China's nuclear powered aircraft carrier programme rings alarm bells in India
So is China flexing its muscles in India's strategic space and what should India's response be?
A clumsily worded sentence on the website of China's Shipbuilding Industry Corporation sparked off a firestorm on the internet that the Chinese military's biggest shipyard was going to build a nuclear powered aircraft carrier with reactors probably based on its existing submarine reactors. Within days, the words were off the website, but it tied in with Indian naval assessments that China was planning a permanent and sustainable strategic thrust into the Indian Ocean 2,500 miles away from its coast and through which bulk of its energy supplies pass.
Preparations had been obvious since 2008 when a submarine base began operations on Hainan Island on the South China Sea, close to the Malacca Straits. In recent months, speculation about China pressing the Maldives to allow a submarine base has intensified. Then there is the Chinese airfield project in Hambantota in Sri Lanka and recently Pakistan's Gwadar Port was dredged to a depth of 14 metre to allow large vessels to dock.
Retired Rear Admiral Raja Menon said, "These are potential places, but whether they become bases, that's a big leap, because that means accepting Indian hostility to giving a base to China. From that point of view the best bet would be Gwadar because they already face anti-Indian opinion."
Dr Sreekanth Kondapalli, Chinese Navy analyst, said, "Being a regional local navy and power, India has huge territorial advantage by being closer to the IOR, yet India cannot claim ownership to the region because it is the third largest ocean with open navigation principles."
Naval strategists say India should build its own nuclear powered aircraft carrier and counter China in the east and south China seas. It should also form alliances with the Japanese and Korean navies with the aim being to tie down large elements of the Chinese navy.
That apart, a maritime dialogue between the two navies covering the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, would be a useful confidence building measure. But China is reluctant, while it does not see the Indian Ocean as India's Ocean, its recent actions have clearly demonstrated that the SCS is China's own.