Blue-Water Navies in the IOR

What Indian and Chinese positions on their “blue-water” status says about strategy in the IOR.

‘Blue-Water’ Navies in the Indian Ocean Region

By Abhijit Singh

In India’s strategic institutes and think-tanks, maritime analysts are sometimes faced with an uncomfortable question. “Why is it,” inquisitive observers wonder, “that the Indian Navy calls itself a blue-water navy, whereas the PLA-N – despite its vastly superior capabilities – is still ‘planning on’ attaining blue-water status? The query is mostly prompted by reports appearing in the media highlighting Chinese plans to augment sea-going capacity and make good on its distant-seas ambition.

Indeed, the speed and scope of China’s maritime development in recent years has been impressive enough to convince maritime observers of its blue-water potential. Over the past decade, China has taken huge strides in modernizing its navy, which now boasts an aircraft carrier, amphibious ships, nuclear submarines, and lethal anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. Yet it is hesitant to openly acknowledge great power maritime status. This oddity, though compelling, is more a matter of strategic nuance than substantive capability. The PLA-N’s understated valuation of its maritime prowess is not an acknowledgment of “modest” strength, but the product of a uniquely geopolitical process where competing navies deliberately re-interpret established maritime notions for favourable gains. Each appreciates the real issue at hand, yet assumes a position that suits individual national interests.

While both China and India covet strong maritime power status, each defines their own maritime capabilities differently. Chinese leaders and defence experts portray the PLA-N as a resurgent force with developing capabilities. New Delhi’s strategic elite, on the other hand, project the Indian navy as a potent instrument capable of providing security in the wider Indian Ocean Region. Notwithstanding the palpable differential in power and capability between the Indian Navy (IN) and the PLA-N, their real “blue-water” status is a matter of geopolitical outlook, rather than hard facts.

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