Robert Kaplan recently wrote in Foreign Affairs about the potential for India increasing its naval role in the Indian Ocean. There have also been ideas thrown around of late, referring to India increasing its grasp over the Indian Ocean to control and possibly choke Chinese strategic supplies, as speculated upon by Chinese naval analyst Zhang Ming, from the Middle East in the event of a conflict over India’s eastern border with China. This discussion is especially relevant today with the diplomatic chill between the two countries, over the Indo-US nuclear deal and the continued Chinese diplomatic belligerence over Arunachal Pradesh, being most recently displayed in Chinese objections to visits by the Indian national leadership to India’s eastern-most state as well as the Chinese blocking of an Asian Development Bank loan for the state on the basis of it being ‘disputed territory’.
Arunachal Pradesh’s development status is notoriously poor, while China, on the other side of the border, has extensively developed infrastructure in terms of communication links, roads and highways.
It is safe to assume that this lack of infrastructural parity on both sides of the border would give China a natural military advantage over India. It is important to recall, it was due to India’s abysmal border infrastructure, poor intelligence and shortage in military supplies, besides possibly flawed political and military leadership that enabled Mao’s China to thrash India in the India-China war of 1961.
So in the event of a repeat conflict over the eastern borders could India move strategically to choke Chinese maritime movement of strategic supplies, especially petroleum?
“This requires some really imaginative speculation. First one has to examine the deterrence effect of a naval blockade by India, assuming we have the capabilities to do it,” begins one senior uniformed officer’s analysis. “Will the threat of a naval blockade around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, that has the effect of creating a barrier to Chinese maritime movement across the Straits of Malacca, be taken seriously? It will, after all, be a huge task,” he points out.
“There are doubts as to the capability of the Indian Navy, as it stands today, to be able to accomplish such a task. Imagine what this would require. Even if our navy were able to establish a blockade, China has been building up reserve capacities, which, from what I hear is enough for forty days. Can our navy keep up the blockade for forty days? Especially since China has been littering its pearls all over the Indian Ocean,” he points out, referring to China’s ‘string of pearls’ policy of practicing naval diplomacy by gaining access to ports, by building them in various maritime countries. Examples include Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, Bangladesh’s Chittagong, Myanmar’s Cocos Islands, Pakistan’s Gwadar.
“They might not even be affected by any blockade if they use pipelines from Myanmar and maybe even Gwadar, which is just off the Persian Gulf,” he says.
“This scenario really requires one to stretch the imagination and is extremely unlikely. This is an era of coalition wars. Any possible Sino-Indian tension wouldn’t be allowed to develop into a shooting war by other powers. It would be too big a deal,” he says.