India Risks Losing Maritime Leverage in Indian Ocean as China Tests Delhi’s Strength in Ladakh


It took months for the Indian military to regain control of Ladakh, and then only in a few sectors, after China launched its incursions into the region. India’s strategic thinkers have yet to determine why China advanced; however, some reckon that preventing India from increasing its maritime influence in the Indian Ocean may be the driving force.

After six months of talks, India’s defence ministry claimed that it has reached an agreement with China to defuse the “face-off situation” by withdrawing troops from Gogra Post, one of the 65 patrolling points in Ladakh. Moreover, India is hopeful that it will soon negotiate a deal with China to disband forces from the Depsang region, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are reportedly 15 kilometres inside Indian Territory. However, there has been no statement as yet from China about the withdrawal of troops from Gogra.

Questioning the reasons behind India’s moves so far, strategic commentator Brahma Chellaney observes that the Indian authorities have “voluntarily” accepted “China-proposed buffer zones that not only close off Indian forces’ access to their traditional patrolling points, but also involve a retreat further back into Indian Territory”.

“The nation was told the deadly Galwan clashes were sparked by the PLA’s bid to grab [Patrolling Point 14]. Yet India retreated 1.7km from PP-14. In Gogra, the 5km buffer is centered on India’s PP17A. In Pangong, China’s claim is up to Finger 4 but India moved back to between Fingers 2 and 3,” Chellaney observes. Pangong Tso is a lake shared between the two countries and demarcated on maps as “fingers”.

© AP Photo

In this photograph provided by the Indian Army, tanks pull back from the banks of Pangong Tso lake region, in Ladakh along the India-China border on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

Nevertheless, the Indian government emphasises that, besides six hotlines, these temporary buffer zones are being created to prevent any untoward incidents along the border.

“Another hotline, yet another meeting, etc. won’t help. All such developments are cover for lack of progress at all levels of talks (national security advisers, army commanders). Beijing really has to make up its mind about vacating the Y-junction on the Depsang in particular,” Professor Bharat Karnad, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board, told Sputnik adding that as India is committed to the Chinese scheme of talks, it is a bit late to try to change the basis of talks.

“The amount of mobilisation in which both the forces have engaged and the kind of change of status quo that has happened there, it will take some time for complete disengagement,” said Col Sasidharan Dinny (Retd), who commanded a battalion at the Line of Actual Control in 2017, countering observations made by some strategists.

China’s stand on Depsang and a few other patrol points, which the PLA allegedly entered last May, kickstarted major organisational and operational changes within the Indian military. The military has not revealed its troop strength along the LAC but the defence ministry data suggests it has incurred major expenses in deploying military assets in Ladakh since the Galwan incident last year. 

Budget documents of 2020 reveal that the Indian Air Force and Army spent an extra $2.8 billion purchasing weapons, ammunition, and logistic items, which is almost equivalent to what the Navy spends every year in maintaining warships and submarines.

“The deployment is likely to be permanent with two profiles – winter and summer. There are other options with reduced numbers but the Indian Army may not take the risk because of loss of trust with China. Costs certainly will be very high as requirements for maintenance personnel as well as material such as tanks are essential in harsh conditions,” Rahul Bhonsle, defence analyst and ex-Brigadier of the Indian Army, explained. China has not revealed whether it has increased spending. However, analysts believe that given China’s defence budget is three to four times larger than India’s, it is conceivable the PLA would incur additional expenditure.

Strategic thinkers and defence analysts unanimously agree that it is part of Chinese strategy to keep India occupied along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in an attempt to squeeze New Delhi’s dominance in the Indian Ocean Region.

“China will keep putting pressure on India. They know that any instability along the border puts immense pressure on the economy. India does not have the cushion to do everything at the same time unlike China,” Commodore Anil Jai Singh (Submarine Veteran) told Sputnik while indicating that New Delhi does not have the leeway to assert itself both along the 3488km of LAC and the Indian Ocean.


FILE PHOTO: Paramilitary police officers swap positions during a change of guard in front of Potala Palace in Lhasa, during a government-organised tour to Tibet Autonomous Region, China, October 15, 2020. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

Meanwhile, the newly opened high-speed Lhasa train in Tibet Autonomous Region recently hosted its first military transport mission, indicating the PLA’s hardened stance along the eastern sector of LAC.

China’s Maritime Strategies

The PLA Navy is adding 20-25 warships and submarines every year and scrutiny of publicly available data suggests that between 2014 and 2018 it launched new ships with more tonnage than the entire Indian Navy.

© Photo : China Military

A naval fleet comprised of the guided-missile destroyers Ningbo (Hull 139) and Taiyuan (Hull 131), as well as the guided-missile frigate Nantong (Hull 601), steams in astern formation in waters of the East China Sea during a maritime training drill in late January, 2021

“All the new ships for eg 075 Landing Helicopter Dock, aircraft carriers or their expanding nuclear submarine programme, all of them are now designed for a blue-water capability to remain stationed and carry out operations in the Indian Ocean. They are no longer looking for a navy that can defend only China’s maritime borders,” Anil Jai Singh underlined.

Indian Navy Chiefs, at different occasions, mentioned about a permanent PLA-Navy presence in the Indian Ocean.

At the same time, China is also building its base in Djibouti, where experts believe the PLA-Navy is extending the length of the jetty to be able to accommodate an aircraft carrier. Along the East coast of Africa, the Chinese navy has a presence in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Madagascar, and Beijing is also trying to establish strategic positions in major island countries in the Indian Ocean.

“In 10 years from now, China will have a permanent carrier battle group positioned in the Indian Ocean. India should stop thinking about China’s navy as it stands now, and start thinking about how the Chinese navy of 2035 and the Indian Navy of 2035 will compare,” Anil Jai Singh warned.

Indian Navy’s Declining Budget and IOR

Indian Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh admitted in December 2019 that the Navy’s declining budget forced him to re-evaluate his long-term plan and said that a maximum of 175 warships can be brought into service instead of an earlier plans to commission 200 by 2027.

Now, analysts observe that the scarce military resources India invests in the land frontier (which is evident from last year’s unplanned expenditure of Air Force and Army) is an amount that it will not invest in its navy which is in dire need of anti-mine vessels, multi-role helicopters, and conventional submarines.

This fact can be gauged from the parliamentary panel report on defence in which it is mentioned that the navy received $3.2 billion meant for the maintenance of warships and submarines, rather than the projected demand of $4.7 billion for 12 months beginning April this year. For the capital procurement, the Narendra Modi government has allocated $4.5 billion against the projected demand of $9.7 billion for this year.

The Indian Navy’s projected revenue expenditure jumped from $2.1 billion in 2016 to $4.7 billion this year as it started deploying at least 15 warships at any given time across the Indian Ocean under ‘mission-based deployment‘ since 2017, coupled with regular exercises with partner navies. Any cut in revenue budget adversely affects the war-readiness of the navy’s combat fleets, and its engagements in Asia-Pacific and south-east Asia.

On the other hand, an estimated 90 percent of capital outlay for the Indian navy has been earmarked for paying instalments on warships and equipment bought in earlier years, leaving minuscule amounts for fresh orders.

“The Indian Navy needs at least 18 percent budget (at present it receives around 13 percent) of the total defence allocation to meet the requirements both the country and government expect from it. We cannot compromise irrespective of whether the Kargil (war with Pakistan in 1999) or Ladakh (ongoing tensions) happens, the government has to find money from somewhere. Increase the defence budget. Meet the army’s expenses and also meet the navy’s expenses,” Anil Jai Singh concluded while sending a warning signal that by 2030, India’s navy will be seriously challenged in the Indian Ocean by China.

The future of the Indian Navy’s pace of modernisation also seems bleak with the recent 15th Finance Commission report admitting that the Indian defence service will receive only $123 billion for capital outlay against the defence plan projection of $240 billion for the period of 2021-26.

The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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