In his book, Destined for War: Can America and China escape Thucydides’s trap? Graham Allison documents how a few years before the outbreak of World War I, Winston Churchill had initiated an effort “to maintain British naval supremacy, simultaneously making bold diplomatic strokes to broker détente with Germany and seizing every advantage should war come”. He could anticipate that the German surge in the sea implied a national security challenge as well as an ‘existential threat’ to Britain’s survival. Churchill knew that on British warships “floated the might, majesty, dominion, and power of the British Empire.” If its navy was destroyed, he wrote later, the empire “would dissolve like a dream and all of Europe would pass into the iron grip and rule of the Teuton and of all that the Teutonic system meant.”

In 1890, an American naval strategist, Captain Alfred T. Mahan, published The Influence of Sea Power upon History. He mentioned Britain as his foremost example, and identified naval strength as the main determinant of great-power success, indeed the key to military triumph, colonies, and wealth. The oceanic voyages of European sailors brought about certain fundamental changes in world trade and power politics in the 16th century. The Portuguese played a leading role in the initial voyages of exploration; they established bases in Africa, Brazil, and India, and reached as far as Japan by the 1540s.

Naval superiority is in the reckoning again as a form of power-play. China’s objective is to secure naval supremacy in the western Pacific from the Japanese archipelago to Guam Island and Indonesia. Indeed, it intends to compete with US naval forces in the Indian Ocean and in the entire Pacific region. According to Pentagon analysts, China’s naval buildup is the most unsettling in view of the “breakneck speed” with which it seeks to develop a “blue water Navy” capable of challenging the US Navy. It intends to push US aircraft carrier fleets out of the Western Pacific ~ and perhaps finally ‘take’ Taiwan ~ and ultimately project “hard power” across the globe.

India seeks to project its power through the Strait of Malacca and thence the Western Pacific, with the objective to ensure the security of the Indian Ocean as its own region, and then project its power into the Western Pacific region. This would be an attempt to counter China’s emphasis on regional hegemony and will inevitably clash with China’s projected circle of influence. By pursuing the Southern Forwarding Strategy, the Indian navy has been expanding its operations eastwards into the South China Sea. It seeks to develop long-range naval operations and exert control over five strategic channels ~ the Suez Canal, the Bab el Mandeb, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and the Sunda Strait.

The problem is that China has as much threat perception about Japan and India, as India and Japan have about China. Beijing overlooks four major powers with which it has fought wars or proxy battles over the past 75 years ~ Japan, India, Russia, and the US, not to ignore its tiff with smaller neighbours, including Vietnam and South Korea, besides the volatile presence of North Korea and Pakistan two unstable nuclear powers. China harbours deep distrust about the military bases and alliances that the US maintains around its periphery and is especially wary of the fact that US ships and aircraft operate and engage in surveillance nearby, all of which account for its determination to field a modern and much larger navy, advanced weaponry, and sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities.

To counter this trend, the Indian navy has put in place a policy of stricter vigilance and regional cooperation by upgrading its surveillance and naval capacity since the 1980s. For India, the security of sea traffic through the Malacca Strait is vital from an economic point of view. A ship has been deployed permanently in the Andaman Sea and the approaches to the Malacca Strait. The ingress and egress routes of the Indian Ocean region are also under surveillance. Joint exercises with Australia, Japan, Singapore and the US in an operational zone stretching across to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands near the western entrance to the Malacca Strait have been effective for quite some time. In 2005, India and the US signed a Framework Agreement on Defence Relations, followed by the announcement of a bilateral Framework for Maritime Security Cooperation in 2006. In February 2008 was formed a new regional maritime security initiative, called the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, aimed at providing a consultative forum for ‘Chiefs of Navy’ from states bordering the Indian Ocean region. And with the “Quadrilateral” initiative encompassing Australia, India, Japan and the USA now forming the naval security architecture, the prospect of a large security network spanning the entire Pacific Ocean looks real.

The messages of multilateral naval cooperation, as laid down in the Indian Maritime Doctrine, one of the guiding principles for addressing common security concerns such as protection of sea lanes, terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking and transportation of weapons by sea, are clearly spelt out. This is still more important in view of China’s maritime shenanigans.

India has been strengthening ties and concluding bilateral agreements on military cooperation, including joint military and anti-piracy exercises, with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia alongside South Korea and Japan in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Should India’s plan to attach a carrier group to its Eastern Region and Western Region fleets located in the Andaman Islands materialize, the country’s navy will be able to project its naval power over long stretches.

India’s naval strength, compared to China’s, is hamstrung by a capacity mismatch. If the defence budget of the US is three times as big as China’s, the Chinese defence budget compared to India’s, is thrice as much. Not that the glaring inventory gap is unknown to India’s naval establishment, but it is compounded by the fact that the allocations for the navy hover barely around the 15 per cent level of the overall defence budget. India’s ship-building capacities are way behind China’s as the PLA Navy has continued a robust surface combatant construction programme of various classes of ships, including guided-missile destroyers and guided-missile frigates. Experts mention India’s critical capability shortfalls in ship-borne multi-role helicopters, conventional submarines and mine counter-measure vessels. India recently commissioned its first Ballistic Nuclear Submarine, INS Arihant, while its second strategic nuclear submarine, Aridhaman is almost ready. But with a fleet of fourteen submarines, the navy can’t hold a candle to Chinese submarines with a fleet of over sixty boats and at least ten more in the pipeline. The shortfall is critical in view of China’s subversive power, if one recalls how World War I submarines, though limited in their range, speed, and depth, could do what surface raiders could not.

The original plan for the Navy to have 140 ships of all varieties, one that was envisaged way back in 1948, is yet to be realised. India’s objective to develop a truly blue-water navy surely needs to be backed up by more muscle and substance, to lend credence to its Southern Forwarding Strategy commensurate with its rising naval aspirations.

The writer is a Kolkata-based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues.