PLA(N) Submarines in the Indian Ocean: Cat Among the Pigeons?

No other country in Sri Lanka’s post-war history has wielded the influence, had the reach or commanded the servility that China today does...New Delhi has always been wary of China’s geostrategic interests in South Asia

“Our nuclear submarine fleet is a trump card that makes our motherland proud and our adversaries terrified. It is a strategic force symbolising great power status and supporting national security.”
—Admiral Wu Shengli, PLA Navy Chief

Issue: 6 / 2014By Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd), Former Chief of the Naval Staff, Indian Navy
By Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)
Former Chief of the Naval Staff, Indian Navy


It is clear that India’s new Prime Minister does not allow any grass to grow under his feet. Within weeks of assuming office he had met his counterparts in neighbouring as well as world capitals of significance to India. His latest voyage took him eastwards; first to Myanmar for the ASEAN-India and East Asia Summits; then to Australia for the G-20 Summit and finally to distant Fiji.

This observation is not meant to focus on the Prime Minister’s peripatetic inclinations but to express a fervent hope that, at long last, India’s foreign policy may acquire a badly needed grand-strategic underpinning. China’s hegemonic posturing, on our northern borders as well as in the Western Pacific is in conformity with the Realist proposition that states are inherently aggressive and that territorial expansion is only constrained by opposing power.

In the face of China’s undisguised jingoism, all that India has had to offer, so far, is the vapid nostrum of ‘strategic restraint’. However, as the ‘dragon’ now enters the Indian Ocean, our national security interests demand the urgent formulation of a cogent national security doctrine and strategy.

It is against this backdrop that we need to examine the implications of two successive port calls by Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy [PLA(N)] submarines in neighbouring Sri Lanka, that generated excitement in the media and speculation in strategic circles.

Cat among the Pigeons

According to media reports, on September 7, 2014, a Type 039 Song class diesel submarine and a support tender docked in Colombo Port’s South Terminal. It is noteworthy that this terminal was built and has been operated by a Chinese company for the past 35 years. A Chinese Defense Ministry communiqué said that the submarine was en-route Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy duty and described the submarine’s replenishment at a foreign port as common practice.

These statements could have been accepted at face value, but for two facts. Firstly, it stretches credulity that a diesel submarine could contribute meaningfully to an anti-piracy mission. More significantly, the Chinese sub docked on the day that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Colombo—a move clearly orchestrated by Beijing.

A few weeks later, on October 31, the PLA(N) submarine Changzheng-2 and the warship Chang Xing Dao arrived at Colombo on a five-day visit. This time it was a Type 091 nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) of the Han class. Could it be happenstance that the call almost coincided with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit to India?

For quite some time now, there has been speculation about the impending entry of PLA(N) into waters of the Indian Ocean. In April 2013 Indian media was rife with reports that ‘unknown submarine contacts’ had been detected 22 times by Indian Navy and US Navy units in the Indian Ocean. The wide geographical scatter of these contacts was quite remarkable; detections were made on six occasions north-west of Malacca Strait (in the vicinity of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), 13 times off Dondra Head (southern tip of Sri Lanka) and twice in the Arabian Sea.

According to other reports, in December 2013, the China’s Defense Ministry had summoned foreign military attachés to announce that one of their nuclearpowered submarines would soon transit through the Strait of Malacca. While this may or may not have come to pass, coming events did cast enough shadows for New Delhi to take note.

A Jolt for India

Some in India have interpreted the hosting of PLA(N) subs in Colombo as a violation of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lankan Accord which calls upon the two countries not to allow their respective territories to be used for "activities prejudicial to each other’s unity, integrity and security", with specific mention of Trincomalee and other ports. Apparently, Sri Lankan Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was told that the docking of a Chinese naval submarine at the Colombo Port in September was of “serious concern to India’s national security”.

The Sri Lankan Government has been dismissive of India’s concerns, declaring that the Chinese ship visits were “usual practice.” A Sri Lankan Navy spokesman breezily rattled off statistics of foreign ships that had visited Colombo in the recent past. However, other Sri Lankans had different views. Colombo’s Sunday Times said, editorially, on November 6, 2014: “No other country in Sri Lanka’s post-war history has wielded the influence, had the reach or commanded the servility that China today does...New Delhi has always been wary of China’s geostrategic interests in South Asia. But nothing has raised its hackles more in recent times than China’s aggressive expansion into Sri Lanka and Colombo’s unquestioning acceptance of it.”

In an effort to pour oil on troubled waters, the Sri Lankan Naval Chief, Vice Admiral Jayantha Perera, on a visit to New Delhi, ruled out any Chinese military presence in Sri Lanka and declared, “India’s security is our security.”

South Asian Realpolitik

Dispassionate examination will show that the appearance of PLA(N) subs in neighbouring Sri Lanka warranted neither surprise, nor indignation on the part of New Delhi. With all the resources at the disposal of RAW, MEA and Naval HQ, one would have expected them to be sufficiently forewarned and even attempt preemption. Sri Lanka’s victory over the LTTE was made possible by military support from a number of countries including US, India, Israel and China, which supplied weapons, platforms, training, intelligence and advice to the Sri Lankan armed forces. China’s military support, however, goes back to the early 1980s and stands out for its scale, constancy and reliability.

To take just one example, in order to respond rapidly to Sri Lankan requests for arms, China’s North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) established a bonded warehouse in the port city of Galle in 1994. The warehouse stocked military equipment and ordnance, which were made available on demand by Sri Lankan forces. Items not available were rapidly sourced from China. At Beijing’s urging, Pakistan also met Colombo’s requirements of pilot training as well as assistance in planning of combat missions against the LTTE strongholds. All this was crucial in tilting the balance against LTTE.

In comparison, India’s military aid to Sri Lanka was slow, grudging and intermittent. South Block remained hostage, not only to blackmail by Chennai but also to its own lethargic decision-making, timidity and myopic vision. A saving grace was the strong sense of camaraderie, at the senior levels, of the Indian and Sri Lankan navies, created by the traditional (and ongoing) training linkage between the two. This bond was further cemented by the help rendered by Indian Navy during the 2004 tsunami.

Thus, China has not only backed Sri Lanka with military assistance at a crucial juncture in its history, but also provided a large quantum of economic aid, making badly needed investment in development of the country’s infrastructure. China is today the biggest lender to Sri Lanka Government, with loans to the tune of $5 billion for ambitious infrastructure projects including roads, railways, international airports and power projects. India, on the other hand, has been unable as well as unwilling to extend help on this scale.

Under these circumstances we need to pose some questions to ourselves apropos the visit of PLA(N) subs to Colombo: (a) Beholden as Sri Lanka is to China was it in a position to refuse China’s request? (b) Does India have the leverage to invoke its version of the Monroe Doctrine vis-à-vis Sri Lanka? and (c) What is India’s strategy to reverse or change this situation?

Notwithstanding the above, India as a rising power is fully justified in feeling deeply concerned about the possibility of Sri Lanka, deliberately or inadvertently, becoming China’s strategic ally and/or pawn, in total disregard of India’s strategic interests. Sri Lankan leaders could not be unaware of the ‘Great Game’ in progress whereby China seeks to not only gain strategic superiority vis-à-vis India across the Himalayas, but also to establish maritime dominance in the Indian Ocean. Under these circumstances, it would be extremely short-sighted of Sri Lanka to try and play India against China beyond reasonable limits. Hopefully, early realisation will dawn in Colombo that security as well as economic interests of both India and Sri Lanka are inextricably interwoven and any deliberate actions that harm Indian interests will eventually rebound on it. Under these circumstances, a strict policy of non-alignment on the part of Sri Lanka would be the best for itself and the region.


This episode was a test of Indian statesmanship and diplomacy, and the jury is still out on their performance. However, as the strategic competition between India and China gathers pace, such situations are likely to recur frequently. At the strategic level, there is need to acknowledge the critical importance of regional maritime cooperation. For far too long has the dissonance between MEA, MoD and Naval HQ thwarted the navy’s endeavours to create strong bonds with maritime neighbours. Instead of whining and complaining about China’s ‘String of Pearls’ and now, the ‘Maritime Silk Route’, we need to craft a creative and dynamic strategy to counter both. Our proximity and ability to render timely assistance can win us many friends and allies in the maritime neighbourhood.

Submarines—diesel and nuclear—are likely to be encountered with increasing frequency in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). The national security establishment must appreciate that a nuclear attack sub is a ‘game-changer’ in the maritime context, and the only means of countering PLA(N) incursions into the IOR. There is an urgent need to dedicate resources to the creation of a small force of 3-4 SSNs to exercise ‘sea denial’, pose a threat to adversary shipping, counter a possible PLA(N) threat and, above all, to protect our own nascent SSBN force.

At the tactical level, the need to detect and track PLA(N) subs in proximate waters requires the Indian Navy to make up for huge shortfalls in its anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. ASW helicopters are in extreme short supply and cases for acquisition of towed array sonars have been languishing for years in MoD. ASW skill levels, too, need to be enhanced by learning the advanced detection techniques developed by US and Japanese navies over many years of playing cat-and-mouse with Soviet SSBNs and SSNs.