Is the Indian Navy about to start mixing it up with China on the high seas? For years, as the Chinese have modernized their naval fleet, Indian strategists have worried about what that might mean for India's political and economic interests. A recent book by C. Raja Mohan, one of India's most influential strategic thinkers, explores the prospect of Sino-Indian competition spilling from the Himalayas to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, risking a struggle for maritime influence in the region among the United States, China, and India.
So it was all the more interesting, when, at a press conference Monday, India's top admiral appeared to suggest that his navy would defend Indo-Vietnamese oil exploration efforts in the South China Sea against Chinese aggression. An Indian state-owned oil company, ONGC Videsh, has been involved in deepwater explorations with Vietnam in the South China Sea since 2006, despite Chinese claims of sovereignty over that area.
But the reality of Admiral D.K. Joshi's statement was far less sensational. Rather than signalling a deployment, he merely reinforced the longstanding Indian position that China's naval modernization concerned India, and that like other maritime powers, India was preparing for worst-case scenarios. It wasn't even a signal to clear the decks, let alone a shot across the bow.
Nonetheless, India is far more likely to become a regular naval presence in the Pacific than many previously imagined, due to its rapidly expanding economy, improving military technologies, and growing energy interests. The Indian Navy has historically been the smallest and most poorly-resourced of India's three military services, in keeping with the country's security preoccupations at home and its unresolved land border disputes with Pakistan and China. It has just 60,000 active personnel and a $7 billion annual budget, roughly a quarter of the strength and resources of China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Its long-range capabilities come from a single aircraft carrier, a second-hand amphibious transport dock, 14 German- or Russian-designed diesel-powered submarines, and about 20 destroyers and frigates.
But power is relative, and this seemingly small flotilla today constitutes the largest naval presence in the Indian Ocean after the U.S. Navy. Beyond the United States and China, only Japan, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan boast even comparable capacities for the region, although their navies are more narrowly focused. But India's navy dwarfs those of other countries embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. The two strongest rival claimants to China, Vietnam and the Philippines, boast just three active frigates between them. The temporary presence of even a small Indian squadron in the Pacific could make a meaningful difference to the region's balance of power.