Indian Navy Bolsters its Eastern Muscle

The Indian navy has been pumping up its muscles along the eastern seaboard, albeit slowly but steadily.

For several decades, the eastern command had played the proverbial second fiddle to its western peer, which has its headquarters in Mumbai. Considered to be the navy’s “sword arm”, the western command had garnered majority of the attention and the resultant resources of strategic planners.

The increased attention being cast on the eastern command, has been prompted partly by the threats centring on Beijing’s alarming naval presence in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. However, it’s also the part of India’s two decade-long effort to train its economic, diplomatic and military synergies eastwards as a part of its “Look East” policy. Moreover, the eastward orientation is aimed at aiding India’s emergence as a significant player as regards the Asia-Pacific security apparatus.

Indian navy is the fifth largest in the world and comprises three commands, namely the western, eastern and southern. The eastern command, headquartered at Visakhapatnam, is also the home to the submarine arm. Besides, a tri-services command was established at Port Blair in 2001.

The eastern command has expanded remarkably in the recent years. While in 2005 it had 30 warships, in 2011, the number has risen to 50. In fact, about a third of the navy’s entire fleet is positioned in the eastern command and it’s poised to increase further. Also, the country’s only aircraft carrier, INS Viraat, is slated to be stationed at the eastern command when the refurbished Russian carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, renamed INS Vikramaditya, joins the western fleet. All the Rajput-class guided missile destroyers, five in number, that were with the western fleet, have already joined the eastern seaboard.

The navy’s only acquisition from the US, the amphibious USS Trenton, renamed INS Jalashwa, is set to join the eastern command. The warship will be soon joined by the indigenously built stealth frigates INS Sahyadri, INS Shivalik and INS Satpura as also the US-made P-8I long-range Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, besides the Italy-made INS Shakti, the new fleet tanker. The command is slated to take charge of the country’s nuclear submarines as well. The INS Arihant, built at Visakhapatnam, is already undergoing sea trials and two other nuclear submarines, are also under construction.

The eastern command, with bases at Kolkata and Visakhapatnam, would soon get a forward base at Tuticorin. It will also have an operational turnaround in Paradeep. Besides the naval air-stations at Rajali and Dega, the command has the new INS Parundu at Uchipuli. The last named has UAVs deployed.

The gap between the eastern and the western command appears to have narrowed down. Given the former’s rising strength and profile, the navy has recently upgraded the rank of eastern command’s chief of staff to three-star, which is equal to the western command.

The eastern cost of the country faces six littorals – Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia – across the Bay of Bengal. The Andamans are nestled midway between the east coast and Straits of Malacca.

But it’s China, though neither an Indian Ocean nor a Bay of Bengal littoral, which has secured a presence in the said waters via establishing strong defence, economic and defence relationships with the littoral states. This includes building naval and commercial port infrastructure to serve both military and civilian use. Besides Gwadar in Pakistan, just across the Arabian Sea, Beijing is building ports at Chittagong in Bangladesh and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It has also upgraded several ports in Myanmar including Kyaukpyu, Bassein, Yangon, Sittwe and Mergui. It is also building radar, refuel and refit facilities at naval bases in Akyab, Zadetkyi, Hainggyi, and Mergui.      

While the Sino presence in these ports could be presently benign, analysts have warned that Beijing could use these ports for strategic and military purposes. Given the substantial influence that China commands in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, its demands may well be conceded, they caution.

That will usher the Chinese navy to the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal. Analysts, though, are of the opinion that China still has to traverse numerous years, if not decades, to bear the capability to support sustained naval deployment along the Indian Ocean. However, it’s this threatening possibility that has led New Delhi to beef up the eastern command.

In the beef up process, India’s trade with East and Southeast Asia has increased manifold. Its security-related engagements have increased not only with sates like Vietnam and Singapore, but also with Australia, Korea and Japan. The navy has played a crucial role to achieve such expansion. Whereas in the 1990s the navy was largely confined to the west of the Straits of Malacca, the past decade has witnessed the navy’s foray to the Pacific as well. It, interestingly, is engaging in several multilateral exercises the waters off North East Asia.

Though India is sporting increased capability to impact Asia-Pacific security architecture, it’s still not a dominant player in the region. It’s not marginal either. Its increased attention on the eastern commands aims at flexing its muscle as to become a key contributor for shaping the emergence of the Asian order.

But what sort of a player New Delhi wants to become? One which projects itself as a tool in others’ hand for containing Beijing or one which pushes for a cooperative Asian security architecture which puts Asia’s concerns before the interests of outsiders?

Much of the worldwide discourse on an evolving Asian security apparatus, till date, has been focussed on the issue of maritime rivalry and containment of the Beijing influence. However, there’s scope for further cooperation given the shared threats that the countries in the region face from terrorists and pirates to choke points and sea lanes. The waters, especially that of Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, extend a potential sphere of collaboration among the naval powers of Asia. This could be exploited for building a new and cooperative Asian order, something which could be of use to all the countries of the region.

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