Reports of a Chinese submarine docking in Karachi, after having lurked past Indian waters, have the potential to raise tensions in India’s maritime neighbourhood. This is not the first time such an incident has occurred in Indian waters as similar visits by Chinese submarines were made to Colombo over the past one year. When China’s deadliest submarine the ‘Yuan Class 335’ crossed the Arabian Sea and docked in Karachi on May 22, it was enough to alert the Indian Navy and the security establishment considering that the Indian Ocean Region(IOR) is today probably the most important water body strategically for major powers of the world.
The submarine is reported to have spent a few days in Karachi, refuelling and restocking, before sailing back to China with close to 65 crew members, according to some reports. The Yuan-class submarine ‘335’, is equipped with torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and an air-independent propulsion that dramatically enhances its underwater endurance. Given these capabilities of the Chinese submarines, concerns in New Delhi are understandable.
While Pakistan’s close relations with China is well known, the thing that should worry India the most at this point of time is Pakistan inking a deal with China for buying around eight Yuan class submarines over the next few years, of which four will be built in Pakistan. India, on the other hand, is said to be grappling with 13 ageing diesel electric submarines. Out of these, only half are said to be operational at any given point of time along with one nuclear submarine on lease from Russia. China is way ahead in this area – Beijing is said to have 51 conventional and five nuclear submarines along with five more advanced nuclear submarines expected to be added.
Geopolitical Games in Indian Ocean
China is seeking to carve out a role for itself in the IOR through its Maritime Silk Road initiative along with an overland Silk Road to connect China with Central Asia, Caspian Sea basin and beyond. By maneuvering in the IOR, China aims to pose a challenge to America and also take on India’s natural geographic advantage to the region through moves like setting up naval outposts in Sri Lanka, thereby challenging India in its own backyard. Using the Maritime Silk Road, China is challenging the existing balance of power in the Indian Ocean. China also wants India to cooperate in seabed mining to tap the Indian Ocean’s mineral wealth, but is opposed to India’s involvement in the South China Sea where India has signed agreements with Vietnam in oil exploration. India also has four of its warships deployed in the South China Sea on a long overseas deployment.
While India has been tracking the activity of Chinese warships and submarines in the Indian Ocean, it can do little since international waters are open to all, according to the International Law. To India’s credit it has also made a smart strategic move by unveiling a Joint Strategic Vision statement with the US for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015. “Regional prosperity depends on security. We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea,” said the statement. This made China uneasy and as expected there was a strong reaction from China where it stated that relevant disputes should be resolved by parties directly concerned through peaceful talks and consultations.
China’s belief that the maritime domain holds the key to its achieving preeminence in Asia is a part of Xi Jinping’s focus on the seas. The future of the new global order would be determined by who dominates the Indian Ocean Region, which is a key maritime hub of the world and would influence the geopolitics of the 21st century.
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