[By Dr. David Brewster]
Last month’s clash between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh was the most significant conflict between the two countries since 1967. Despite signs of a partial tactical pullback in some places, there is considerable risk of further confrontations and even escalation along the disputed border. Some have been urging the Indian government to respond to China’s moves in the Himalayas by placing pressure on Beijing in the Indian Ocean. What are India’s options and how likely is it to take such actions?
The Indian Ocean holds a particular place in the India-China strategic relationship. In almost every dimension, whether it be economic, nuclear or the conventional strategic balance along the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas, India is probably at a considerable strategic disadvantage to China. Only in the Indian Ocean, which includes China’s vital energy routes from the Persian Gulf and Africa, does India have the upper hand.
This has important implications for the strategy dynamic. Decades ago, prominent US Sinologist John Garver argued that in the event of a conflict between the two countries, India might be tempted to escalate from the land dimension, where it may suffer reverses, to the maritime dimension, where it enjoys substantial advantages, and employ those advantages to restrict China’s vital Indian Ocean trade.
In strategic jargon, the Indian Ocean represents “interior lines” for India – where the Indian Navy is close to its own bases and logistics – and “exterior lines” for China, where its navy is operating with limited logistical support, away from home. Strategists tell us that you should meet your adversary in your own interior lines and their exterior lines. (That is the reason the Indian Navy is far from keen to get into any confrontation with China in the South China Sea.)
Short of all-out war, or perhaps an Indian Ocean equivalent of the Cuban Missile crisis, any attempt to interfere with trade would be subject to massive pushback from countries around the world.
This vulnerability gives the maritime dimension of the relationship a special significance. For example, the 2012 Non-Alignment 2.0 report by leading Indian strategic thinkers advocates that India should leverage “potential opportunities that flow from peninsular India’s location in the Indian Ocean” as part of an asymmetric strategy towards China.
These considerations have driven the Indian Navy to adopt a strategy of building its naval capabilities near the Indian Ocean chokepoints, particularly around the Malacca Strait, to create an implicit threat of interdiction of China’s sea lines of communication. The navy considers that its previous threats of blockade made against Pakistan in several previous conflicts had a significant impact.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Ladakh clashes in June, the Indian Navy was placed in a heightened state of alert and reportedly deployed additional ships to sea, although it is not clear precisely where. In recent weeks, Indian naval commentators have suggested that while India would have a difficult time imposing a blockade on Chinese shipping, it should nevertheless consider interdicting Chinese tankers as they pass near India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, or otherwise deter, delay or divert shipping traffic to and from China.
Others have also noted the potential for Washington to move its carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt into the Malacca Straits/Bay of Bengal area to deter any serious escalation of conflict in the Himalayas. (Which, incidentally, would be an interesting replay of President John F. Kennedy’s decision to send the carrier USS Kitty Hawk to support India during the 1962 Sino-Indian war.)
Sailors aboard aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson greet the Indian navy guided-missile destroyer INS Ranvijay during Exercise Malabar 2012 (US Navy/Flickr)
This has not gone unnoticed in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, the PLA Navy’s Southern Theatre Command (which has responsibility for China’s operations in the Indian Ocean) responded with naval drills in the South China Sea on 18 June.
Putting aside all this sabre-rattling, what are the realistic options for India (or others) to pressure China’s trading routes in the Indian Ocean?
In fact, some naval analysts are deeply sceptical of the ability of any navy to impose a distant blockade of China in the Indian Ocean. Short of inspecting every ship – which would be a huge task – how could a blockade identify those that are actually headed to Chinese ports? What is to stop ships being rerouted in transit, a common event even in normal times? Even if a blockade could be successfully imposed, could China obtain sufficient energy supplies from other sources (which currently includes an “epic” 73 million barrels of oil reserves floating off the coast of China)? Just as importantly, what is to stop China retaliating with its own blockade or interdictions?
Even more important than these practical considerations, the political and diplomatic costs to India would be enormous. Short of all-out war, or perhaps an Indian Ocean equivalent of the Cuban Missile crisis, any attempt to interfere with trade would be subject to massive pushback from countries around the world – including from India’s most important strategic partners.
In short, the Indian Navy might (or might not) have the capability to block Chinese trade through the Indian Ocean, but would Beijing take the threat seriously?
Dr David Brewster is with the National Security College at the Australian National University, where he specialises in South Asian and Indian Ocean strategic affairs. He is also a Distinguished Research Fellow with the Australia India Institute. His previous career was as a corporate lawyer working on complex cross-border transactions and he practiced for almost two decades in the United States, England, France and Australia.
This article appears courtesy of The Lowy Interpreter and may be found in its original form here. It was produced as part of a two-year project being undertaken by the Australian National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Australian Department of Defence.
A massive fire broke out at the Port of Beirut on Thursday, incinerating a warehouse full of tires and oil within the port’s free zone. The same area was heavily damaged in the ammonium nitrate explosion that leveled the central port area and the adjacent waterfront on August 4. According to Lebanon’s civil defense agency, […]
Over the course of the past five days, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority arranged a medical intervention for an injured aboard a freighter in the Indian Ocean. On Saturday evening, the Spliethoff tweendecker Dolfijngracht called for assistance while under way about 1,000 nauical miles off the coast of Western Australia. A crewmember had sustained serious […]
The naval forces of the US and Bahrain recently staged a joint force training exercise which showcased the interoperability between coalition warships operating I the Arabian Gulf. Coalition Task Force Sentinel executed combined exercise Sentinel Shield supporting Sentry and Sentinel patrols in the coalition’s area of operations. The guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones and […]
The U-Freight Group (UFL), with its considerable involvement in eCommerce logistics, says that the latest statistics showing that global e-commerce sales hit $25.6 trillion in 2018 are a further vindication of its decision to enter this sector of the international freight market several years ago. The latest available estimates, up 8% from 2017, were recently […]
DSV Belgium has solid experience in the transport of pharmaceutical products for different customers. With a pharma hub based at Brussels Airport a lot of experience and know-how has been built up over the years. Last weekend, the forwarder handled one hundred million mouth masks, an important milestone for its Belgian organisation that has put […]
The UK government’s new post-Brexit tariff regime will result in both winners and losers. The new regime is set to replace the European Union’s Common External Tariff from the end of the Brexit Transition Period on December 31, 2020. The UK’s commitment to the ongoing Brexit process and ending the UK’s transition from EU membership […]
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a Marine Accident Brief about an accident that occurred on April 15, 2019, involving the towing vessel DeJeanne Maria which struck the end of a submerged dredge pipeline while pushing two spud barges to the Gulf of Mexico. The incident occurred on the Mississippi River in Pass […]
With close to 100 daily cargo flights operated to a destination network spanning more than 65 cities across six continents, Emirates SkyCargo is delivering essential supplies and commodities to people around the world. The air cargo carrier is currently operating 11 Boeing 777 freighter aircraft, each with a capacity to transport about 100 tonnes of […]
Astral Aviation has increased its intra-African network with cargo freighters during the pandemic. While there has been a reduction in capacity to, from, and within Africa, which has been caused by a stoppage of passenger flights and limited frequencies on freighter aircraft, Astral Aviation continues to operate cargo freighters from its Nairobi hub to 13 destinations […]
Best known as a leading passenger airport serving Germany’s most populated federal state North Rhine-Westphalia, Düsseldorf has become transformed into a vital distribution point, during the COVID 19 pandemic, for medical equipment and other life-saving goods, mostly from China. Gerton Hulsman, managing director of cargo operations, reports that the handling teams are working hard to […]
Global commercial aviation charter company Albion Aviation Group is reporting that it is seeing a considerable uptake in its professional cargo broker training courses from the current global pandemic crisis and surge in charter demand. “We have completed a number webinar courses for a whole of host of companies, looking to manage their own cargo […]
Operators can continue to use pilots and other crew members who have unable to comply with certain training, recent experience, testing, and checking requirements due to the COVID-19 outbreak in support of essential operations. Additionally, this Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR) provides regulatory relief to certain persons and pilot schools unable to meet duration and […]
Emirates SkyCargo has expanded its weekly scheduled cargo flight operations to cover 75 destinations across six continents. Through its wider reach, Emirates SkyCargo is able to transport essential commodities and other urgently needed cargo more rapidly across the world, allowing exporters and importers across markets to benefit from direct access to widebody cargo capacity. Some […]
Callan Marine is serving as the prime contractor to the Texas Department of Transportation for a maintenance dredging project located at the Bolivar Ferry Terminal, in Galveston, Texas. Work began in May and is estimated to be complete in late July 2020. The project consists of the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of material and […]
Network Airline Management and TAAG Angola Airlines are pleased to announce the renewal of their long-term freighter aircraft contract by an additional 12 months, sealing an ongoing partnership for the foreseeable future. Operating a regular weekly scheduled service from Liege, Belgium, to the capital of Angola, Luanda, Network Airline Management provides a Boeing 747-400F aircraft […]
Qatar Airways Cargo transported 56 SkyCell containers with vaccines from one of the largest vaccine manufacturers worldwide on its scheduled freighter and belly-hold cargo flights for its customer, CEVA Logistics. The 54-tonne shipment consisting of pneumococcal and varicella vaccines were flown from Brussels to Mumbai via the carrier’s hub in Doha on two separate flights. […]