Mahan, Malabar and China

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China’s quest for great nationhood passes through the waters of the Indian Ocean. Chinese strategists have perhaps concluded that the rise of great nations is determined by the size of their navies. As China seeks to rise to greater glories, a Navy is assuming increasing importance for Beijing. Moreover, an economy, which is dependent on inward flow of raw materials including oil and gas and the outward transportation of goods by sea, cannot neglect the oceans. China’s wealth is concentrated on the Western coast, thus it has to ensure that this is protected. For this purpose, there is no option but to develop a strong Navy. Chinese main tactical concerns are denial of access to the coastal areas, thus the anti access strategy propagated by the PLA.

So what is this infatuation of the Chinese to blue waters is leading to? A study of Mahan and his naval strategy is engaging a larger number of commanders of the Chinese Navy. For like Mahan’s initial doubts of employment of an emergent US Navy, PLAN the Chinese Navy has to figure out what to do with a naval muscle that is growing each day. For China, the problems are even more daunting than America of the 19th Century. For the United States was not faced with a major challenger in the seas until the post Meiji Japan emerged on the Pacific horizon. While Britain had a strong navy, it was also a very staunch ally.

Despite extensive investment of resources, both manpower and capital, the Chinese are not likely to be able to match the US Navy in the next 50 years or more. Lack of naval tradition will restrict Chinese plans in the future. Thus, China is building an asymmetric naval capability with a large sized submarine fleet. Simultaneously rumors of Chinese aircraft carrier persist, but that is a long way off, unlike other regional countries including Japan and India and also Thailand, China has no experience and expertise in employment or operating an aircraft carrier. While the Chinese are fast learners, their ability to assimilate the complex operations involved in running an aircraft carrier may be constrained by the steepness of the learning curve.

The United States is not the only ocean faring worry for the Chinese, Japan is just across the board and represents a major traditional threat. The Japanese are increasingly assertive in extending the reach of the maritime self-defense forces in the Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean. Japan is providing refueling facilities to all US ships in the area, a consequence of which is growing tension between the ruling and opposition parties in the country and which is said to have partially contributed to the resignation of Prime Minister Abe. Of course, the Chinese may have been pleased with this event, though the stoicism bred by Confucius will prevent them to comment on what is, “strictly an internal matter of a friendly neighbor”. No doubt, there would be some glee over the frailties of the democratic systems.

However, China’s major maritime worry is India. India not only has a strong Navy but also occupies a central position astride the Indian Ocean. This enables the Indian Navy to dominate the waters to the great detriment of PLAN, so feels Beijing. However the final concern emerges when all the three navies, Indian, Japan and the United States conduct an exercise in the Bay of Bengal practicing what could only be seen as offensive maneuvers, surely not the anti terrorism exercises professed by exercise planners and spin masters.

Thus, the Chinese attempting to understand naval stratagems espoused by Mahan are confronted with the problem of the Malabar maneuvers in their prime area of interest, through which all of China’s oil passes at the mouth of the Malacca straits. Here the Chinese see not one, not two but three potential competitors disrupting their vital lifelines, in the same way that Mahan has propounded in his treatise. Now we know why the Chinese protested over Malabar, its Mahan’s teachings, for if the alliance of nations grows, China’s so-called string of pearls in the Indian Ocean can well be negated.

Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.