This article was first published in Foreign Policy. Read it here in its original format.
Is the Indian Navy about to start mixing it up with China on the high seas? For years, as the Chinese have modernized their naval fleet, Indian strategists have worried about what that might mean for India's political and economic interests. A recent book by C. Raja Mohan, one of India's most influential strategic thinkers, explores the prospect of Sino-Indian competition spilling from the Himalayas to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, risking a struggle for maritime influence in the region among the United States, China, and India.
So it was all the more interesting, when, at a press conference Monday, India's top admiral appeared to suggest that his navy would defend Indo-Vietnamese oil exploration efforts in the South China Sea against Chinese aggression. An Indian state-owned oil company, ONGC Videsh, has been involved in deepwater explorations with Vietnam in the South China Sea since 2006, despite Chinese claims of sovereignty over that area.
But the reality of Admiral D.K. Joshi's statement was far less sensational. Rather than signalling a deployment, he merely reinforced the longstanding Indian position that China's naval modernization concerned India, and that like other maritime powers, India was preparing for worst-case scenarios. It wasn't even a signal to clear the decks, let alone a shot across the bow.
Nonetheless, India is far more likely to become a regular naval presence in the Pacific than many previously imagined, due to its rapidly expanding economy, improving military technologies, and growing energy interests. The Indian Navy has historically been the smallest and most poorly-resourced of India's three military services, in keeping with the country's security preoccupations at home and its unresolved land border disputes with Pakistan and China. It has just 60,000 active personnel and a $7 billion annual budget, roughly a quarter of the strength and resources of China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Its long-range capabilities come from a single aircraft carrier, a second-hand amphibious transport dock, 14 German- or Russian-designed diesel-powered submarines, and about 20 destroyers and frigates.
But power is relative, and this seemingly small flotilla today constitutes the largest naval presence in the Indian Ocean after the U.S. Navy. Beyond the United States and China, only Japan, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan boast even comparable capacities for the region, although their navies are more narrowly focused. But India's navy dwarfs those of other countries embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. The two strongest rival claimants to China, Vietnam and the Philippines, boast just three active frigates between them. The temporary presence of even a small Indian squadron in the Pacific could make a meaningful difference to the region's balance of power.
India's growing interests, resources, and technological capabilities will likely lead it to increased naval activity east of the Strait of Malacca, the critical junction of the Pacific and Indian Oceans through which 40 percent of the world's trade and most of East Asia's oil imports flow. India is conducting sea trials of an indigenously-designed nuclear-powered submarine, which will significantly increase its navy's operational range. In the next two years, India willinduct a second aircraft carrier and modern French submarines into active service, to upgrade its aging fleet. The navy's share of the defense budget has steadily grown from less than 15 percent of India's annual military expenditure in 2000 to 19 percent in 2012, outpacing India's overall defense spending. And the 2009 agreement to purchase P-8 aircraft from the United States, capable of interdicting ships and tracking submarines, signals India's technological ambitions in the high seas.
Perhaps more importantly, India is able to work with other regional navies. Beginning with basic exercises in the early 2000s, the Indian Navy's collaboration with the U.S. Pacific Command has evolved into complex war games. In 2004, India tested its ability to respond to regional crises in coordination with the United States, Japan, and Australia by performing humanitarian relief operations in Southeast Asia following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. And the Malabar series of naval exercises between India and the United States, which have also involved Japan, Australia, and Singapore, has strengthened the Indian Navy's ability to work closely with partners far from its shores. Contrast this to China: Beyond dustups with Southeast Asian countries, and with Japan over disputed islands -- which only generate further suspicion of Chinese military intentions -- Beijing is also quick to break off military ties, like it did after Washington sold weapons to Taiwan in 2010.
None of this means that India is looking to pick a fight with China in the South China Sea, particularly as India has no territorial stakes there. Other facets of the Sino-Indian relationship -- the fragile boundary talks over disputed Himalayan territory and bilateral trade of more than $70 billion and growing -- are of far greater importance to New Delhi. At the same time, renouncing claims to its assets in Vietnam in response to perceived Chinese pressure could embarrass the Indian government, both domestically and internationally. When confronted with pressure from Beijing -- as during the Dalai Lama's 2009 visit to the disputed border town of Tawang or periods when China has refused to issue visas in some Indian passports -- New Delhi's response has generally been to stick to its guns.
India evidently needs to do a better job of managing its message. Its National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, who was in Beijing for border negotiations when Joshi made his statement,countered that the Indian media had "manufactured" the story. For its part, China needs to appreciate that its aggressive pursuit of maritime territory compels India to cooperate more closely with Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing's issuing of passports this November featuring a map showing the fullest extent of its territorial claims was a remarkably clumsy gesture, provoking simultaneous outrage in India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China may have only itself to blame if these states find greater common cause with one another, and with other regional maritime powers.
India's steadily growing naval capabilities and its deepening commercial engagements in the Pacific Rim means that it now has the ability to provide security in the region to ensure open and secure sea lines of communication. For many countries invested in the region -- not least the United States -- that is welcome. For China too, this presents another opportunity for improving cooperation with New Delhi, but that would require it to accept India's ability to play the role of a Pacific power.
Dhruva Jaishankar is a Transatlantic Fellow for the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.