Chinese submarines have now reportedly begun to make forays to even Karachi after making similar visits to Colombo over the last one year, sparking further concerns in the Indian security establishment.
This is yet another indicator of the fast transformation of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N), which operated close to its shores for long, into a “blue-water force with long legs” that is expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
In the latest incident, the PLA-N’s conventional Yuan-class 335 submarine entered the Karachi port on May 22 after crossing the Arabian Sea close to the Indian waters. After docking there for replenishment for about a week, it set sail again, much like the visits of Chinese submarines to Colombo since September last year, as was earlier reported by TOI.
While India had raised the matter with Sri Lanka, the Chinese government had said such replenishment stopovers on way to the Gulf of Aden for escort and anti-piracy operations were a “common practice” for navies around the world. While this is certainly true, many feel China is practising long-range deployments of its nuclear and conventional submarines on the pre-text of anti-piracy patrols.
Though India has been closely tracking this increased activity of Chinese warships and submarines in the IOR, it can do little since international waters or the “global commons” are open to all. “Four of our warships, after all, are also currently in the South China Sea on a long overseas deployment,” said an official. But this first-ever reported visit of a Chinese submarine to Pakistan does up the stakes in the IOR, where India and China are jostling for the same strategic space.
Navy chief Admiral Robin Dhowan had recently said his force was “minutely and continuously monitoring” the presence of Chinese warships in the region to ascertain “what challenges they could pose for us”.
Incidentally, though the Yuan-class submarines are diesel-electric, they are equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP) to greatly enhance their underwater endurance and stealth. Unlike nuclear-powered submarines that can stay underwater for months at end, diesel-electric submarines have to surface every few days to get oxygen to re-charge their batteries.
Islamabad recently inked a deal with Beijing for eight such conventional submarines, four of which will be built in Pakistan. As reported earlier by TOI, politico-bureaucratic apathy in India has, however, ensured that the Navy is currently grappling with just 13 ageing diesel-electric submarines, only half of them operational at any given time, and a single nuclear-powered submarine (without any nuclear-tipped missiles) on lease from Russia. China, in sharp contrast, has 51 conventional and five nuclear submarines. It is also going to soon induct another five advanced JIN-class nuclear submarines equipped with the new 7,400-km JL-2 missiles.(TOI)