India should deploy naval power to acquire leverage over China

My argument in these pages over the past month has been that India cannot deter Chinese expansionism in the Himalayas unless we show credible capacity to hurt China’s interests elsewhere in its contested neighbourhood where it is vulnerable. After the skirmishes of the past couple of months, Indian and Chinese troops are in a process of disengagement in eastern Ladakh, but we should not be surprised if China refuses to go back to the pre-April 2020 position. New Delhi should not accept anything short of that, but Beijing will count on our political leadership’s reluctance to escalate military tensions to get away with its gains. Only when New Delhi shows a willingness to use India’s capability to tilt the balance away from China in theatres that Beijing considers core to its interests will its leaders be more amenable to maintaining the status quo along our land frontiers.

Meanwhile, the situation in China’s maritime neighbourhood has gotten very dangerous. Not only has the United States bolstered its naval presence with three aircraft carrier groups in the greater South China Sea region, it has changed its official position from being neutral on maritime territorial disputes to weighing in on the side of China’s rivals. US Navy ships have stepped up freedom-of-navigation operations in defiance of Beijing’s warnings. Earlier this month, China conducted military exercises in the disputed Paracel archipelago that is claimed by Vietnam. Chinese and US naval ships and aircraft are frequently coming dangerously close to each other, in a maritime version of the pushing and shoving that happened between Chinese and Indian troops in the Himalayas. The US move comes after Chinese vessels sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, harassed a Malaysian drillship, and intruded into an Indonesian EEZ, all in the space of the past few months.

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