A cat-and-mouse game is being played out in the seas around India. Four Chinese ‘survey’ ships are cruising in international waters off India’s east and west coasts ahead of two planned missile tests. The latest arrival is the vessel known as ”the floating laboratory”: the Da Yang Hao, one of the Chinese fleet’s newest, most sophisticated ships. Another boat, the Yuan Wang 03, entered the Indian Ocean a few days ago. It’s no secret why it’s there: Chinese state media calls it a missile-tracking vessel.

These ships’ arrival sends a crystal-clear signal of how the Indian Ocean, which is a vital trade and strategic waterway for India and China, is fast becoming the scene of a high-seas power-play. For now, the India-China naval rivalry is playing out at a lower-key level with the Chinese keeping a careful eye on India’s military moves. India tested its Agni-5 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) March 11. A second test slated for a few days later was delayed, possibly due to the Chinese ship Xiang Yang Hong 01 which has been cruising around the Bay of Bengal for several weeks.

Now, two new tests are about to take place. The first, on March 29-30, is around the Andaman Islands and stretches for about 400 km. The second, possibly of another ICBM, has been set for April 3-4 and covers a 1,600-km area from Abdul Kalam Island.

Meanwhile, a fourth Chinese ‘survey’ ship, the Xiang Yang Hong 3, has been conducting research in the Arabian Sea. The big worry for India is that although the survey fleet is ostensibly conducting oceanographic research — studying temperatures, currents and the like — China could also be gathering data to gain a military edge in the Indian Ocean.

To India’s annoyance, the Xiang Yang Hong 3 docked twice in the Maldives capital, Male. Sri Lanka, following Indian pressure, announced January 1 it wouldn’t allow Chinese research ships to dock even to replenish supplies but it has backed away from this tough stand and will allow restocking. Sri Lanka’s back-pedalling came after Beijing blasted it for allowing a German survey ship to dock. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena is now on a six-day visit to China where he’ll meet the top leadership. A key factor influencing Sri Lanka’s policy decisions is China holds 43 per cent of the country’s debt.

One report indicates India may position its own research ship between two of the Chinese vessels but that would only have a nuisance value. India’s capacity to play spoilsport is limited as it has only four research ships compared to China’s 64.

All these events are happening when the Indian Navy is facing intense pressure from different directions. Around 12 ships are patrolling the Red Sea and surrounding waters amid Houthi rebel attacks.

Defence budget

The Indian Navy, whose defence budgetary allocation has always been the lowest, is now on an expansion drive and aims to have at least 175 vessels by 2035, up from 150. But its fleet will still be dwarfed by China whose naval battle force includes hundreds of subs, mine warfare ships, aircraft carriers and other boats.

While India holds the upper hand in the Indian Ocean, the waters are crucial to China as a mercantile nation. Its oil and other goods must perforce sail through the Indian Ocean. India may have a much smaller navy but it’s well-placed to cut off traffic coming via the Malacca Straits. “We still dominate the sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, definitely, although the Chinese are trying their best to create bases,” says one senior defence expert.

To counter the Indian Navy, China has built a base in Djibouti and could possibly build a more limited one in Gwadar Pakistan and even Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

Apart from the Chinese, India also has to keep a watchful eye out for Pakistan which is believed to have received new ships from China and may even have a submarine on the way.

Building ships is an expensive proposition. India’s navy gets just 12-18 per cent of the defence budget. To be adequately resourced, it would require at least 25 per cent, experts say. It’s tough to see that happening. The navy will almost certainly have to manage with much less weaponry than it would like. “Once the Chinese have tackled or settled the Taiwan issue, their attention is likely to shift to the Indian Ocean,” says the defence expert. It will need all the navy’s ingenuity to counter the Chinese in the years to come.