By Shah Meer 17 September 2023
As the Asia-Pacific is turning to be a geopolitical and strategic spotlight, India’s naval modernization is becoming a renewed and recognized reality. New Delhi’s effective engagement with extra-regional actors for developing a blue-water force and yearly spending on national navy has been remarkably growing, making India to break its traditionally exclusive continental military posture. Under Horizon 2047, which marks the 25th anniversary of India-France Strategic Partnership, and aims to set the future course of bilateral relations between the two countries, India will receive 24 submarines including 18 diesel-electric and six nuclear-powered Submersible Ship Nuclear SSNs – the type which Australia received through AUKUS. The strategic partnership between New Delhi and France has primarily two-fold implications: first, the stipulation may enhance strategic deterrence in Asia-Pacific, especially between India and China and make way for stability and cooperation; second, it penetrates the regional security dynamics while allowing security dilemma and strategic chain reactions in Asia-Pacific on the one hand, and eroding the strategic stability in South Asia, on the other. The following article deals with the later implications.
The French-oriented SSN submarines are unlike Submersible Ship Ballistic Nuclear SSBN submarines, which are capable of effectively making strategic strikes. Notwithstanding, the SSNs offer the advantage of very distanced intervals of operations before refueling, increasing India’s access in Asia-Pacific. As a result, it can incentivize Chinese patrolling in the region, and forcing Beijing to disturb New Delhi on continental border to avert its attention from maritime assertions.
In addition, assertive Chinese engagement with India in the backdrop of Indian SSNs deployment may infuriate the US allies in the region at a time when they are already acquiring greater deterrence capabilities and seeking strategic autonomy. Besides, these developments will happen as a blessing for North Korea: allowing Pyongyang to have more strategic space to not only acquire relative strength across strategic domains, but also test and operate with even more boldness.
Ironically, though the US has declared India as ‘net security provider’ and seemingly benefits from the growing Indian relative strengths given its structural competition with China, will also bear the brunt of the Indian naval modernization in general and its SSNs development in particular. The US is a maritime power as compared to China which is a continental power. Thus, the American hegemony is largely based on its naval primacy. The US aims to engage Beijing and other peer-competitors in continental rivalries so as to prevent their attention from effectively engaging in maritime investment. New Delhi’s SSNs will incentivize Beijing to directly pay greater attention to its navy for two reasons: a) to secure its long supply lines stretching from Persian Gulf to Far East, b) and to maintain a strategic balance with India and other US allies. Consequently, India will make a non-negligible incentive for China to compete American naval hegemony.
In South Asia too, the India-France Strategic Partnership has implications for regional security dynamics. In numerical terms, Pakistan has total eight submarines and none among them is either SSN or SSBN, but are solely diesel-electric and Mini Submarines SSMs. India has a fleet of sixteen submarines including one commissioned SSBN called Arihant, and aims to commission one more by 2024. As per the Horizon 2047, if India adds 24 more submarines involving six SSNs, the already elusive strategic stability in South Asia will be further deteriorated.
In sum, India’s geopolitical concerns and naval modernization do not lie in a vacuum, but is connected with the broader regional security. The India-France strategic cooperation, more importantly, is being developed on Ad hoc basis without giving due attention to the regional security structure. These Ad hoc and bilateral arrangements need to be readdressed through regional restraint measures, else these can proliferate to a level of no return.