Indian Ocean Region Strategic Net Assessment: The South Asia Subregion
April 25, 2016
The South Asia subregion presents a moderate overall risk within the strategic context of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Two key issues take precedent: 1) the standing risk of armed conflict between the nuclear-armed forces of India and Pakistan, and 2) India’s potential to emerge as a dominant regional sea-air power, as well as a rival of China’s in both military and economic terms, in light of Chinese military and economic expansion into the region.
Currently, the risk of a major Indo-Pakistani armed conflict seems low, but the potential for minor border clashes and terrorist attacks remains high. Tensions persist between the two countries, which have fought four wars since their partition in 1947. Small arms, artillery, and mortar fire along the line of control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir are not uncommon and were especially prevalent during the second half of the summer of 2015. [i] The frequency of these armed exchanges indicates that the risk of a sudden major crisis, followed by the potential for escalation to a serious conflict, cannot be disregarded, especially when viewed in the context of the 1999 Kargil War.
To reduce tensions, the two neighbors announced their intention to resume high-level bilateral talks in December 2015 (the first of their kind since 2012), [ii] and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted a surprise visit to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore that same month; it was the first visit by an Indian premier in almost 12 years.[iii] Despite these positive developments in Indo-Pakistani relations, a January 2016 terrorist attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed on the Indian Pathankot Air Force Base seems to have derailed bilateral talks for the time being.[iv] Terrorist attacks by Pakistani- and Kashmiri-based groups have the potential to spark a much larger conflict, given Indian accusations of Pakistani ISI links to terrorist groups; this applies in particular to Lashkar-e-Taiba, to whom India claims the ISI had direct links before and during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. [v]
An ongoing sea-air arms race between India and Pakistan could ultimately have the greatest impact on the IOR. In a potential future conflict, naval warfare between the two could severely disrupt commercial maritime traffic. While India and Pakistan are more evenly matched on land, India’s sea-air forces currently outnumber Pakistan’s by a significant margin. To narrow this gap, Pakistan has turned to its ally, China, for assistance with shipbuilding and financing; it has also purchased 8 Chinese Type 39B Yuan Class SSKs.[vi] In the event of conflict, the Pakistani Navy would likely rely heavily on asymmetric naval warfare tactics to diminish Indian’s relative strength.
The Indian Navy continues to focus on the development of a powerful maritime strike capability for power projection and sea control in a blue-water environment. India acquired a second aircraft carrier, the Vikramaditya, in 2013, and plans to replace its aging Viraat carrier with its first domestically built carrier, the Vikrant, in 2018;[vii] there are also plans for the procurement of a second domestically produced carrier. Anti-submarine warfare has been another focal point of the Indian Navy: they acquired eight P-8I aircraft from the United States,[viii] and they are building four anti-submarine corvettes of the Kamorta-class.[ix]
India’s history of conflicts and tensions with China can have serious implications for the IOR given recent Chinese interest in expanding its maritime influence in the region. Sino-Indian confrontation over the land border inevitably affects Indian and Chinese attitudes toward each other in the IOR. Traditionally, India sees itself as the dominant naval power in the region, and the expansion of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) into the region represents a challenge to India’s dominance, as well as a possible aid route to China’s ally Pakistan.
China has been heavily involved in port construction in various countries on the Indian Ocean, including Pakistan, constituting the Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy for sustaining a naval presence in the region. The first overseas Chinese naval base is being established in Djibouti, and Beijing has indicated an interest in establishing more bases on the Indian Ocean.[x] Coupled with China’s growing air-sea missile build-up, aircraft carrier development, and acquisition of surface/sub-surface combatants, the construction of overseas bases indicates China’s intention to build a sustainable blue-water navy.[xi] The PLAN does not yet have the capability to project a major threat to the Indian Navy in the IOR, but its presence and expansion constitutes a current source of tension with India and a future threat.
India has the potential to become a global economic power, but like the other countries in the South Asia subregion, it currently lacks the quality of political leadership and government effectiveness to achieve its full potential. The country is hindered by sectarian and ethnic divisions and has considerable barriers to domestic/foreign investment and economic development. Domestically, India has a moderate level of risk in terms of both governance and economic stability; Bangladesh and Sri Lanka suffer from slightly higher levels of risk, while Pakistan and Afghanistan face critical levels of risk.
As the following report shows, the South Asia subregion will continue to present a moderate overall risk to the IOR in the near-term, with the potential for the situation to change in the mid- to long-term depending on the key issues of Indo-Pakistani relations, India’s growing military and economic role, and the introduction and expansion of the Chinese PLAN into the subregion.
[i] Tim Craig, “Clashes Erupt between India and Pakistan Along Disputed Border,” The Washington Post, August 28, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/clashes-erupt-between-india-and-pakistan-along-disputed-border/2015/08/28/52453d4a-4d6b-11e5-bfb9-9736d04fc8e4_story.html .
[ii] Rishi Iyengar, “India and Pakistan Will Resume High-Level Bilateral Talks,” Time, December 9, 2015, http://time.com/4143970/india-pakistan-talks-swaraj-aziz-sharif-islamabad/ .
[iii] Ellen Barry and Salman Masood, “Narendra Modi of India Meets Pakistani Premier in Surprise Visit,” The New York Times, December 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/26/world/asia/narendra-modi-nawaz-sharif-india-pakistan.html?_r=0 .
[iv] Rohan Dua and Yudhvir Rana, “Attack on Punjab Airbase Foiled, Five Jaish Men Killed in 17-Hour Gunfight,” The Times of India, January 3, 2016, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Attack-on-Punjab-airbase-foiled-five-Jaish-men-killed-in-17-hour-gunfight/articleshow/50422972.cms .
[v] Reuters, “India: Official Accuses Pakistan in Mumbai Attacks,” The New York Times, February 6, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/06/world/asia/06briefs-OFFICIALACCU_BRF.html .
[vi] Jeffrey Lin and P. W. Singer, “New Chinese Submarines to Pakistan,” Popular Science, April 7, 2015, http://www.popsci.com/new-chinese-submarines-pakistan.
[vii] Megan Eckstein, “World’s Oldest Active Aircraft Carrier INS Viraat Set to Be Museum Ship in India,” USNI News, July 6, 2015, http://news.usni.org/2015/07/06/worlds-oldest-active-aircraft-carrier-ins-viraat-set-to-be-museum-ship-in-india .
[viii] Hardy, James. “Boeing Hands Over First P-8I Neptune to Indian Navy.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. December 20, 2012.
[ix] “RM to commission 'INS Kamorta,’” Indian Navy, Press Release, July 12, 2014, http://indiannavy.nic.in/press-release/rm-commission-ins-kamorta.
[x] Ankit Panda, “After Djibouti Base, China Eyes Additional Overseas Military ‘Facilities,’” The Diplomat, March 9, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/after-djibouti-base-china-eyes-additional-overseas-military-facilities/ .