In the run-up to Malabar, the media had reported a “surge” in Chinese naval presence in the subcontinental littorals. PLAN units prowling India’s near-seas reportedly included the Luyang III class destroyers, hydrographic research vessels, and an intelligence-gathering ship, Haiwingxing, presumably to keep track of naval ships taking part in the trilateral exercises. But Indian analysts seemed more distressed by the reported presence of a Chinese conventional submarine in the Indian seas, confirmed by the docking of the Chongmingdao, a submarine support vessel, in Karachi last month.
For many Indian observers, the emphasis on anti-submarine warfare (ASW) exercises in Malabar is a sign of India’s growing willingness to leverage its maritime partnerships in Asia to counter PLAN operations in the Indian Ocean. Not surprisingly, much of the commentary in the Indian media highlighted exercises involving P-8I and P-8A reconnaissance aircraft, MiG-29K fighters and Japanese ASW helicopters, lending credence to accounts that an Indian “sea-denial” strategy was at work in the Bay of Bengal.
Yet, there is something essentially flawed about the idea that Indian naval power can prevent Chinese warships and submarines from accessing India’s near-seas. Modern-day trading nations regard the oceans as a shared global common, with equal opportunity rights for all user states. Consequently, unless a sea-space is a site of overlapping claims (as in the case of the South China Sea) or a contested enclave in a geopolitically troubled spot (as the Persian Gulf), no coastal state ever actively denies another the use of the high seas.
This balance only changes during war, when navies seek to block adversaries from entering critical sea spaces in the contested littorals. During peace-time operations, however, maritime forces enjoy assured access to the seas that lie beyond national territorial waters (even if a coastal state insists on prior notification).
Given Beijing’s key role in the politics and geoeconomics of the Indian Ocean region, a peacetime plan to deny its warships entry into India’s surrounding seas is unlikely to succeed. With the PLAN expanding its diplomatic engagements along the Indian Ocean rim, many regional states have been welcoming of Beijing’s maritime initiatives and investments in the Indian Ocean. India’s plans to constrain Chinese naval power in South Asia are bound to meet with regional opposition.