Asia Times Online :: India strengthens eastern naval flank China's standoff with Philippines over the disputed Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea in May has brought the subject of Asian naval rivalry to the forefront again. Following this incident, Beijing announced the setting up of a new military district to assert greater administrative control over the Spratly and Paracel islands. This followed a recent move by Hanoi passing a domestic law declaring the two islands as an inseparable part of Vietnam. To intimidate its adversaries, Beijing has sought to infest the contested regions in the South China Sea with its surveillance vessels and fishing boats, even as Chinese diplomacy works overtime in scuttling all attempts at resolving territorial disputes multilaterally. Not surprisingly, when the foreign ministers of Association of Southeast Asian Nations members met in Phnom Penh in June, China made sure no joint communique was issued. Beijing's assertiveness makes Asia's eastern states jittery, as they perceive Chinese bluster as insidious maneuvering aimed at the appropriation of contested territory. The unease is not confined to Southeast Asia. Maritime experts in India and the West, perturbed by Beijing's truculent posturing in the South China Sea, now worry about Chinese forays into the Indian Ocean. As Chinese anti-piracy maritime contingents deployed off Somalia grow in size, there is concern in India that China may soon establish itself as an Indian Ocean power. India's fear of being surrounded by China in its own backyard is compounded by the assertive stance adopted by China's vocal and outspoken strategic community. A bulwark in the eastern Indian Ocean Notwithstanding its overwhelming military dominance, China's maritime interests in the Indian Ocean region are considerably influenced by its perception of the Indian Navy - the only regional maritime force believed to be capable enough to counter the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean. By all accounts, the trajectory of the Indian Navy's development has been sharp. After acquiring top-of-the-line ships and submarines in recent years - including its latest aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, the Indian Navy is set to spend 3,00,000 crores (over US$60 billion) in further augmenting its capabilities over the next two decades. These include airborne maritime surveillance assets, shore-based and carrier-based aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Not wanting to be confined to its near regions, the Indian Navy now recognizes the need to project power. It has armed the INS Chakra (an Akula class submarine from Russia) and Arihant, the indigenously produced nuclear powered submarine, with ballistic missiles. Recent developments suggest that the Indian Navy, which is constructing seven indigenous frigates at Mumbai and Kolkata, will also undertake the development of expeditionary warfare assets. The first of these will be three indigenously manufactured landing platform docks. Plans have also been drawn up for the acquisition of six new conventional submarines with air independent propulsion and cruise missile capability. Two fleet tankers have been acquired from Italy to give the Indian Navy the "long legs" that are critical for long-range operational deployments. Meanwhile, the Indian Navy's quest to emerge as a global and regional sea power will receive a major boost with New Delhi and Moscow in negotiations for the purchase of three additional frigates, reportedly of the superlative Krivak IV class. The new strategic focus For all the clear-eyed focus on capacity creation, however, the navy's strategic posture appears overly moderate. The Indian Navy's maritime strategy articulates prospective naval operations in benign - even "benevolent" - terms. The vision for the future is presented in a focused, yet "flexible" narrative - concrete enough to sound purposeful; diffused amply to preclude being labelled a "containment strategy". The Indian Navy's future efforts, the official document states, is aimed at "tackling the emerging threats in the Indian Ocean Region". While some believe China is the exogenous catalyst driving the Indian Navy's growth, others premise the naval build-up on the need to beef up all-round naval defenses - a natural ambition for any nation with expanding economic interests. The mellow tenor of its official maritime strategy notwithstanding, the "strategic" bent in the Indian Navy's current and future plans is too conspicuous to be missed. Increasingly, the navy has being seeking to build assets and fortify strategic defenses. The past six months have seen the Indian Navy commission a new nuclear submarine, a stealth frigate, an unmanned aerial vehicle squadron and a strategic base in the Lakshadweep islands on its Western Seaboard. While INS Dweeprakshak, the new base, has primarily been established for combating piracy, its use will probably not be limited to policing for pirate boats, but also extend to long-term strategic maritime activity. Building assets, ramping up capability Reportedly, India is also due to soon start the process of turning the Naval Air Station at Campbell Bay - a small outpost on the southern-most tip of the Andaman Nicobar Islands - into a full-fledged "forward operating base". Campbell Bay (commissioned this month and rechristened Naval Air Station Baaz) overlooks the Six Degree Channel, a vital shipping lane for global traffic, and is crucial in observing the Malacca Strait and the Bay of Bengal. As a part of the air station's upgrade, infrastructure and facilities will be improved substantially to enable operations by heavier aircraft, including refuelling, maintenance and repair. Significantly, the Indian Navy, in 2011, candidly acknowledged that it was in the process of setting up operational turnaround and forward operating bases along the Indian coast with a view to enhancing surveillance efforts in the region. The new "strategic outposts" will enable, not just better operational vigilance, but also greater maritime reach and presence. The freshly inducted Shivalik and Teg class ships are another manifestation of the navy's desire to acquire strategic assets. INS Sahyadri inducted last week, and INS Teg, inducted in May this year, are the two latest multi-purpose frigates to have joined the navy's arsenal in the past two years. Geared to undertake a broad spectrum of maritime missions, the new inductions are not just for "tactical war-fighting", but also enable "strategic posturing" and long-term maritime missions. Finessing the maritime posture The most noteworthy shift, however, seems to have come about in India's diplomatic and maritime posture that is increasingly acquiring a strategic "heft". In recent days, New Delhi has displayed a greater willingness to send its naval ships into the waters of the Western Pacific and engage with navies of Southeast Asian countries. In June, the Indian Navy dispatched a contingent of four warships to East Asia where they carried out exercises with the Japanese Navy. En-route to the north-eastern Pacific, the ships made port calls in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines - a clear exhibition of India's intent to remain robustly engaged with Southeast Asia. To ensure the exercises did not provoke Chinese suspicions, the four Indian ships also made a stop-over at Shanghai during the return leg of the tour. The bonhomie on display during the five-day visit served to highlight a less-touted aspect of India's maritime outreach: a form of inclusive partnership that does not enhance engagement with some partners to the exclusion of others. And yet, India is keen to send the message home that it has strategic interests in the Western Pacific and is willing to do all that it takes to secure assets and safeguard access into the region. With its influence in the Indian Ocean Region growing, the Indian Navy now aspires for true "blue-water" status. Urged on by its Western counterparts (in particular its closest exercise partner, the US Navy) the Indian Navy is increasingly demonstrating willingness to shoulder responsibility in undertaking communal security tasks and long-term maritime missions. It is also emphasizing on local capacity building. As encouraging as the progress has been so far, its indigenous production programs suffer from practical impediments. While local shipyards have made considerable progress in building hulls and associated equipment, they still suffer from capacity woes in the weapons and sensors department. Manufacture of propulsion machinery and engine generators is another area of concern. The navy knows it will need to do more to give effect to its long-term plans India's naval planners are aware that, ultimately, acquiring dominant maritime power status entails technological self-sufficiency and a readiness to accept a leadership role in providing the public good of maritime security. This would only be possible if the Indian Navy works proactively with like-minded partners to establish a new peace-keeping architecture in the Indo-Pacific - one that is fair, open, inclusive and sustainable.