On Sept. 1, 2011, an Indian naval vessel reported that it had received a warning by someone claiming to be a Chinese Navy official in the South China Sea. Although India and China have played down the report, such a scenario is utterly possible.
India and China have been investing immense resources for naval modernization in recent years to secure “blue-water” capabilities that would enable them to operate at long distances from territorial waters. Unlike the past colonialists, Indian and Chinese fleets of the 21st century are craving control over the oceans.
The Indian and Chinese navies are being designed to operate beyond their main areas of operation, namely the Indian Ocean and western Pacific, respectively. India’s “Look East” policy is designed to forge closer relationships with East Asian countries and the Indian Navy (IN) is one of its key instruments. India’s main concern is the security of its maritime communications via regional choke points, particularly the Malacca Strait.
With more than 50 percent of India’s foreign trade passing through the strait, the latter is the throat of India’s booming economy. The IN has beefed up its eastern naval command based in Andhra Pradesh and established a tri-service command center in 2001 at Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, both of which are positioned close to the strait.
In April and March this year, the IN also conducted naval exercises and patrols jointly, or in cooperation, with Pacific Rim countries, such as Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore, and such activities are likely to increase. Although these engagements are hardly intended to balance China, New Delhi has already sent a loud and clear message to the world that the Pacific will be another playground for its navy.
Consequently, the IN is revamping its force projection assets. The former Soviet-era Gorshkov aircraft carrier is due for delivery next year, after costing the Indian government an almost fourfold increase in refurbishment costs. Two indigenous aircraft carriers (IACs) are said to be undergoing development, in addition to a major purchase of fourth generation Russian fighter jets to bolster the IN’s air arm.
New Delhi’s activities are being echoed in Beijing. Currently, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is crafted for force projection under the Offshore Defense doctrine. Operationally, the doctrine stipulates that PLAN deploys assets far from China’s littorals to Guam Island in the east, and the Natuna and Philippine seas to the south within the two island chains. But, conceptually, it could mean endeavors to promote and protect China’s national interests abroad.
As 80 percent of Beijing’s energy imports come from the Middle East and Africa, the Indian Ocean and approaches to the western Pacific are strategically vital for its energy security. This means that over the coming decades, the South China Sea, the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits, as well as the Andaman Sea, will be the major arteries for PLAN warships sailing to and from the Indian Ocean. Already, from Gwadar in Pakistan to Sittwe in Myanmar, China has constructed the “strings of pearls”, or ports for its tankers, and perhaps soon, bases for its warships – all located on India’s
True, one must not exaggerate PLAN’s successful aircraft carrier test to mean China’s success at global power projection. Even if Beijing possesses the resources to operate three carriers, they are no substitute for knowledge and experience of carrier naval battles. But one must bear in mind that China’s seaward die is already cast. Only major domestic unrest or troubles within its land borders of a catastrophic scale could gradually grind to a halt Beijing’s naval modernization.
As such, the dawn of the Asian “naval century” might be something like Chinese Navy vessels sailing in the Indian Ocean, and Indian warships in the western Pacific. This development could deliver detrimental effects for regional maritime security.
Like enlarging bubbles, India’s and China’s naval expansions may eventually collide and, perhaps, explode in Southeast Asian waters. The recent incident in the South China Sea hints at this trend, a trend that will probably increase in the future. This is something all Southeast Asian maritime states must anticipate. Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have medium or “green-water” navies, whose missions (and ambitions) are generally confined to a regional scale. They are, nonetheless, responsible for securing the world’s busiest shipping lanes with global trade at stake.
If in the 20th century US warships were the ones mainly transiting these sea lanes, in the 21st there will be Indian and Chinese as well. Incidents in these waters have the potential for adverse global consequences, which would require other stakeholders to intervene. The US Navy has been given de facto consent to patrol the world’s major shipping routes; but China and, to some extent, India have yet to give their fiat. Moreover, the direct presence of US warships could add fuel to regional tensions, including the South China Sea disputes. Hence, the best solution remains to accommodate and increase the participation and capacities of regional navies.
Being the largest Southeast Asian state and a geographically maritime country, Indonesia can spearhead such efforts.
First, regional confidence-building measures (CBMs) must be unswervingly and consistently pursued. Strategic-level CBMs, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Maritime Forum, or the Singapore Shangri-La Dialogue, must be complemented with operational-level navy-to-navy talks, such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS). Such measures could also include naval exercises involving members of ASEAN and the ARF aimed to promote friendship among navies. Indonesia can actively participate in all these measures.
Second, maritime domain awareness must be enhanced. Maritime surveillance radars, satellites and sonar should come as part and parcel of Indonesia’s naval modernization. Indonesia must also welcome foreign direct assistance in providing maritime surveillance facilities and infrastructure. US assistance of integrated maritime surveillance systems in the Malacca Strait and Sulawesi Sea constitutes such a measure. But, without continuing and complete provisions of maintenance and support, this will just be a drop in the ocean.
Third, the principle of “armed neutrality” must guide Indonesia’s geostrategy. Indonesia must always strive to maintain regional peace and stability, actively promote good order at sea and friendship among nations, but doing so must not be at the cost of national sovereignty and the right to self-defense. The Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) must be provided with the capabilities for forward presence in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific to notify and escort other warships transiting through Indonesian waters.
Such capabilities lie not in light naval platforms — like fast attack craft — but large and versatile ones, such as corvettes, frigates and destroyers. Therefore, the proposal to build at least 10 light frigates must be viewed as a necessary survival kit for Indonesia to remain afloat in the increasingly crowded waters of Asia.
The writer is a research analyst with the Maritime Security Program, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore