‘Modernisation of Chinese Navy is a major cause for concern’

As National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon is in Beijing for talks on the boundary question, Navy Chief Admiral D.K. Joshi has termed the situation in the South China Sea “complex,” as China is rapidly modernising its Navy, and said India will protect its economic interests in the disputed waters by sending forces, if need be. “Yes, you are right. The modernisation of the Chinese Navy is truly impressive. It is actually a major, major cause for concern…, which we continuously evaluate, and [we will] work out our options and strategies,” he said in reply to questions at the customary Navy Day press conference here on Monday.

Though India was not a direct claimant in the South China Sea, its primary concern was the “freedom of navigation in international waters,” he said.

“It is not that we expect to be in those waters very frequently,” but whenever the situation required, with the country’s interests at stake — for example “ONGC Videsh has three oil exploration blocks there” — “we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that,” Admiral Joshi said.

ONGC Videsh has three offshore deepwater blocks, on the southern Vietnamese coast, and invested $600 million in oil and gas exploration in these blocks in the past few years. The footprint of ONGC Videsh is spread over 15 countries, where it is engaged in exploration work on 31 projects.

Asked whether the Indian Navy had undertaken exercises for such a mission, he said: “The short answer is yes.”

He said: “Not only us but everyone is of the view that they [the disputes] have to be resolved by the parties concerned, aligned with the international regime, which is outlined in UNCLOS [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea]; that is our first requirement.”

Asked whether the Navy would provide protection to ONGC Videsh’s assets in the South China Sea, Admiral Joshi said it would require government approval.

New rules announced recently by Hainan province (which administers the South China Sea for China) to allow for interception of ships have raised concerns in the region, with fears of simmering disputes with Southeast Asian nations escalating.

Defence analysts say Hainan’s move is another step in China’s bid to solidify its control over much of the sea, which includes crucial international shipping lanes over which more than a third of global trade passes.

Protecting the country’s economic assets was the Navy’s mandate, Admiral Joshi said, maintaining that it was neither a new policy nor a shift in emphasis. “We have to protect our country’s economic assets wherever they are, otherwise what the Navy is for?”

Asked about the balance of naval presence on the eastern and western seaboards, he said some of the recent inductions were deployed only in the eastern side, in the Bay of Bengal. “Three recent inductions — the Shivalik-class frigates Sahyadri, Satpura and Shivalik — were commissioned there… INS Jalashwa, the biggest vessel we have after the aircraft carrier, is also deployed there. The nuclear-powered submarine INS Chakra is operating from there, and INS Arihant is also going to be there.”

Asked about the Dongfeng series of missiles that China developed to target aircraft carriers, he said: “That is a very significant capability, and we are evaluating it in our context and taking whatever action as may be appropriate — either to acquire a similar capability or to think of a counter…”

Referring to China’s aircraft carrier programme, Admiral Joshi said it was “very ambitious,” but the integration of the warship and the aircraft had not taken place.

Despite persistent delays, India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, being built at the Cochin Shipyard, should be ready for delivery by 2016-17, he said.

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