The Chinese navy is a force and it is a force that is here to stay. This was a remark made by Admiral Sunil Lanba, chief of naval staff, India as he spoke in New Delhi on Wednesday about the growing naval presence of India’s neighbour both in its immediate and the extended neighbourhood.
It’s not just India but other countries too in the region and beyond who have been concerned about growing Chinese muscle-flexing in the maritime domain particularly in the South China Sea where Beijing is embroiled in territorial disputes with most of its neighbours.
The Navy chief was speaking during a panel discussion on ‘Indo-Pacific: Ancient Waters and Emerging Geometrics’ at the marquee Raisina Dialogue. The Raisina Dialogue, the fourth in the series, is an annual event co-hosted by the ministry of external affairs and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
Also part of the high-powered panel discussion today, were Admiral Philip S Davidson, Commander of the US Indo-pacific Command, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, Chief of Naval Staff of the Japan Self Defence Forces, General Angus J Campbell, Chief of the Defence Force, Australia and Admiral Christophe Prazuck, Chief of Naval Staff, France.
Admiral Lanba noted that at any given time, there are between eight to 10 Chinese naval ships in the northern part of the Indian Ocean region. He also drew attention to the rapid growth of the Chinese navy, noting that no other navy has grown so rapidly in the last 200 years.
The Navy chief also echoed what India’s assertion about the Quad (India, Australia, Japan and US) has been so far that there is no military angle to it. Asked about it during the discussion, Admiral Lanba said it was true as of now, there is no military aspect to the Quad. Meanwhile, US PACOM chief Admiral Davidson emphasised more than once that the “Indo-Pacific is not a containment strategy for China”.
Noting that the Chinese have been “spending a huge amount of money in developing their military capability, modernising their forces and command structure” the Navy chief said that in the last five years alone, the Chinese navy has added 18 ships to its fleet. Admiral Lanba also drew attention to the commissioning of the first Chinese base overseas in Djibouti two years ago. He said while the stated reason is to protect their trade against pirates, they had “deployed submarines for anti-piracy operations which is the most unlikely platform to be used for this role”.
During the discussion, Japan’s Admiral Kawano said the “scope of the activities of the Chinese airforce and navy in the region have heightened”. However, he said the two countries also have a maritime and aerial memorandum to avoid conflicts.
Speaking specifically about the South China Sea, Admiral Kawano accused China of “taking unilateral action in violation of international laws”. He added, “if China can share our values, we can cooperate”.
Admiral Kano also emphasised, like many of the other discussants, the need for “a free and open Pacific”, one that was “free and open” as it was part of the global commons. “All five countries (India, Japan, US, Australia and France) share this value,” he stated.
Admiral Campbell of Australia said that his country doesn’t support unilateral action in the South China Sea. He also called for the enforcement for a rules-based international order.