It’s Still the Indian Ocean: Parsing Sino-Indian Naval Competition Where It Counts

Indian Ocean 2

Editor’s Note: This is part of a short series examining maritime geography and strategic challenges in specific bodies of water, ranging from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Guinea and the South China Sea.

The growth of the Chinese navy over the past decade has been phenomenal. For a navy that as recently as 2002 had to have German technicians flown in to fix the diesel engine of the crippled destroyer Qingdao, which was then on a world tour, the progress has been astounding. According the Department of Defense, the Chinese navy is now the world’s largest at 370 ships and submarines. This number is projected to grow to 435 by 2030. By comparison, growth in the Indian navy has been significantly less spectacular. From 20142024 the total number of Indian major surface combatants has slightly increased from 25 to 29. Considering that China and India are engaged in a rivalry that has led to fatalities as recently as 2020, and that the rivalry is now expanding to the maritime domain, India’s slow progress should be a strategic liability.

Discussions in New Delhi on geostrategic issues are heavily dominated by China and over the last few years there has been a great deal of attention paid to the maritime dimension of the rivalry. In addition, there is growing concern among India watchers about the overall increasing power disparity between China and India and what that may mean for India’s ability to resist Chinese aggression in the years to come.

However, we argue the growing power disparity between India and China should be viewed within the context of a set of broader transregional factors that place different levels of burdens on China and India. While China has substantially improved its state capacity, it also faces greater transregional security challenges and commitments, which act as offsets. More specifically, we argue that the evolving maritime rivalry is real. However, for several reasons, including geography and the balance of other pressing security threats, China’s massive advantage on paper fails to manifest itself on the high seas of the Indian Ocean.

There are two factors that need to be accounted for when assessing India’s ability to resist Chinese aggression. One is how India and China define their strategic goals and what they see as necessary to ensure their security. For instance, if India does not perceive its security to include locations that are beyond the Indian Ocean region and has stable borders with its neighbors, then that changes its calculations regarding its military necessities. The second factor pertains to the number of other security threats the two countries have. China and India both have multiple security threats that force limited resources to be divided and allocated to meet these challenges. This means that while China has clear advantages in certain areas, these are offset by its substantial geographic disadvantage vis-à-vis India.



Goal-Oriented Naval Capacity: India and China

Any discussion of India’s naval capabilities within the context of the Sino-Indian rivalry has to focus on the Indian Ocean. India views this as its sphere of influence and seeks to have a dominant role there. This led Beijing to issue a statement saying that “the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean.” Yang Zhen of the Northeast Asia Research Center of Shanghai University of Political Science and Law has even argued that India seeks to keep outside powers out of the Indian Ocean by constructing three different layers of “fences” spaced at different intervals around the ocean.

In 2015, the Indian navy released a white paper that articulated the importance of the Indian Ocean for Indian security. It seeks to establish a substantial amount of control and influence there in the face of a perceived increase in Chinese activity and seeks to monitor and control terrorist and non-state actors as well. Indeed, India’s recent anti-piracy missions have demonstrated its ability and willingness to police the international waters in the Indian Ocean.

Over the years, India has been concerned about a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean and, more specifically, in its immediate neighborhood. Indian authorities have repeatedly expressed concern over the presence of Chinese naval vessels off the coast of Sri Lanka and the procurement of Chinese naval platforms and submarines by Bangladesh. In this regard, India’s goals are strategically and geographically well defined. India sees control over the Indian Ocean, along with the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, as central to its security and economic interests. There is no articulation of Indian interests that involves establishing a significant naval presence either in the South China Sea or the Pacific Ocean.

In other words, India has the ability to use its current and developing naval capabilities to bolster its security in its own backyard as it does not have security commitments in other areas of the greater Asian region. Much of India’s energy imports pass through the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. These fall within India’s backyard and do not cause the supply lines of the Indian navy to be stretched too thin — owing both to its own capabilities as the resident naval power and its growing partnerships with the littoral nations. Moreover, in the Indian Ocean, India can follow a strategy of denial where it does not allow China to freely roam, but rather creates sufficient challenges to the Chinese, making Chinese inroads into the region that much harder.

The Indian navy has been adding to its capabilities to bolster its power projection by inducting new platforms. In addition to the two aircraft carriers that are currently in operation, the Indian navy seems to be planning to induct two more. Some remain skeptical about how effective Indian aircraft carriers are likely to be against China. But Indian capabilities are likely to be sufficient for a denial strategy against China and will be more than sufficient against transnational pirates and the Pakistani navy. Additionally, the acquisition of Rafale fighters for the navy will bolster its power projection in the years to come. What is more, Chief of the Naval Staff Adm. R. Hari Kumar declared that the Indian navy aspires to be operating between 170 and 175 ships by 2035. Despite concerns about delays and India’s ability keep pace with the Chinese, India’s presence in the Indian Ocean will grow in magnitude in the years to come, providing it with sufficient leverage against the Chinese there.

There is no doubt that, overall, China is far ahead of India when it comes to naval hardware. In fact, on the surface there appears to be no contest in terms of what China can bring to a fight. But what this comparison does not capture, is the fact that the vast majority of China’s fleet is not designed for an Indian Ocean contingency but is reserved for a war in the western Pacific, close to its home ports. This situation has led some to call China the “great power lite” with a relatively small global military posture and military that acts as a break on future overseas military endeavors. Furthermore, the Chinese navy’s assets are dispersed over three naval commands: the Northern, Eastern, and Southern. Considering its proximity to the Indian Ocean, the Southern Theater Command would be the most likely to deal with India. However, in terms of critical naval assets such as destroyers and frigates, this command is allocated less than one-third of the Chinese navy’s overall vessels.

The Capacity to Compete

Concerns in India about Chinese naval incursions into the Indian Ocean are not new, but they may not be entirely justified either. For all the limitations of Indian policy to date, China faces even greater challenges in the region.

Indian fears about a “string of pearls” strategy, where China surrounds India with military bases in the region, have been around since the early 2000s. Such concerns have led India to actively take part in what is termed “Mission Based Deployments.” These are designed to shadow and monitor Chinese warships as they enter the Indian Ocean. In in-depth interviews in 2023 with Indian security experts in New Delhi, experts told one of the authors that these activities were initiated in 2017 and continue to the present. However, multiple experts admitted that the Indian navy suffers from a shortage of naval hardware and that these deployments are placing a significant physical strain on the hulls of Indian warships. A prominent Indian security scholar stated that New Delhi may not have the money to continues them. Further complicating the strategic landscape for India is the fact that, during interviews over the past year, multiple Indian policy experts argued that India has yet to devise a comprehensive China strategy. A retired Indian ambassador even stated that in New Delhi there is “no regional approach to South Asia, we deal with issues as they come up, ad hoc, defensive, short-term attributes to our security approach.”

Although Indian security experts and officials talk of 6 to 8 Chinese warships present in the region at any given time, these are mostly related to anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia. In fact, we believe that, given the extent to which the Indian Ocean is critical to China’s economic vitality, China’s naval presence there should not be so shocking. An estimated 80 percent of Chinese energy imports transit the ocean and 95 percent of trade between China and Africa, Europe, and the Middle East passes through the ocean. In fact, Chinese security experts have admitted that China free-rides off the United States in the region.

Although Chinese security scholars have spoken about a future Chinese Indian Ocean fleet, one has not yet emerged. And any Chinese armada in the region would have to deal with the tyranny of geography, which provides India with a home field advantage. China is actively working on overcoming its significant challenges with air cover on the high seas, including outfitting its latest aircraft carrier with an electromagnetic catapult launch and arresting devices. However, these emerging carrier battle groups are not yet ready for engagements with capable adversaries and are likely at least a decade away from being able to conduct effective combat missions. In addition, any Chinese flotilla in the Indian Ocean would be dependent on at sea replenishment as they lack naval bases in the region. The Chinese navy is hard at work building supply ships such as the Type 901, but these are not a substitute for safe and friendly ports of call. These challenges for China are a critical asset for India.

China’s Southern Theater Command is home to some of the navy’s most advanced warships, including four highly advanced Renhai cruisers, each equipped with 112 missiles, as well as 14 guided missile destroyers and 15 frigates. Many of these vessels have integrated data-link systems that if effectively utilized, multiply their combat capabilities. The challenge for the Chinese navy is that these are more for guarding China against the U.S. Navy than for projecting power into the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, in the event of hostilities between India and China, their entry into the northern Indian Ocean would be difficult due to both the Indian Tri-Service (assuming smoother inter-services cooperation) command at the southern tip of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and to the high probability of India using its smaller, but lethal, force of diesel-electric submarines to guard the choke points between the Indonesian archipelago and the Indian Ocean.

The geographical challenge to the Chinese navy acts as a significant and arguably the most important structural constraint on Beijing’s ability to wage high-intensity naval warfare in the Indian Ocean. Granted, India will have to improve its inter-service coordination to enable military operations to more effectively exploit this. But still, the challenge should not be underestimated. Apart from the threats associated with transiting through narrow straits to enter the Indian Ocean, Beijing lacks reliable air cover. While China has made progress in carrier-based aviation, they are still years away from achieving a level of competence where they could go head-to-head with India in India’s backyard.

The tyranny of geography would require the Chinese navy to either reload in a friendly port (extremely difficult in the event of war) or to replenish at sea. According to some estimates, while the Chinese navy is busy manufacturing replenishment ships, they currently only have two Type 901 vessels that are specifically designed to keep up with carriers. Furthermore, based on previous deployments, a single replenishment ship can only supply 2 to 3 combatants for 2 to 3 weeks, after which it will need support from either a friendly port or additional underway replenishment. While the Chinese navy does have 9 Type-093 replenishment ships, these are significantly slower and smaller than the Type-901, and with a top speed of 19 knots, the Type-093 cannot keep up with Chinese carriers. (The Type-901 can travel at 25 knots.)

Overall, from a capacity standpoint, New Delhi is not even in the same league as Beijing when it comes to naval modernization. However, the amount of firepower that the Chinese navy would bring to a fight with India would almost certainly be a fraction of its overall force structure. A fully equipped Chinese navy could easily overwhelm the Indian navy, but it would also leave the Chinese mainland wide open to attack from China’s primary rival, the United States.


Comparing Indian and Chinese military capabilities in isolation from the broader transregional context can lead to inaccurate assessments. China faces security challenges at a much larger scale than India. Moreover, India currently also benefits from strategic partnerships with countries such as the United States, Japan, and France that give it greater latitude in the Indian Ocean, which is its principal area of interest. Growing power disparity will certainly keep Indian strategic thinkers worried for some time to come, but they should not lose sight of the strategic advantages India currently enjoys. These reflect India’s fewer supply-chain vulnerabilities in its own backyard, the nature of other security threats the two countries face, and, most important, the enormous geographical advantage India has over China in the Indian Ocean. Any Chinese naval flotilla sent to engage the Indian navy would be without reliable air cover and, due to logistical constraints, would only be able to sustain combat operations for a few weeks.

These critical Indian advantages are extremely difficult for Beijing to overcome, especially when one considers that the Indian Ocean is not its primary area of strategic concern. While the United States is China’s principal rival, Pakistan, despite its nuclear arsenal, does not compete with India in the Indian Ocean. What is more, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the Asia-Pacific region more broadly are far more vital for Chinese national interests than the Indian Ocean at this time. While India is asserting its place as the resident power in the Indian Ocean, it is also coordinating its efforts with the U.S. Navy, which gives India additional leverage against China in the region. The Chinese navy is slowly working to overcome its strategic liabilities in the Indian Ocean, but for at least the next couple of decades, India will likely hold a critical advantage over China there.



Prashant Hosur Suhas is assistant professor of international relations at Clarkson University, Potsdam, NY.

Christopher K. Colley is assistant professor of international security studies at the U.S. Air War College. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.   

Image: Rumsey Map Collection