Staff, India Today
20 July 2015
Defending the recent deployment of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, a Chinese military strategist at the People's Liberation Army's official think-tank said on Monday that the Chinese navy was right "to protect its interests" in the region which India should be "broad minded" enough to accommodate.
Responding to Indian concerns about the deployment of a Yuan-class submarine which sailed through the Arabian Sea to Karachi in May - this followed the deployment of submarines to Colombo last year, which also triggered concerns - Zhou Bo, honorary fellow at the Academy of Military Science, the top PLA think-tank in Beijing, justified the deployments in an article published in the official China Daily newspaper, arguing that much of China's energy interests were in the Indian Ocean.
"Even if Chinese naval ships and submarines appear regularly in the Indian Ocean, so what?" he asked. "As the largest trading nation in the world, maritime security in the Indo-Pacific cannot be more important for China. The Chinese navy has to protect its overseas interests such as the safety of personnel and security of property and investment. Much of these are along the rim of the Indian Ocean."
He said that as a fellow oil importer, India needed to have "better understanding" of China's motivations, with four-fifths of Chinese imports passing through the area.
"India alone cannot assure the security of the Indian Ocean, even if it regards the Indian Ocean as its backyard and wishes no one to compete with it there. This is why counter-piracy has involved navies from more than 20 countries, including China and India. China is not jostling with India for strategic influence in the Indian Ocean," he added.
The link between protecting China's economic interests and submarine deployments has not often been articulated by PLA strategists. Chinese diplomats have justified submarine deployments in the past as part of its efforts to jointly combat piracy and protect international ships in the Indian Ocean.
With PLA Navy submarines docking in the past year in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, Indian strategic experts have debated whether there was a message to India in the deployments.
Zhou said reports that suggested India had warned Sri Lanka about the visit were "unfortunate". "India, like China, is growing with strength. If growth of strength indeed brings confidence, a stronger India should be broad-minded. The Chinese naval vessels in the international waters of the Indian Ocean should not be taken as a threat. If the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate China and the US, so is the Indian Ocean to accommodate India and China," he said.
"Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean are no secret," he added. "In fact, they passed visibly through the Strait of Malacca with other Chinese naval ships sailing to the Gulf of Aden. Some in India argue that anti-piracy doesn't need a submarine and China is practicing long-range deployments of its nuclear and conventional submarines on the pretext of anti-piracy. However, in 2010, a Dutch submarine under NATO command was deployed to combat piracy off the east coast of Africa. The submarine was used to monitor communications between pirate vessels and their warlords on shore."
At the same time, he played down the likelihood of any clashes between the increasingly overlapping Indian and Chinese navies. "If there can't be an all-out war between China
and India, how can the Chinese and Indian navies have war at sea?" he asked. "And if the disputed border has remained peaceful for more than half a century, how can anyone prove that the two countries are going to have a war at all?"
Zhou pointed to the increasing naval exchanges between the two countries, with four Indian vessels visiting Shanghai five years ago - one of the biggest such foreign visits, Chinese officials said at the time - and Indian ships also participating in a fleet review in Qingdao last year. Chinese ships have also been invited to take part in a fleet review in India next year for the first time.
"Maybe one day the submarines of the two countries could also visit each other," he suggested. "Even the most advanced Chinese conventional submarines have received foreign visitors. If a Chinese submarine's visit to India is still a taboo, probably an Indian submarine can be invited to visit China and dock at a Chinese naval base first."