewarding theater for China. China is a net importer of energy supplies, much of which coming from the Persian Gulf. Beijing sees vital national interests at stake in the region – else it wouldn’t bother with pricey ventures such as “One Belt, One Road.”
The questions surround Clausewitz’s second two Rs, risk and resources. Do China’s armed forces really boast decisive superiority over the U.S. Navy and Japan Self-Defense Forces — which might make trouble in Northeast Asia while the PLA navy was away battling the Indian Navy?
Doubtful. The strategic outlook gets a lot blurrier here. Fighting even an outnumbered Indian navy turns out to entail hidden perils for China. In all likelihood, Beijing would detach whatever fraction of the PLA navy fleet it could spare for action in the Indian Ocean while remaining on guard back home. That way the leadership could allocate resources prudently while keeping risk to a minimum. That portion of the PLA navy — not the PLA navy as a whole — constitutes the standard of measurement for Indian naval adequacy. If the Indian navy can handle the fraction of China’s navy likely to venture into South Asia, then it meets the standard. If not, rough waters await.
Finally, bear in mind that naval warfare is no longer about navies alone. China’s military boasts an array of land-based weaponry to make things hard on American or Asian forces steaming within reach of that weaponry. But Indian commanders can tap that same logic when fighting within reach of their own shore-based arsenal of tactical aircraft and missiles. The Indian air force, then, constitutes another implement of Indian sea power. And it’s an imposing one: American aviators testify to the combat excellence of their Indian brethren. The Indian armed forces, in short, could give PLA navy expeditionary forces a very bad day if they turn all assets at their disposal to advantage.
This should all give PLA commanders and their political masters pause. Bear in mind that maritime expeditionary operations fall outside China’s traditional military playbook. The anti-access strategy that China deploys in the Western Pacific comports with the Maoist way of war: It’s a strategically defensive mode of war-making designed to turn the tables on a stronger foe encroaching on Chinese territory. Far-seas operations involves a role reversal. In dealing with the Indian navy, it’s China that must assume the strategic offensive, carrying the fight onto a defender’s ground. Offense poses a different challenge altogether, and it’s unclear whether the PLA has yet devised methods for prosecuting an offensive campaign — something it hasn’t conducted since the disastrous Vietnamese excursion of 1979.
So, who would prevail in the Sino-Indian naval war of 2020? It looks like a close-run thing. China has numbers on its side, but India’s allies include geography, land-based sea power, and silent partners such as the United States and Japan. Maybe Bambi’s not such a pushover after all.
Photo credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images