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Greater Indian Ocean: A Peaceful Geo-Political Pivot Or A Contentious Source Of Hedging

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It was a peaceful and lazy Sunday morning on December 26, 2004 off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. At 07:58 the earth suddenly shook violently and continued to tremble for almost ten minutes. Thus began one of the worst disasters the world had ever witnessed; a 9.2 magnitude earthquake at a depth of 30 kilometers beneath Indian Ocean, 255 kilometers off the coast of Banda Aceh in Sumatra and was followed by a Tsunami with waves as high as 30 meters. The result was over 240,000 people dead in 15 countries as far away as Yemen and South Africa.

The emanation of disaster from one single point signified the centrality of Greater Indian Ocean to its littoral landmass ranging from Africa to the Greater Middle East to South Asia and to South East Asia. The massive humanitarian relief measures led primarily by the disparaging militaries of its littoral states and the US which by its large presence has almost become part of its greater littoral landmass also highlighted the unifying factor projected by the ocean. This also brought about the emergence of Eurasia as an interdependent geographical entity interwoven with its politico-economic and military imbroglios.

During the Cold War era, outside of European geographical zone, denial of Soviet access to warm waters was one of the primary US objectives in Indian Ocean. The Gawader port project at the mouth of Persian Gulf in Pakistan is not a new idea. In the 1960s Pakistan was coerced by the US to shelve the project fearing a Soviet push through Afghanistan to the warm waters. The push however did come in the dying moments of Soviet empire in the late 1970s. This proved to be the nemesis of Soviet empire leading not only to its undoing but also changing the world order.

Demise of Soviet Union also led to the shrinking of Europe’s geo-political significance. The US strategic focus thus increasingly shifted to become Asia-centric due to projected rise of new centers of politico-economic and military powers along the Indian Ocean Rim-land (IOR). Indian Ocean thus emerged as the centre of future power dynamics, conflict and military and trade activity in the 21st century. The theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan are likely to find new meanings when he said that, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas in the twenty-first century, and that the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.”

Though the US initiated its Asia-centric policy precepts earlier, the military shift was formalized much later. US Navy in its maritime strategy formulated in late 2007, announced that the focus of its activities would now be Pacific and Indian Oceans instead of Pacific and Atlantic Oceans which remained its primary concern for decades. US Marine Corps followed with its vision statement in 2008, indicating Pacific and Indian Oceans as being its primary zones of operation.

A major shift in US military strategy from being pre-dominantly Euro-centric Continental Strategic Format (primary land based operations) to Asia-centric Maritime Strategic Format (primary sea based operations) also emerged. This entailed maintaining US primacy and unhindered access to the Greater Indian Ocean including trade, energy and logistic transit zones and denial of Pacific to any inimical naval force which could threaten the US and its interests.

Roughly 40 percent of all daily seaborne traded oil (or 20 percent of oil traded worldwide) passes through the Strait of Hormuz in Persian Gulf. Over 50,000 vessels transit the Strait of Malacca per year to gain access to South China Sea. If the strait were blocked, nearly half of the world’s fleet would be required to reroute around the Indonesian archipelago through Lombok Strait, located between the islands of Bali and Lombok, or the Sunda Strait, located between Java and Sumatra. Over 3,000 oil tankers pass through the Suez Canal, to and from Bab al Mandab annually.

Transnational threats, including narco-terrorism, gun running, sea piracy, immigration control and assistance during natural disasters, have spawned a multitude of additional “out of area” operational roles for regional navies, and have dramatically increased the maritime security challenges. Countering these threats and challenges requires consistent cooperation between the affected states and the associated maritime agencies.

IOR landmass is a heavily militarized zone but historically its Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) have largely remained free of military intervention. And as majority of IOR states followed the Continental Strategy, naval forces have rarely been a strong element. However, India has been one of the exceptions as it selectively followed the Curzonian maritime strategy of dominance of Indian Ocean to maintain the largest naval force and militarized its outlying islands including Andaman and Nicobar situated at the mouth of strategic Malacca Straits.

The deployment of Indian Navy however, is instructive in many ways. Two thirds of Indian naval forces are deployed along its western coast. The strategic Malacca Strait is covered by a small Tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command. The major bias of operations is not towards the Eastern Indian Ocean which controls the entry into South China Sea against India’s declared enemy number one – China. The bias is towards Pakistan, domination of the strategic Straits of Hormuz in Persian Gulf and Bab el Mandab which links Mediterranean with Indian Greater Ocean through the Suez Canal.

With introduction of US and its Allied naval powers in Indian Ocean though, Indian maritime power has largely been neutralized and its aspirations of Indian Ocean dominance severely undermined. With US 7th Fleet stationed in Japan and Chinese and Japanese naval powers operating in the South China Sea, which many analysts treat as an extension of Greater Indian Ocean, India can neither intrusively dominate the Malacca Straits nor can project its naval power into the South China Sea. With presence of US 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the sensitivity of Middle Eastern and European powers towards Bab el Mandab, Indian naval power projection here is also a no-go. If for a reason, India threatens to disrupt the international SLOCs, it will invite the wrath of international community. Therefore, Indian Navy which by 2015 is slated to become the 3rd largest two aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines navy in the world, would mainly remain a coercive force in being, providing anti-piracy support.

US, off-late has extensively engaged India enhancing the economic interaction and initiating a strategic partnership while attempting to garner Indian support for a countervailing and hedging effort against rising China. Apparently however, still immersed in the cold war farce of non-aligned neutrality syndrome, Indians have not reciprocated in the manner US expected it to. Therefore, without assimilating Japan and South Korea, India – US strategic partnership is likely to remain an intellectual strategic discussion forum and nothing beyond.

The Chinese on the other hand have handled the regional affairs rather prudently and in a manner which is in consonance with their interests. Their first intent is quite apparent, that while maintaining a regional stability maintain an appropriate balance of power in the South China Sea. Concurrently they also intend to project southwards into the Indian Ocean in order to bypass the strategic choke points at Malacca, Sunda and Lambok Straits in order to gain direct access to Indian Ocean. At this stage however, there is no indication of an apparent Chinese intent to militarily intrude into the sensitive Pacific pathway leading to mainland US.

In order to maintain appropriate balance of power in the South China Sea, current Chinese strategy is based on sea denial. For this their emphasis has been on induction of offensive weapon systems like the diesel and nuclear powered submarines (about 68 in number) and cutting edge shore to ship weapon engagement platforms. The recent news about development of shore based ballistic missiles to engage large moving targets at sea, 5th generation fighter bomber and future induction of aircraft carriers would have major strategic implications for the Greater Indian Ocean.

China’s extension into the Indian Ocean is a strategic necessity for sustenance of her economic rise. However Chinese mainland does not border the shores of main Indian Ocean and can only transit through other littoral states. Pakistan and Myanmar are the only two states which can provide politically viable trade and energy transit zones. No wonder both these countries were not invited to become members of Indian sponsored, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC).

In future therefore, these two countries by default would become an extension of China into the Indian Ocean and thus acquire strategic importance for China in geo-political and geo-strategic terms. In these emerging environments, an attempted Indian naval blockade of Pakistani ports would be construed as blockade of mainland China. In addition to this, US interests in Afghanistan and beyond are also supported through Pakistani ports. The colluding interests of US, China and Pakistan thus puts a limit on Indian navy’s coercive initiatives.

US is not likely to obstruct Chinese entry into the strategic Indian Ocean zones and would even discourage India to counter such moves, provided the motive of such moves is primarily economic and not aimed at intrusive military presence. By not positioning its naval assets at ports it built in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, China has attempted to reinforce its non-military intent and dispel international concerns. Also, taking a leaf out of US strategy, the Chinese are responding in a quid pro quo by shaping and hedging of their own while continuing to improve and refine its response capabilities.

A peaceful economic rise and development of IOR is a common objective for Chinn as well as the US and other powers having interests in the IOR. It is a win-win situation for all and the best bet to ensure this is by maintenance of stability, at regional and sub-regional levels to limit the chances of a conflict, which may spiral out of control and may result in undermining this peaceful furtherance.


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Khan A. Sufyan

Khan A. Sufyan is a security analyst on South Asia and has advised government, semi-government and private organizations and institutions on national and international security issues, as well as participating in number of national and international seminars and presented papers on various regional and global security issues.

23 thoughts on “Greater Indian Ocean: A Peaceful Geo-Political Pivot Or A Contentious Source Of Hedging

  • June 24, 2011 at 7:37 am
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    An excellent article which explains the importance of Indian Ocean in emerging geopolitical environment.

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  • June 24, 2011 at 10:31 am
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    Excellently written article. Centrality of the Indian Ocean and its importance in the eyes of US and other countries is very accurately highlighted. The articles makes an interesting reading.

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  • June 24, 2011 at 10:37 am
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    A very well written article. The author deserves an appreciation for highlighting an issue not known to most of us. His analysis is very well balanced.A must read for

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  • June 24, 2011 at 10:52 am
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    The article written by Khan A Sufyan is a real good one. I have gone through his previous articles also, His research and analysis are always highly appreciable. The importance and significance of Indian Ocean has been comprehensively highlighted. It is worth reading

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  • June 24, 2011 at 12:27 pm
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    India should do everything it can control IOR.

    Lets make it a grave yard for Chinese and Pakistani Naval ships.

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    • June 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm
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      How can Indian navy turn Indian Ocean in to a graveyard of Chinese and Pakistani naval ships. Sir, you indeed are high on grass.

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  • June 24, 2011 at 6:54 pm
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    a well explained and a thorough piece of writing.

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  • June 25, 2011 at 7:56 am
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    The author makes some very interesting statements in this article, e.g. “Indian Navy which by 2015 is slated to become the 3rd largest two aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines navy in the world, would mainly remain a coercive force in being, providing anti-piracy support.”
    Would the strong Indian Navy merely become a coercive force in being, in view of the presence of powerful world navies. How would it operate in the Indian Ocean without confronting the interests of many others operating in the same strategic zone. Would it only resort to use of coercive force against shipping of countries like Pakistan in international waters.
    There was a recent news that Indian Air Force will increase its force level in Andaman Nicobar Islands – and if so why do they need to enhance its strength, except for projecting its force in Southeast Asia. Would the Southeast Asian nations allow this to happen – or is it merely to launch anti-piracy operations in this area. Use of SU-30s against only sea pirates, it would certainly be surprising.
    Interesting developments indeed.

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  • June 25, 2011 at 8:48 am
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    A very good analysis about Indian Ocean and its significance in the emerging geopolitical environment. A must read.

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  • June 25, 2011 at 10:21 am
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    Under the circumstance,I sincerely feel, that navies of Pakistan and China should join hands to have complete dominance over the Indian ocean. If Indian navy tries to be funny or adventurous, they can be taught a lesson of their life. However Indian leadership in correct frame of mind is not expected to go for such an adventure.

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  • June 26, 2011 at 8:28 am
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    A balanced expose of geopolitical imperatives involving greater Indian ocean. Indian desire of Indian Ocean dominance is pitched against American, Chinese and Pakistani interests. Indian desire is aptly explained as, “without assimilating Japan and South Korea, India – US strategic partnership is likely to remain an intellectual strategic discussion forum and nothing beyond.” This I believe says it all.

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  • June 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm
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    The article also explains the geopolitical and geostrategic aspects related to the existence of strong Indian navy. I believe Indian Navy with its strength can protect its sea lanes but would find it difficult to coercively project its power in the region to help India become an out of region world power – at least not at this time when other powerful navies are also operating in the Indian Ocean. Because if it attempts to do this, it would definitely come in conflict with other powers, which at this time are more powerful than the Indians. In this region Pakistan and China in addition to out of region powers, are nuclear powers and so is India, which does put breaks at using India’s power projection beyond a certain stage. Therefore, I think there is lot good merit in what this author has written.

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  • June 27, 2011 at 11:50 am
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    Khan A Sufyan has carried out a brilliant analysis of strategic interests of various powers in the Indian Ocean with particular reference to Indian strategic Naval interests and its ramifications.The scarlet thread is,”India-US strategic partnership is likely to remain an intellectual strategic discussion forum and nothing beyond”;the US track record says so.
    The article itself speaks of the author’s acumen,style and grasp over the subject, as it makes easy for the reader to understand the Great Games in the Indian Ocean.

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  • June 28, 2011 at 7:40 am
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    An interesting geopolitical environment is emerging for India. Its strong army can not exert its influence because of nuclear powers on either side and its strong navy can not exert itself due to presence of powerful world navies in Indian ocean. It is left to do “small time” jobs for the Americans in this region. India’s geopolitical influence has shrunk to almost nothing. It is likely to grow as an economic “milk man” to big Americans and destined to live the ignominy of not even a regional power.

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  • June 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm
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    Indian Navy has many Naval Bases including, in future will have 3 Air Craft Carriers, would have militarized 2 outlaying Islands, many nuclear submarines, 10-15 destroyers, many Frigates, 5 Naval Air Force bases with Sukhoi 30 MKI and MIG29UPG, 5th Generation Russian aircraft will also become part of it, Cruise Missiles like Brahmos, Nirbhav, Ballistic Missile like Agni-3,5, Anti Ballistic Missiles System and so on. India is spending some 50 Billion $ for modernization of her Navy in next decade. At any given point of time, Indian Navy will be 5-10 Times better than any regional Navy from Andaman to Madagascar.
    So what will American Navy do if Indian interests collide with Americans. Indian Navy obviously will come out better than US.

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  • June 29, 2011 at 7:44 am
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    The Indian Government and naval analysts have said it time and again that they aim at dominance of Indian Ocean. Alas this wont happen with Chinese, American and allied presence in Indian Ocean.
    The importance of aircraft carriers is waning and these would be maintained for symbolic reasons. India therefore can go ahead and spend $ 50 Billion more and purchase many more big ticket items but at geopolitical level would not be in a position to use them to project its power.

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  • June 29, 2011 at 9:03 am
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    Indians essentially are a nation of “Make Believers”. We are great because 100 years later we are going to have star trek type fighter bombers, Jules Verne’s 20,000 leagues under the sea type nuclear cum fish eating, mouth frothing and missile firing submarines, stealth aircraft carriers which no one can see and machines giving birth only to chauvinistic male human species and blah blah blah. They say it so many times that they start believing these things themselves and start behaving as if they already have these things. And then they start threatening others of what might happen to them 100 years later.
    Keep at it you guys …… we are good listeners :)

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  • June 29, 2011 at 10:26 am
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    Sachin! Wont it be better if you spend a greater chunk of “50 Billion $” on your people still living in slums and sleeping on rented footpaths in Mumbai-every sane person would agree to it.
    You are right in saying that ‘Indian Navy obviously will come out better than US’, but how, have you thought of that? let me answer,if US and China go in hibernation like the Polar Bear for the next decade.

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  • July 1, 2011 at 10:04 am
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    The American success in Pakistan is critical to furtherance of their geopolitical aims in Asia and the Indian Ocean. If they lose here, their next defense line would rest on containment of South China Sea alone the arc created by Japan – Australia – Indonesia. In my opinion this is how critical Pakistan is to the United States. Much more important than their victory in Afghanistan.

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  • July 3, 2011 at 8:15 am
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    Amongst nation states there are no friends – its only their interests which are paramount. India officially declared China as her enemy No. 1 to primarily get closer to West and Americans and get their money and investment etc. India will get that and may have good economy – but that is where it ends. How India-China relations improve when China is a declared enemy No 1. Therefore China comes to Pakistan and Pakistan is a powerful regional state in its own right – and as both are India’s declared enemies, so therefore are friends. But there’s more to it as China also wants access to Indian Ocean, which only Pakistan and Burma can provide. Much more than that, China is Pakistan’s friend and has proved it and Pakistan cherish China’s friendship without counting her national interests. Pakistan is powerful enough to defend itself against India without China’s material help, though they would always welcome Chinese help.

    The dynamics of relationship between various countries has been well explained in the article and the analysis clearly reveals that India’s geopolitical importance is much lesser as compared to Pakistan and China despite the economic growth – and this is a fact Indians need to understand.

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  • July 5, 2011 at 9:12 pm
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    Indians are basing their strength on bigger economy and strong armed forces, which on the face of it looks promising. However, their strength diminishes due to the geo-strategic and geopolitical environment that exist around them. Can they intrusively extend influence in their west and force Pakistan to do as India says and wants – NO they can’t. Pakistan is a nuclear power and has strong armed forces. Can they force their eastern neighbor i.e. the Chinese in an identical manner – No they can’t. The only countries India can intrusively influence are Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, Maldives etc. Does this make them an emerging global power. India can not influence her own neighborhood and their own own regional powers less of-course the smaller ones. Indian navy can not intrusively dominate the Indian Ocean due to presence of other bigger powers. So what are they and where do they think they can use a non-influence which they so fervently propagate.

    Wake up India and read the ground realities without day dreaming.

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  • July 6, 2011 at 6:45 pm
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    The author has ignored the real dynamics that will form in future. The article is based on his prejudice against India and assumptions with day ddreaming.

    Lets take the role of each country in the Indian ocean region in the future….

    1) America — The American navy at present in the region will not able to maintain its presence on par with today in the region in future due to mounting pressure on its budget due to its poor economic growth…. This has been started recently under Barak obama administration(Reason mentioned by Robert gates during his resignation). So the option for america will be to Either maintain the presence merely or Align with the Indian navy or Pakistan navy. IF the case it will choose indian navy since it will be the powerful navy in the region(Thanks to its booming economy). It cannot believe the Chinese for securing its interest in the region

    2) Pakistan — The Less we talk about Pakistan the better it is. pakistan doesnt have the required economic stength to modernise its navy.. It is not able to modernise its navy today even while recieving AID from America. In the future it will be extremely difficult for it to project its power in Indain ocean ( US will be leaving Afganistan by that time and will not be providing any Military aid to it). It is unwise to think the chinesse will help in modernizing its navy because it has to modernize its own fleet. It will not be able to project its power completely in Arabian sea also.

    3) China — Presently the chineese navy is huge in numbers. Having large number of ships and subs doesnt make it the powerful navy in the region . But three fourth of its navy consists of obsolete ships of 1950 and 1960s with russian designs. The professional levels in its navy are not in par with any navy that makes in the chart of top ten navies. Although the modernization of its navy has started it will take many years it fleet since modernization means not reverse engineering some russian junk. It involves Good R & D ( which the chineese donot have, Dont be confused iwth reverse engineering) and tecnological assistenc both ofee from european countries or American counterparts.
    But chineese will not have both these since european arms embargo will not allow it. Also it will be extemely difficult for it to project its power through malacca straits since it encounters a choke point at Andaman & Nicobar islands by the truly modernised indian navy in future.

    4) Indain navy — Indain navy at present is one of the powerful navy in the region. Its geographical advantage helps it to project its power through all the directions in the indian ocean. Thus it doesnot require large no of aircraft carriers or Nuclear subs unlike chineese . Though chineese are planning string of pearls , the countries involved in it are some of the most unstable countries in the world. Also the modernization program of indian navy is at swift pace with digenous R & D and european and israeli tecnical assistance. Indian R & D is not based on reverse engineering but based on its own stength in advances in its scientific field. Also the growing younger population and economy will stengthen tecnological ability in the region.

    It has been building Nuclear subs and aircraft carriers( Not more in numbers) but tecnologically advance with which it can rule the Indian ocean region. Compared with
    the chineese navy the stength is less but most of the ships are moder ( three fourth).

    So It will be the indian navy rule the indian ocean first.. next comes the chineese…

    Reply
  • July 6, 2011 at 8:07 pm
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    Mr Kaushik,
    Please don’t perceive everything that does not favour India as anti-Indian.

    The author has quoted US declared strategies which indicate that Pacific and Indian Oceans are their main concerns. Therefore they are going to maintain appropriate force levels in Asia for keeps. 7th and 5th US carrier groups will remain in Indian Ocean. Because of their geopolitical compulsions, they would like to maintain good naval cooperation with Indian and Pakistani navies.

    Pakistan does not intend to project its power in Indian Ocean. It will however maintain strong enough navy to protect its shipping and defend itself against Indian navy’s shenanigans. Also remember Pakistan is a nuclear power.

    In Western China about 300 million people live and these would be supported through Pakistani ports as the development reaches Western China – the pace of development has considerably picked up.. If India blocks Western China’s only access to the sea, who would get hurt – China. Would the Chinese remain quite – I don’t think so. In my opinion they would respond aggressively.

    A recent report by the Indian comptroller and auditor general states that by 2012, the Indian Navy would retain only 61%, 44% and 20% of the envisaged force levels of Frigates, Destroyers and Corvettes respectively. And that there will be further delays in new constructions which are not many to cover the percentages. Only 48 per cent of India’s submarine fleet is available for waging war. It is declared Indian stance that their offensive efforts would remain below Pakistan’s nuclear thresholds. And if Indian navy attempts a naval blockade of Pakistan, denying a naval blockade is Pakistan’s declared nuclear threshold, I don’t think it would be attempted.

    Why are the Indian posters so pepped up about the depleting strength of Indian Navy. I really fail to understand this. I think they should wake up to the reality that their geopolitical prowess has shrunk and has restricted their power projection capability considerably.

    Oh I know ……. they must be busy buying golf carts

    Reply

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