How India Could Take Down China
If India and Japan work together, China's influence can be checked.
We open with a fictional scenario to illustrate a very real point.
The atmosphere in the Situation Room was tense. The last nine days had seen a sudden shift from peace to the brink of war between India and China, ever since an Indian frigate returning from a RIMPAC exercise had been hit by a stray missile when Chinese and Vietnamese ships had clashed in the South China Sea. The president looked at his secretary of defense.
“What’s the latest?” he asked.
“India’s fleet moved out to sea five days ago,” the secretary said. “Both carriers and a large part of their surface force as well. That said, we don’t quite know where they are, except they haven’t entered the Straits of Malacca. India has vowed to bring China to its knees, and Japan has deployed the Maritime Self-Defense Force to prevent what their foreign minister calls ‘any Chinese aggression in the Senkaku Islands.’”
“So,” said the president, “Japan’s taking India’s side.”
“So it appears,” said the SECDEF.“ But while Japan’s very openly deploying, India’s navy has been trying to give everyone the slip.”
“In other words, Japan’s distracting China so the Indians can do something. So, where is the Indian Navy?” the president asked.
Now, back to reality.
China’s efforts to grab the South China Sea have been discussed here before. Even though their moves have been declared illegal, the ChiComs have no intention of abiding by that ruling — heck, they took a page from Cersei Lannister’s book and refused to so much as show up for the arguments.
The South China Sea’s strategic importance is hard to overstate. Maritime traffic, notably supertankers full of crude oil that Japan and South Korea need to keep their economies (and militaries) running, has to pass through this hotly contested body of water. In short, if the ChiComs have the South China Sea, they have the potential to choke off Japan’s supply of oil from the Middle East. Cutting off Japan’s oil may well lead to desperate measures. It was the halt of American oil imports that led Japan to grab the Dutch East Indies in 1941 — a decision that led to its attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan has been quietly rebuilding its aircraft carrier fleet, and it now has three carriers with a fourth on the way. It’s not hard to imagine Japan, already an F-35 customer, deciding to add some of the V/STOL F-35Bs to their order. That is a threat that China has to respect. China has one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, and is planning to add more.
China has a lot of manpower, and it has manufacturing capability. The problem is that China also needs a lot of oil to run its economy and its military. While there are some deposits in the South China Sea, they too need oil from the Middle East. And while they don’t need the South China Sea, the supertankers bound for China, Japan and other environs also have to go through the Andaman Sea and the Straits of Malacca. That’s where India comes into play.
India’s Navy has the third-largest carrier force in the world, and is arguably the second most powerful naval aviation arm in the world. While the MiG-29K is not as capable as the J-15 (a Su-33 knockoff), it is still a capable plane. India is also purchasing Rafale multi-role fighters from France — and there is a carrier-capable version of the Rafale in French service.
India’s real trump card is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. From there, India could operate Su-30MKI Flankers or Rafales in conjunction with maritime patrol aircraft. In essence, supertankers bound to China could be detained and held until China became less … shall we say, disagreeable. If India can maintain control of the Andaman Sea, then China is the country in trouble. Japan could have its oil needs met from Alaska and the West Coast, particularly as the fracking revolution makes more and more oil recoverable.
In other words, while the South China Sea may be the flashpoint of a conflict with China, the Andaman Sea could be where any such conflict is decided.