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The Arrival of China in Bay of Bengal - Asian Power Conundrum on Seas

An Indian Navy officer once said “If only we actually consider understanding India’s security parameter by titling the map 180° vertically, we will be able to understand how critical it is to secure the Indian Ocean for keeping India in a consolidated position”. Despite being a nation flanked by two big seas and being the gateway to an ocean at south, India is yet to fully tap into the humongous power offered by the Indian Ocean Region which on other hand was realized very early by world powers like the United States of America or its adversaries People’s Republic of China.

An illustration of the arrival of China in Bay of Bengal

Illustration by The Geostrata

Given that, most of the wars being land based and air specific, previous governments have emphasized on their related forces and gave water a neglected hand which is equally important leading to the present time crisis situation, where India is having minimal control and geographical dominance on Indian Ocean Region (IOR) than its prominent adversary China. Let the threat be in the form of an underwater submarine or surface driven survey ship, it is same to India, but under different perspectives on unpredictable timelines.

On March 11 of 2024, the eastern seaboard of India once again found itself in the range of a Chinese survey ship Xiang Yang Hong 01, creating furore in international media. 

The ship known to be of research/survey specific has been reported by many third party marine vessel tracking websites to be close outside of India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The ship and its technical specifications or the objective of marine related experiments are less important when compared to the fact that it is traversing all the way alongside the eastern coast, is making India feel insecure as it is close enough to city of Visakhapatnam, which plays key role in India’s national security apparatus.

It's even more concerning because the arrival of this vessel coincided with the day when India tested Agni 5 missile, a nuclear warhead, built with MIRV (Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicle) technology.

The New Delhi’s predicament is understandable, as the survey ship of same class, Xiang Yang Hong 03 was in the news few years ago for switching off its Automated Information System (AIS), meaning they have turned their radar off, for the objectives that might not be truly civilian specific, eventually getting caught off Indonesian waters.

Reason given was ‘damaged equipment' but the real motive was speculated to be the usage of the Unmanned Underwater Vehicle named Sea Wing which was also in news, a few months before the “running dark” incident.

The drone was developed by China's Academy of Sciences Institution of Oceanology. Of all the other oceanographic research measures carried out by these drones, few of them can be used for military research as well, such as temperature of seawater, current changes, turbidity, O2 content along with atmospheric pressure, which changes drastically from place to place across the planet.

A strategic turmoil has begun for India. May be a less familiar name but Visakhapatnam carries a considerable weight of critical capacity of India’s national security interests.

With Eastern Naval Command (ENC) recently accredited as homeport to India’s new aircraft carrier IAC Vikrant R11, this city packs more naval firepower protecting the eastern seaboard. What turns the heads in true sense is the stealth base named INS Varsha which docks nuclear submarines of the Indian Navy underwater, is just a few kilometers away from the city.

On the same coast line, lies another place of strategic importance named Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam island, which tests missile arsenal of India including tactical ones. With such critical highly confidential sites and future plans to upgrade entire military infrastructure in a massive way, the waters of Bay of Bengal have become a more important area of interest for China’s hydrographic studies unsurprisingly. 

Given the possible event of a water based conflict between the two Asian powerhouses, one can assume the reason behind vessels of Xiang Yang Hong class foraying into Bay of Bengal waters which connects India’s biggest Naval Command at Visakhapatnam and its only tri services command at Andaman & Nicobar islands could be aimed at understanding this water body extensively for operational readiness.

These very waters boast of sinking PNS Ghazi famously known as Steel Shark of Asia during 1971 conflict between India and Pakistan.

Possibly, this can also be the reason behind increased traffic of China’s oceanographic research vessels marking their lines on Bay of Bengal waters that could provide a gold mine of data for PLAN’s submarine warfare which will be very useful in acquiring the data of how much depth a submarine can dive and up to what extent its hull won't be affected as per the temperature and hydrological conditions of Bay of Bengal. The same applies for sea mining warfare which is a very concerning point for India.

Along with the aforementioned passive incidents, China is actively securing critical assets from neighbors like Cox Bazaar port and Kyaukpyu Port with infrastructure and security pact deals with Bangladesh and Myanmar respectively keeping India in the sonar radars and possibility of spotting it’s submarines in the periscopes of PLAN submarines very soon.

All this makes it clear that China wants to bring the power game not just on the streets like the vast and open Indian Ocean but right on the doorstep of India like the Bay of Bengal, posing a significant challenge to the latter's decades of secured fortification on the east coast.

The question that demands a critical answer in the form of action is how India is going to reply to this misadventure of China under the name of civilian research. What used to be regular skirmishes between China and nations bordering South China Sea through EEZ violations, is now seeing a ramp up of the same vessels leaving their oil marks not just in the Indian Ocean Region but also in the Bay of Bengal, precariously close to several Indian military and security establishments.

These research vessels of China have become present day scouts checking vital elements like frequent visits and observing how serious the concerned nation is, which eventually leads to tomorrow’s submarines to dock in the waters they want to exert dominance and create tension.

The South China Sea, Indian Ocean have seen it and Bay of Bengal is on the cusp of becoming a contention of dominance. 

The reply in mere statements despite nursing a stricter tone wont prove a point, when nation’s vital place of second strike capability, tactical missile testing site and tri-services command base are having frequent visits by an adversary who is well known in the books of sea laws as a “Marine Migraine” for the practices of unethical fishing, unconventional usage of survey ships and rising the tension with peace prioritizing nations with sorties of nuclear powered submarines. 

A concrete action under element of surprise such as fielding of recently commissioned oceanographic vessel INS Sandhayak on the coast of nations that face South China Sea through a security pact would send a force posturing message across the subcontinent.

It will also display India as an immediate beacon of hope and help for nations having this unique nuisance, during the hour of need, compared to other geopolitical formations like QUAD.

By puppeting Maldives to break out with India and mocking the in-effective vessel docking moratorium of Sri Lanka in South, completely taking over critical airfields and ports from destabilized Pakistan in West,  acquiring ports of Bangladesh & Myanmar in East and infiltrating vulnerable Nepal and Bhutan in North, China has strategically created “Ring of Turncoats” around India. The infamous South Asian camaraderie once again proved to be a fragile and disloyal entity, despite India’s benevolent nature of assisting them financially and militarily and respecting their sovereignty. The nation's best security driven government in decades, needs to devise a rapid strategy that would make this subcontinent nation ready to counter the Chinese checkmate move for centuries.




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Chinese Presence in the Bay of Bengal is a major threat to India.

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