Published daily by the Lowy Institute

India’s rivalry with China, from the mountains to the sea

During the Doklam crisis, New Dehli apparently tried to send a signal to Beijing with its nuclear missile submarine.

India tests a medium-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (Photo: Pallava Bagla/Getty)
India tests a medium-range submarine-launched ballistic missile (Photo: Pallava Bagla/Getty)
Published 23 Feb 2018   Follow @BrendanTN_

The Doklam border stand-off between India, China, and India’s ally Bhutan managed to break into the news cycle last year. It was a significant dispute, with troops clashing at one point and military forces mobilised, between two of the world’s nuclear powers that have previously fought a war.

But details have emerged in recent weeks that indicate the crisis was even more serious than many realised. It may be one of the first episodes to demonstrate the evolving risks (and potential long-term benefits) that the introduction of nuclear-armed submarines will have on strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific.

In June 2017, Chinese troops and bulldozers began to extend a road into the Doklam plateau, an area alaimed by the governments in Beijing and Thimphu at the intersection of Indian, Bhutanese, and Chinese territory. The area is of strategic importance to Indian and Chinese defence planners because it is near a geographic chokepoint that leads further into Indian territory known as the Siliguri Corridor, or India’s “chicken neck”.

At the request of Bhutan, India’s troops responded to the intrusion, resulting in a series of “jostles” between the opposing forces on the plateau (this leaked video gives an idea of these events). For the next several weeks, the situation escalated as Chinese state media claimed that India would “suffer worse losses than 1962” if a conflict ensued. The stand-off lasted until August, and while tensions have largely subsided, reports alleging China’s continued military build-up in the area have filtered out.

However, the most interesting detail to emerge since the crisis is the potential role of the INS Arihant, India’s first nuclear ballistic missile submarine.

On 9 January, The Hindu reported that the Arihant, commissioned in August 2016 and first launched in 2009, had “suffered major damage” due to “human error”. According to the article, a “hatch” had been left open, allowing water to enter the submarine’s propulsion compartment, resulting in serious damage.

A couple of days later, an article published in another Indian media outlet disputed some of the technical aspects of The Hindu story. Since the Arihant is based on a double-hull design, it agued, the engineering compartment was unlikely to have an outside hatch. Also, surely a modern submarine would have a warning system in place for hatches that must be closed for diving?

What’s not in dispute is the fact that the submarine was not working at the time of the stand-off, and had probably been out of commission for at least 10 months. This caused some controversy in India, considering the cost of the project (US $2.9 billion) and the possibility that the government in New Delhi didn’t know about it.

Yet this misses what should be the real focus for analysts concerned with strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific: that India’s leadership was interested to see if the Arihant could be deployed during the stand-off with China, and that a border dispute in an isolated Himalayan region could easily have escalated to other areas.

Articles about India’s wider nuclear mobilisation should be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism. But the reporting raises interesting questions.

Why would New Delhi be interested in sending out the Arihant on patrol during the crisis? One reason could be as a signal to Beijing of its resolve in the dispute. At present, the Arihant has limited military capability – the sea-launched ballistic missiles it carries, the K-15, has a widely reported range of only 750 kilometres, meaning limited use in a conflict with China when operated from likely patrol areas in the Bay of Bengal. But there is always the potential to escalate the crisis to other geographic regions.

This also assumes Beijing would know that the boat was deployed, either through surveillance or communication from New Delhi. Surveillance is becoming more likely as Chinese intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities improve, and PLAN naval activity increases in the Indian Ocean.

This may have been the purpose of the original leak. Even though the Arihant was disabled, Beijing will need to think hard about deploying assets to the Bay of Bengal the next time a crisis erupts on the Indian–Chinese border.

Adding to the dynamic is China’s own evolving nuclear missile submarine program, which has the range to strike Indian targets from patrol areas near Chinese coastal waters, or from the South China Sea. Theoretically, like they did in the Cold War, secure second-strike capabilities should add to strategic stability in the region. Knowing a nuclear-armed submarine, which your military forces are going to have a hard time tracking and destroying during a crisis, is out there should have a mitigating impact on risk-taking and escalation.

But in the short term, the Doklam stand-off also shows potential destabilising dynamics. China and India are still in the early stages of developing second-strike capabilities, and are putting the structures in place to maintain credible contact between submarines and political leaders while on patrol. In a crisis, accidents do occur; there were reportedly between 20 and 40 collisions between a tailing submarine and its target during the Cold War.

Importantly, nuclear forces don’t exist in a vacuum. The Doklam episode underscores the growing military activity, as well as the competition for influence between China and India throughout the Bay of Bengal. Military access for anti-submarine warfare forces, control of port facilities, and intelligence are becoming more critical for both countries.

While nuclear-missile submarines themselves might introduce crisis stability over the long-term, they are helping drive regional competition in the short-term.

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