Seven months after US President Barack Obama signalled America’s new strategic focus on China, announcing a “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region” and naming India as a key ally, India’s Navy chief stated that his focus was on the Indian Ocean and not on the increasingly militarised waters of the South China Sea.
Addressing a press conference in New Delhi today, the Chief of Naval Staff (CNS), Admiral Nirmal Verma, said, notwithstanding “major policy statements from the US, from our perspective the primary areas of interest to us is from the Malacca Strait to the (Persian/Arabian) Gulf in the west, and to the Cape of Good Hope in the south… the Pacific and the South China Sea are of concern to us, but activation in those areas is not on the cards.”
The CNS pointed instead to the Indian Navy’s cooperation with China, particularly in anti-piracy patrols off West Asia, where the Indian, Chinese and Japanese navies coordinate their patrolling.
Admiral Verma talked down any prospect of coordinating with the US Navy, making it clear that lowering, not raising, tensions was in India’s interest. “Certainly as far as rebalancing is concerned, we don’t want a situation where something happens in (the) South China Sea to upset global shipping because it is going to have an impact on everybody. I do believe there are efforts on from the major powers that are involved in South China Sea and they will also calibrate their steps so that such a situation does not arise.”
In fact, the US and India have held extensive discussions on the evolving situation in the Asia-Pacific. US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Andrew Shapiro met with Indian officials in April, renewing the political-military dialogue after a gap of six years. US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, held discussions with Defence Minister, A K Antony in June. The Asia-Pacific was also discussed in detail during the third US-India Strategic Dialogue that month.
The joint statement issued at the end of that dialogue says, “The United States and India have a shared vision for peace, stability, and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and the Pacific region and are committed to work together, and with others in the region, for the evolution of an open, balanced, and inclusive architecture…. They agreed to further enhance their consultations on the Indian Ocean region.”
Admiral Verma today detailed the major Indian naval build-up in the IOR. He said a record 15 new surface ships had joined the Indian Navy’s fleet over the past five years, and the nuclear attack submarine, INS Chakra, leased from Russia. Another 46 are currently being built: 43 in Indian shipyards, and three in Russia.
Another 49 warships are in the MoD’s lengthy procurement pipeline. These include seven frigates that will soon be built at Mazagon Dock Ltd, Mumbai and Garden Reach Shipbuilders & Engineers, Kolkata (GRSE) under Project 17A; four water-jet fast attack craft to be built at GRSE; a training ship that will be built in a private shipyard; eight mine hunters, of which two will be built in South Korea and six more in Goa Shipyard Ltd with transferred Korean technology.
In addition, the construction of six more conventional submarines under Project 75(I) is “at the final stages of approval”, and evaluation is underway for buying a Deep Submergence and Rescue vessel for rescuing sailors from any distressed submarine. During “the coming months”, tenders will be issued for four Landing Platform Docks (LPDs), 16 anti-submarine vessels designed for shallow coastal waters; one survey training vessel; and two diving support vessels.
Admiral Verma forecast that “over the next five years we expect to induct ships and submarines at an average rate of five platforms per year, provided the yards deliver as per contracted timelines.” Much of this build-up is centred on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, 1200 km from the Indian mainland, which dominate the international shipping lanes leading into the Malacca Strait. This is a key choke point for all shipping transit—from West Asia to the South China Sea.
Last week, the Naval chief inaugurated a Naval air base, INS Baaz, on the Great Nicobar Island, at the very mouth of the Malacca Strait. This supplements the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter base at Car Nicobar. INS Baaz, 300 km closer to the Malacca Strait than Car Nicobar, does not yet have a runway long enough for fighter aircraft. But the Naval chief revealed that land acquisition was under way and environmental clearances being obtained for a 10,000-foot-long runway that would allow fighter operations.
While inaugurating INS Baaz on July 31, Admiral Verma had declared the navy would be “progressively increasing the number of warships” based at Port Blair, the headquarters of India’s only tri-service command, the Andaman and Nicobar Command.
Hailing the base’s “brilliant strategic location,” the Naval chief stated that additional bases would be “dispersed along the entire length of the island chain, so as to maximise the reach and time-on-task for ships and aircraft on patrol” in the area.