Chinese tourists visit the Qingdao Naval Museum, the only military museum that features the development of China's modern navy, in the coastal city Qingdao, a major port in eastern Shandong Province, on August 18, 2014. The museum is home to a retired destroyer, guided missile frigates, a submarine and fighter jets. China is modernizing its 'blue water' navy at an alarming pace according to the United States, which has America's Asian allies alarmed at the growing threat of naval confrontations with China regarding disputed territorial waters. File photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo
Much has been written recently about both the U.S. military/naval "pivot to Asia" and China's extensive South China Sea maritime assertions, stirring up territorial claims and counter-claims. But if the possibility of a potential U.S.-China maritime confrontation dominates media coverage, another scenario equally unsettling is rising to the surface -- increasingly assertive naval power projections by both China and India. As their dynamic economies vie for regional influence, displays of military and naval power attest to that economic clout.
It is not a situation promoting stability between Asia's two dominant economies, which in 1962 fought a brief but bitter war in the Himalayas. While China's territorial disputes with South China Sea neighbors currently attract the most media attention, China contests territorial issues in Kashmir with India and Pakistan, where land is under the de facto administration of China (Aksai Chin), India (Jammu and Kashmir), and Pakistan (Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas).
In addition, China has yet to resolve questions regarding the sovereignty of India's Arunachal Pradesh, most of which is claimed by Beijing in the absence of any definitive treaty delineating the border.
Further complicating the diplomatic picture, India is slowly becoming an American ally, while China may become a possible enemy.
The development of their militaries has also proceeded in parallel. India achieved independence from Britain in 1947 and Chairman Mao Tse Tung proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949. Both countries initially massively built up their ground forces as their primary defense effort, with their air forces second and naval services a distant third. Now, the two leading BRIC countries, their treasuries flush with cash, have embarked on expanding and upgrading their navies, particularly their carrier forces.
Both nations are unsettling their neighbors. Turning its gaze eastwards from its traditional enemy, Pakistan, India is developing a naval base in its Indian Ocean Andaman islands, even as its Bay of Bengal neighbor Bangladesh has referred its maritime boundary claims with India to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. The INS Baaz naval base will be able not only to service ships, but reconnaissance aircraft as well.
China also has maritime boundary disputes with its neighbors and currently contends sovereignty of the South China Seas' Spratly archipelago of 750 islands, islets, atolls, cays and outcroppings with the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, while in 1974 China seized the Paracel islands from Vietnam following a brief but violent military clash along its land borders with Hanoi.
Chinese maps show an international boundary symbol off the coasts of the littoral states of the South China Seas, despite the 2002 "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," which eased tensions in the Spratlys.
Other maritime disputes: China occupies some of the Paracel Islands also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and China and Taiwan both continue to reject Japan's claims to the uninhabited islands of Senkaku-shoto (Diaoyu Tai) and Japan's unilaterally declared equidistance line in the East China Sea.
China even has disagreements with North Korea over several islands in the Yalu and Tumen rivers, while China and Russia have only recently demarcated the once disputed islands in the Amur and Ussuri rivers, over which they fought a brief but vicious border war in 1969.
As India develops a forward operating base in its Andaman Islands, China for the past several years has helped Pakistan develop a massive deep-water port project at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, which the Chinese Navy will reportedly be allowed to use, giving it an Arabian Sea presence. China has had an intermittent naval presence in the Indian Ocean since December 2008, when it sent three warships to liaise with the Combined Task Force 150 (CTF 150), set up after the 11 September attacks to patrol the Arabian Sea and the coast of Africa to combat terrorism.
China has cautiously watched India's military buildup in its 572 island Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, northwest of the Strait of Malacca, through which nearly 80 percent of China's oil imports traverse. In turn, India watches China's increased maritime presence in the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar.
In developing their naval force projection beyond their coastlines, both India and China now field refurnished Soviet carriers. Over a decade ago India bought the 38,000 ton former Soviet Admiral Gorshkov, a modified Kiev-class Soviet Navy aircraft carrier, for $1.6 billion. After an extensive refit, it joined the Indian Navy in 2013 as the INS Vikramaditya ("Almighty"), hosting an air wing of 30 Russian-built Mikoyan MiG-29K fighters. INS Vikramaditya is the Indian Navy's second aircraft carrier, complementing its aging 28,700 ton aircraft carrier INS Viraat ("Giant"). Built for Britain's Royal Navy as HMS Hermes in 1959, it served as the flagship of the Royal Navy's task force during the Falkland Islands campaign in 1982 until its decommissioning in 1985 and subsequent transfer to India two years later.
Beijing also shopped for cast-off Soviet naval assets, acquiring the hulk of the roughly two-thirds completed 67,500 ton Admiral Kuznetsov-class Varyag from Ukraine in 1998. Towed to China, extensively refitted and renamed the Liaoning, it is the Chinese Navy's first aircraft carrier.
The purchases put India and China into a select group of maritime powers operating aircraft carriers.
The world's 21 currently operational aircraft carriers are deployed by nine nations, with six of these navies possessing only one. The current global carrier force deployments are: the United States – 11; India and Italy – 2; and China, France, the Russian Federation, Brazil, Spain and Thailand – 1.
As India and China develop their naval aerial capabilities, the question looms: Where will they be deployed, and for what?
For India, carrier deployment in the Arabian Sea would allow it to checkmate its traditional enemy Pakistan, while deployment eastwards in the Bay of Bengal would allow it to project maritime power toward the Straits of Malacca. The element that binds the two nations' strategic naval interests is oil imports. In this context it is worth remembering that the 1941 U.S. embargo on oil shipments to Japan precipitated the war in which the dominant warship became the carrier.
These developments need not inevitably lead to conflict. Despite rising naval capacities and divergent strategies, the Indian and Chinese navies have cooperated in the past, most notably in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia since late 2008. Still, as both countries will remain major importers of oil by sea for the foreseeable future, both New Delhi and Beijing will see their carriers as a new useful strategic asset for safeguarding those imports, which will inevitably lead to competing zones of operational deployment.
As evidence that China now includes the Indian Ocean as a de facto operational zone, in 2014 Chinese submarines visited Sri Lanka's Colombo port and earlier this year Pakistan's Karachi on the Arabian Sea, developments that have forced the Indian Navy to expand its strategic planning.
Even while recognizing India's special role in stabilizing the strategic Indian Ocean region, Chinese military officials and experts earlier this month warned that the region is not India's "back yard," which may result in clashes if this perception prevails. Further unsettling India over possible Chinese intentions was the recent publication of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) White Paper which outlined a new military strategy enhancing the Chinese navy's duties for the first time to "open seas protection" far from its shores.
India's and China's future carrier policies and deployments will evolve over the next several years with India in the marginal lead in training a carrier pilot cadre, as it already has carrier flight experience from HMS Viraat.
India's and China's effective carrier deployments are years in the future, but the fact that both nations now have indigenous carrier construction programs indicates that naval air power will be an increasing component of both countries' future naval strategy. What is beyond dispute is that a new constellation of naval forces, charged with safeguarding oil imports, is seemingly being drawn to the Western Pacific, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean, with consequences that no one can foresee.
Dr. John C.K. Daly received his Ph.D. in naval history from the University of London and is a non-resident Senior Scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC.