Chinese Defense Ministry announced on October 26 that China and Pakistan were all set to conduct their third round of joint naval drills in the northern Arabian Sea next month, even as the Indian Navy’s spy plane and Sea Guardian drone continue to keep an eye on Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean.
Codenamed ‘Sea Guardians-3,’ the drills are expected to practice vital and complex maneuvers, including anti-submarine operations, the mutual landing of helicopters, inspection and capture, formation maneuvers, and cooperative search and rescue, according to the announcement.
Although the Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has officially been deposed, a spokesperson for the ministry, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, took the mantle and told a press briefing, “The theme of this joint exercise is jointly responding to maritime security threats.” He stated that the two nations want to raise the standard of real combat training between their forces.
This is the third iteration of the drills, with the last one taking place in July 2022. The first Sea Guardians exercise was held in the Arabian Sea in January 2020, while the second Sea Guardians drill was hosted in waters close to Shanghai in July of last year. The exercises from the previous year were divided into two phases, with one each dedicated to offshore and core at-sea military operations.
The ‘Sea Guardian-3’ drills come at an opportune moment, with military ties between the two countries flourishing. Pakistan’s JF-17 and J-10C fighters and the PLA Air Force’s J-16 fighter jet flew together over northwest China last month for Shaheen-X to validate interoperability in the face of “realistic contemporary air combat scenarios.”
More recently, the two sides pledged to bolster their relationship at the recently held Beijing Belt and Road Forum. For one, Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Anwaarul Haq Kakar, and committed to “promote regional unity and cooperation and safeguard the legitimate interests of developing countries.”
However, China’s expanding presence in the IOR and collusion with Pakistan in the region has primarily been viewed as one of its top security concerns in India. The Indian Navy is closely observing China’s vessel movements as it prepares to conduct military drills in the region, which India has traditionally treated as its region of influence. New Delhi’s candor in keenly watching Chinese activities, thus, merely ignites any passion anywhere.
As per reports published in the Indian media, the Indian Navy is keeping a hawk eye on three warships, a submarine, and a research vessel belonging to the Chinese Navy in the IOR ahead of the planned Sea Guardian-3 drills. Interestingly, the Indian Navy keeps tabs on ships of its adversaries using its own “Sea Guardian” drones.
India's Eye on Dragon 🐉
Indian Navy is easily detecting and Keeping Eye on #Chinese Submarines & Warship at Sunda Strait even before entering into Indian Ocean Region. We are also locating their Ships going to Pakistan for Naval drill with help of P8 & MQ-9B : Navy officer 🇮🇳🇨🇳… pic.twitter.com/OzD1S0Jp5Y
— Vivek Singh (@VivekSi85847001) October 27, 2023
In the latest development, the Indian Navy has reportedly deployed its best surveillance assets, including the P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime surveillance aircraft and two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones leased from the United States. Additionally, surface ships have been deployed to keep a close watch on the movement of Chinese vessels deployed to the IOR recently.
It is a standard procedure undertaken by the Indian Navy, especially since the Chinese Navy is notorious for collecting crucial intelligence. For instance, equipped with massive antennae, advanced sensors, and electronic equipment, Chinese warships and research vessels are accused of snooping on the Indian military and tracking the trajectories of ballistic missile tests carried out by it.
China’s joint maritime drills ‘Sea Guardian-3’ comes at a time when the PLA Navy has already strengthened its presence in the Persian Gulf region of the IOR in the wake of the unprecedented surprise attack launched by Hamas on Israel, which led to the latter declaring an all-out war against the Gaza Strip.
JUST IN: China has reportedly deployed multiple warships to the Middle East region after the United States deployed two carrier strike groups.
Up to 6 Chinese warships were reportedly deployed including two advanced 052D destroyers.
The news comes as the United States has… pic.twitter.com/gkFHjTyaQO
— Collin Rugg (@CollinRugg) October 22, 2023
Since the start of the conflict, China has positioned up to six vessels in the area. Its Type 052D guided-missile destroyer Zibo and the frigate Jingzhou are part of its 44th naval escort task group in Oman and Kuwait over the weekend. China has refuted any link between the Israel-Gaza conflict and the warships stationed in the Middle East.
As vital as expanding its presence in the IOR is for China, it is seen with skepticism and suspicion by India, which already remains marred in a long-standing border conflict with Beijing, with the country constantly pushing borders and encroaching on territories that have also been under Indian control.
China’s Expanding Presence In IOR Is Frightening
Military experts and scholars have long warned that China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean threatens India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and its sphere of influence in the region, owing to the possibility of Chinese naval installations and ships eavesdropping on Indian naval assets in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
Prakash Panneerselvan, assistant professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru, wrote earlier: “The Indian Ocean is an attractive area of operations for the PLA-N, which, unlike the Western Pacific where the US and Japanese navies heavily patrol, is relatively safe for PLA-N submarines to operate.” China’s naval base in Djibouti is believed to be discreetly facilitating those operations.
Experts believe that China may be charting underwater features and passages in the Indian Ocean for potential submarine operations in the future, given the increasing number of hydrographic and surveillance ships and underwater drones operating there. The pattern is believed to be suggestive in the absence of concrete proof of these claims.
This becomes dangerous against the backdrop of perennial tensions between the two countries. Currently, the closest Chinese naval base to India is Yulin Naval Base, which is close to Sanya in the Hainan province. If one were to take a straight-line route, this location would be 3,500 kilometers from India’s southernmost point.
So, suppose China is to use its naval might aggressively against India today. In that case, its warships must travel a long way to approach Indian territory unless it already has a naval base or bases close to India where its warships could berthed. This makes the collusion between China and Pakistan a risky precedent for India.
According to multiple accounts, it is working to establish a naval station similar to Djibouti at Gwadar in Pakistan. Washington-based US Institute of Peace report warned that China has increasing potential to project military might across the Indian Ocean from Pakistan’s western coast.
The report said with conviction that the political and material barriers to enhancing navy access to contingency basing during conflict seem to be diminishing and may eventually lead to a Chinese military base in Pakistan.
Equally problematic is the burgeoning naval force of Pakistan, which seeks to match, if not outmatch, the Indian Navy’s capability. To keep up with India, Pakistan is drastically updating its submarine fleet. Pakistan is not happy with the disparity in strength between it and India. In addition to China, Turkey assists Pakistan in developing a potent navy.
According to a parliamentary committee submission made by Chief of Defence Staff and Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs, Gen. Anil Chauhan, in April, the Chinese Navy has expanded to become the greatest in the world in fleet strength with about 355 ships. The committee evaluated the potential threat of collusion posed by China and Pakistan and China’s involvement in the growth of Pakistan’s Navy.
A navy representative said in the submission to the committee that as their numbers have increased, so have their operations. Five to nine of their ships are always in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), and they also have research vessels there that may impact Indian security.
Further, the representative stated there is also a possibility of collusion between China and Pakistan against India concerning the swelling number of vessels in the Pakistani Navy. The Pakistani Navy is anticipated to grow by 50% between now and 2030, with China being the primary contributor to this growth. Therefore, the representative continued, the Indian Navy must increase its capability.
Along with the capability, the interoperability between the two partners, who together pose a more significant threat to India, is just as big a concern for the Indian Navy, significantly as China is expanding its presence in the IOR, which started under the garb of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. This makes the Sea Guardian-3 drills more intriguing for India.
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