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The Chinese threat in the Indian Ocean

By Srikanth Kondapalli
Last updated on: May 08, 2008 23:17 IST
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Google Earth's pictures of a new strategic submarine base in Hainan Province of China alerted several countries, including India, on the upcoming security challenges in 21st century.

The pictures and news about the Type 094 'Jin' submarine are not new, however. From at least late 1990s and more concretely from 2004, these developments have been reported widely, including the three tests of 8,000 km range, solid-propellant and MIRV-ed Julang 2 submarine launched ballistic missile and the building of infrastructure at Sanya.

Also, it was widely reported that the all-powerful military body, the Central Military Commission decided in 1999 that the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine patrols be made a matter of routine in the early 21st century. However, as the only other SSBN, the Xia-class, is reportedly docked frequently at homeports, and as the Jin SSBN development prolonged due to cost and time overruns, in addition to technological challenges, this patrolling could not be enforced so far.

At a cursory look, the development of a new strategic submarine by China appear to be of marginal impact on India as Sanya base is far away from Indian shores and as such ground-based missiles in China could be deployed in the event of skirmishes between the two rising countries in Asia. Besides, the avowed aim in developing the new Jin SSBN is not to target India but the United States, in the Chinese quest to become a great power in the world.

However, as the Cabinet Committee on Security is seized with the matter and is to hold a session, counter-measures are expected to be unveiled in the near future. Primary considerations appear to be four, viz., deployment of the new SSBN in a futuristic scenario of South Asian nuclear conflict; positioning of the SSBN in Indian Ocean with the intent of controlling the Straits of Malacca's; Chinese inroads into the Indian Ocean through the "string of pearls" concept; and SLBM deployment in anti-satellite missions.

To counter these challenges, current Indian options point towards matching China with a similar indigenous platform, leasing such vessels from Russia (as India did in the 1980s and 1990s), or collaborating with the United States on such projects. A fourth option of concluding a nuclear de-targeting agreement with China is currently unavailable due to the intransigent attitude of the Chinese government, which signed such an agreement with Russia during the visit of then President Boris Yeltsin in 1994, while preferring to sign a 'non-targeting' nuclear agreement with President Bill Clinton in 1998. This indicates to the upcoming arms race between China, India (to be followed by Pakistan).

The significance of the Jin SSBN is in its ability to provide credible second strike capability for China, which the previous version, the Xia-class of SSBN was only able to provide notionally at best. It is believed that in the India-China match-up, while India enjoys conventional superiority, China has an overwhelming strategic superiority over India.

With an estimated 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and thousands of other series of missiles, China clearly has an edge over India, while the latter needs ages to bridge the gap. The test of Agni-III could provide some succour but only marginally. A few years ago the ministry of defence, in its annual reports, estimated that several (possibly 50-60) Indian cities are targeted from Greater Tibet areas in China. The Jin SSBN provides China with another route to counter India -- through the Indian Ocean.

The Chinese submarine activity, however, is not new. While the Ming Dynasty expeditions through the Indian Ocean in the 15th Century to African shores was a surface vessel activity, accounts in the official history of the Indian Navy mention about the Soviet-supplied Romeo-class submarines surfacing in the Bay of Bengal during the 1962 skirmishes between the two countries. However, in those times, war was not multidimensional but confined to the ground forces. 21st Century warfare trends increasingly exhibit full-spectrum and multi-dimensional engagements (on land, sea, air, space, electromagnetic spectrums). Jin SSBN entry in the Chinese inventory could provide China with several options. China's conventional submarines reportedly visited Bay of Bengal for testing marine temperature parameters useful for combat times.

As such the submarine activity of China was enhanced in the last decade with significant achievements. Despite the crash of the Ming-class submarine No. 361 at Neichangshan in 2003 killing 70 sailors, China's submarine build-up is the largest in Asia today. Currently China has more than 50 submarines -- a majority of them Romeo-class (under decommissioning process), Ming, Song, 4 Han-class nuclear attack and one Xia-class SSBN. In addition, China acquired Kilo-class submarines from Russia -- with an estimate of about 18 in all joining the Chinese inventory by the next decade. Yuan class submarines are expected to be operationalised by the Chinese Navy in the near future.

More importantly, China builds on its own at least one submarine a year in several of its shipyards at Shanghai, Wuhan, Huludao and other places. These indigenous efforts contribute to China's strategic autonomy. China, however, is also in the process of upgrading the equipment and systems of these vessels through imports from Russia, Israel, France, Italy, US and other countries. Qualitatively, areas of improvements in submarine technology and functioning included enhancing endurance levels, firepower, production of specialized steel following reports of leakages, welding technologies, propulsion system, sonars, fire-control and acoustic suppression. The anti-submarine warfare capability of China was also enhanced with French support through Super Frelon helicopters and its variants and Ka-series of helicopters from Russia.

Certain recent submarine activities of China indicate its forays into the high seas. However, the initial efforts were largely dubbed as a part of the "learning curve'. In October 1994, for instance, when the USS Kittyhawk's S-3 antisubmarine aircraft tracked China's Han-class SSN through sonobuoys in the Yellow Sea, and despite scrambling of two Chinese J-6 aircraft from the Qingdao naval bases, the Chinese Navy finally backed out. Later, in a decade's time, the Chinese navy inflicted a "sweet revenge" on the US when the Song-class submarine followed, without detection, the USS Kittyhawk in October 2006.

The Chinese submarine activity in the Sea of Japan was stepped up as 'research' activities till the flare up between China and Japan when the Chinese Han-class nuclear submarine, which intruded into Japanese controlled areas in late 2004. The intention appeared to master submarine routes into the Pacific. The Chinese government reportedly apologised to the Japanese government for the first time in its history after Empress Dowager Cixi in late 19th century. These are pointers towards India as well in near future.

Srikanth Kondapalli is the author of China's Naval Power, 2001. He is Chairman of Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Srikanth Kondapalli