After years of domination in the South China Sea, Chinese submarines have started popping up somewhere new – and it’s on our doorstep.
The Andaman Sea is fast becoming the latest target of Chinese expansionism. India says it has seen a surge of Chinese submarine activity in the strategically critical waterway.
And, last month, its navy booted a Chinese spy ship out of its waters. But Indian Navy sources say Chinese submarines have become a regular visitor to the region. And they’re much harder to deal with.
In September, the Indian navy evicted the Chinese survey ship Shiyan-1 for intruding upon its exclusive economic zone. It was sailing among the Andaman and Nicobar Islands without permission. And such survey ships map the ocean floor for just two purposes: military or economic.
Seeking oil, gas or other significant resource deposits inside Indian waters would be … cheeky.
Gleaning high-resolution charts of canyons on the sea floor for submarines to hide among would be … offensive.
Exactly why China would be interested in these islands can be inferred by the proximity of Malacca Strait. The narrow channel is a natural choke-point for most of Asia’s trade and fuel supplies.
In any future conflict, knowledge of the waters surrounding it would be a matter of victory or defeat.
And that fight would be on Australia’s doorstep.
Shiyan 1 was a highly visible intrusion into India’s waters. International shipping has freedom of navigation through such economic zones. But they cannot do whatever they want.
India’s chief of Navy, Admiral Karambir Singh, recently told media the survey ship was operating there without permission.
“Our stance has been that if you do anything in our region, you have to notify us or get our permission,” he said.
But it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Just 10 years ago, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) seldom visited the region. Now, India says some eight to 10 ships and submarines are found there each year.
And those submarines are only the ones India detects.
Since 2012, Beijing has been sending regular submarine patrols into the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. India says it has been finding between three and four of them every three months.
It’s a sign of things to come, warns Institute of South Asian Studies research fellow Yogesh Joshi. “The Andaman Sea is slowly but surely becoming (a) most crucial battlefront. While this does not necessarily imply that a clash between the two navies is inevitable, the waters around the Andaman Sea will see the two navies jostling more frequently than in the past.”
Whoever controls the Andaman Sea controls the Malacca Strait.
Whoever controls Malacca Strait has a chokehold on the arterial flow of oil tankers, grain ships and bulk-cargo carriers supplying the whole western Pacific.
In particular, China.
“China’s economy relies heavily on sea lanes of communication passing through the waterway; it, therefore, fears a situation where hostile powers could interdict these vital economic lifelines,” Joshi writes.
To mitigate this, Beijing began work on an important deep-sea port in Myanmar. A new rail network was to link it to the Chinese province of Yunnan. But these projects are now in doubt.
Beijing continues, however, to fund a massive canal project to link the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand.
While both projects bypass Malacca Strait, India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands remain astride the routes any shipping must take into the Indian Ocean. And China’s been busy establishing a presence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where it is building artificial islands to house major port and industrial facilities.
“These projects have dramatically changed China’s economic and political interests in the Andaman Sea,” Joshi writes.
In the same way Beijing has built up its illegal artificial islands into fortresses, New Delhi is looking to turn the Andaman and Nicobar Islands into its own unsinkable aircraft carriers.
Airfields and port facilities there allow it to watch over the Bay of Bengal in the west to the Malacca Strait.
New Delhi has now announced that it would invest up to $US50 billion in upgrading infrastructure on these islands. It wants to be able to base up to 32 warships there by 2022. And it wants a large military air base providing around-the-clock anti-submarine surveillance.
Submarines are the key.
“Unlike the South China Sea, the PLAN cannot project naval power in the Andaman Sea because of its geographical disadvantage,” Joshi says. “However, using sea-denial platforms such as submarines, it can also eliminate the possibility of India dominating these waters.”
VACUUM OF POWER
While India is showing new interest in monitoring the Andaman Sea, a recent Lowy Institute essay warns much of the southeastern Indian Ocean remains a “blind spot”.
Nobody really knows what’s going on there.
“This includes the choke-points at the Sunda and Lombok straits which, while more circuitous than the Malacca route, are nevertheless viable lines of communication linking the Indian Ocean to Northeast Asia,” notes defence analyst Arzan Tarapore.
Canberra must step up and help New Delhi cover this void. “Australia has a highly capable navy, and is committed to upholding a “free and open Indo-Pacific” – a strategic vision shared with India,” he says.
And Australia has the means to do so.
AUSTRALIA’S ISLAND CHAIN
The Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Island territories are well-positioned to monitor the Sunda and Lombok straits. And a runway on Cocos Island may soon be able to operate the RAAF’s new P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft.
But the opportunity also exists for Indonesia to get on-board. In November, navy chiefs of all three nations met in Freemantle to discuss enhanced co-operation. But it’s early days yet.
“Those pooled resources would cover an impressive and unbroken geographic spread across the eastern Indian Ocean, stretching from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, through the Indonesian archipelago, down to the Australian mainland,” says Tarapore.
“This could eventually allow the trilateral partners to fuse together a common MDA picture and, for example, hand-off tracking of particular vessels of interest.”