By Shashank Joshi
August 12, 2013
The Indian Navy has had a big week. The reactor in its first indigenous nuclear submarine, the Arihant, went critical on Saturday, and its first indigenous aircraft carrier, theVikrant, was formally unveiled today. It's long been assumed that one of the primary tasks of the rapidly-modernizing service and its expanding fleet is to apply pressure to China's Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs) in the event of conflict.
The Economist suggested a few months ago that "India’s naval advantage might allow it, for example, to impede oil traffic heading for China through the Malacca Strait." David Scott's recent article in the Journal of Strategic Studies, argues that: "In the case of the Malacca Strait … India [has] the ability to block (China’s so-called ‘Malacca Dilemma’) easy Chinese access to the Indian Ocean." Ajai Shukla, a well-informed defense journalist, writes that "analysts agree that the Indian Navy … can shut down the Indian Ocean shipping lanes whenever it chooses," and quotes a retired fleet commander as saying that "a couple of submarines and a fighter squadron at Car Nicobar could easily enforce a declared blockade." India's first official naval doctrine, in 2004, itself boasted that "control of the choke points could be used as a bargaining chip in the international power game."
Raja Menon, a retired Rear Admiral and prominent advocate of seapower in Indian strategic debates, built on these assumptions in a recent op-ed in the Hindu, criticizing the government's decision to invest substantially in raising a new Indian Army strike corps intended for the Chinese border:
Most of all, we appear not to have assessed the Chinese weakness and strengths. Their strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Today, they are merely SLOCs; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular. Beijing’s paranoia about the Indian Ocean is therefore understandable but the threat according to its strategic commentators comes only from the U.S. Sixty thousand crore [around $10bn] spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean. The Himalayan border, the entire border, could have been held hostage by our strength in the Indian Ocean with an investment of Rs.60,000 crore.