Unlike air power, building a credible naval power takes time and diplomacy. Indian Navy’s work on blue water navy capabilities has only begun. It will take another decade to complete, but then it will impact the region’s long-term strategic calculus.
A blue water navy is a maritime force capable of conducting operations far from its shores, in open oceans. There are only handful countries in the world, who have such capabilities. Right now, India can conduct maritime operations near its borders, but if wants to be seen as a global player, rather than regional player, then it need to possess blue water navy capabilities.
China through its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy has been circling India. Although the strategy is not focused on India, but on its own economic needs. Still China has managed to encircle India through maritime facilities in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. China is developing its own blue water navy. That is why it leaves India with no other option but to secure its own territory and interests through blue water navy.
In last few years, India has developed presence in the South China Sea. Focal point here is the strategically located Malacca Strait. 40 percent of the world’s trade and more than 80 percent of China’s oil imports pass through here. With respect to China, India has location advantage over Chinese Navy. It can disrupt Chinese oil and trade movement anytime at its will. Most of the energy needs of both countries will be fulfilled through sea lanes, therefore to have strategic advantage over the other, blue water navy capabilities are essential.
China is becoming more and more assertive in South China Sea, through its steadily increasing maritime claims. Although not a primary player, but still India wants to be seen as an important player in the region. That is the reason, Indian government has got oil block for ONGC in Vietnam controlled South China Sea. Having similar assets in the region will protect India’s trade with other countries in case of any mishap. Another reason is that such situation will act as tit-for-tat with China, which has assets around India.
India has one of the largest and most powerful navies in the world. However, its influence in high seas is not proportional to its naval strength. Although India has said that it is prepared to protect its assets in South China Sea, but nobody expects to do anything there, right now. A blue water navy would provide muscle for such strategic actions. That will definitely raise India’s global power standing. Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines want India to assume bigger role in South China Sea.
China’s skirmishes with Japan are one of the main reasons for Japan’s increased closeness with India. Both Japan and India have been increasing their naval ties. Japan is selling 15 amphibious aircrafts to India. Both also participated in trilateral naval exercise with the United States and another bilateral exercise in the Pacific Ocean. New Delhi is also pushing for a quadrilateral naval alliance of India, Japan, Australia and the United States. Although it had lost stream for some time, but Narendra Modi government is pursuing it through ‘capacity building’ in the Indian Ocean and Malacca Strait. Taking control of an island in Mauritius was part of the same strategy.
After becoming Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi visited the naval aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya on his first trip outside New Delhi. This move suggested that Modi government is placing high importance to defense, and especially navy. In contrast to Air Force and much like Army, most of the Navy’s demand can be met through indigenous production. This is part of ‘Make in India’ push. India is building its first indigenous aircraft carrier, expected to be inducted in 2018. First indigenously built nuclear submarine is undergoing sea trials. The navy is also planning to increase its 145 warships to 200 in the next 10 years, through domestic route only. Other more sophisticated arms are in process of being sourced from foreign countries.
Unlike air power, building a credible naval power takes time and diplomacy. India’s work on blue water navy capabilities has only begun. It will take another decade to complete, but then it will impact the region’s long-term strategic calculus.