Shifting Naval Balance of Power in the Indo-Pacific

By Madhav Menon

As the region continues to evolve, the balance of power between the regional navies will continue to be a critical factor that could shape the dynamics and relationships between the major powers in the Indo-Pacific region.

The balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region has been shifting in recent years as China continues to modernise and expand its naval capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has rapidly grown to become the largest navy in the world, with an estimated 350 ships and submarines, including advanced destroyers, frigates and aircraft carriers. The United States Navy, which has long been the dominant naval power in the region, has responded with a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific region and a shift towards unmanned naval systems. Japan and South Korea also have significant naval forces in the region, with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) and South Korea’s Navy both modernising and expanding their capabilities.

The balance of power between these navies is complex, and influenced by a range of factors including technology, geography and politics. China’s ability to rapidly build new ships and submarines, as well as its development of advanced anti-ship missiles and other weapons, has raised concerns among its neighbours and led to an increase in naval spending and cooperation. The United States, Japan, and South Korea have responded with joint military exercises, enhanced cooperation, and the deployment of advanced weapons systems. As the region continues to evolve, the balance of power between these navies will continue to be a key strategic consideration for policymakers and military leaders.

The QUAD counter
The introduction of the QUAD and the growing might of the Indian Navy have the potential to significantly impact the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. The QUAD, which consists of Australia, India, Japan and the US, is viewed by some as a counterbalance to China’s growing military influence in the region. The QUAD countries have been increasing their military cooperation, conducting joint exercises, and sharing intelligence to enhance their collective maritime security.

Meanwhile, India’s navy has become a significant player in the region. It has been modernising its fleet and expanding its capabilities, including the development of its own aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarines. India’s strategic location with a massive landmass jutting into the Indian Ocean also makes it a critical player in the maritime trade routes connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The QUAD’s and India’s increased presence in the region has been met with criticism from China, which sees it as an attempt to contain its rise as a global power. However, the QUAD and India maintain that their efforts are focused on maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, ensuring maritime security, and promoting economic growth in the region. It remains to be seen how their presence will shape the region’s future dynamics and relationships between major powers.

AUKUS Pact and its aftermath

Pic credit – Rishi Sunek Twitter

The AUKUS pact, which involves the US sharing nuclear submarine technology with Australia, and France offering the Barracuda-class nuclear submarine to India under Project-75 will have significant implications for the balance of power in the region. The deal will provide Australia and India with advanced nuclear submarine technology, allowing them to enhance their naval capabilities and deter potential adversaries, especially China. The AUKUS pact has been met with severe criticism from China, which has accused the US of fomenting a new Cold War and destabilising the region. It remains to be seen how the pact will impact China’s relations with Australia, the US, and other countries in the region in the long run. These developments could potentially alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific and prompt China to increase its military spending and develop more advanced weapons systems. Consequently, it would reduce the stress on the US Navy as its regional allies and partners deploy more ships to counter the PLAN.

US Navy’s shipbuilding programme: challenges
The US Navy’s shipbuilding programme has been plagued by several issues, leading to significant delays and cost overruns. One major problem is the lack of competition in the shipbuilding industry. Another issue is the US Navy’s tendency to add new requirements mid-construction, leading to significant design changes and delays. There is also the issue of maintaining a skilled workforce.

The US Navy is currently developing a family of UUVs called Snakehead, which includes both large and small vehicles that can operate in a variety of environments. These unmanned systems are expected to play an increasingly important role in the US Navy’s efforts to maintain its naval superiority in the Indo-Pacific region. The SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) network of underwater hydrophones that detect and track submarines has been a crucial tool for the US Navy in monitoring the movements of submarines around the world. In recent years, the US has been exploring the possibility of sharing the SOSUS technology with its allies, including India, which, in turn, could significantly enhance India’s underwater surveillance capabilities. This would also facilitate greater intelligence sharing between the two countries, particularly in the area of maritime security. At the same time, India is developing its own underwater surveillance system, which includes the installation of underwater sensors and the deployment of surveillance aircraft and ships. However, the country is still in the process of building a comprehensive network of underwater sensors that can cover the entire Indian Ocean region. The potential sharing of the SOSUS network with India highlights the growing strategic partnership between the two countries, as they seek to counter the growing influence of China in the region.

Problems faced by PLAN
The PLAN has been experiencing several problems in recent years, particularly a shortage of experienced officers. This issue has been caused by a combination of factors such as the rapid expansion of the PLAN, increasing complexity of modern naval operations, and the retirement of experienced officers. One of the most significant examples of this issue is the PLAN’s lack of combat experience. The last time the PLAN saw significant combat was during the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. Since then, the PLAN has not engaged in any significant conflict, leaving many of its officers with little to no actual combat experience.

In fact, the rapid expansion of the PLAN has outpaced the ability of the Chinese military to train and develop its officers. The PLAN has been investing heavily in new ships, submarines and other naval technologies in recent years, but the training and development of qualified officers have not kept pace. The PLAN is also facing a significant retention problem, with many officers leaving the navy for better-paying jobs in the private sector. The lack of competitive salaries and opportunities for career advancement within the navy is a major factor driving this trend, and it threatens the PLAN’s ability to retain its best and brightest officers. Finally, the retirement of experienced officers has also contributed to the shortage of qualified officers in the PLAN. Many of the experienced officers who served during the Cold War era have now retired, and their replacements lack the same level of experience and training. Overall, the lack of experienced officers is a significant problem for the PLAN, and addressing this issue will be crucial in the future to ensure the effectiveness of the Chinese navy.

As the region continues to evolve, the balance of power between the regional navies will continue to be a critical factor that could shape the dynamics and relationships between the major powers in the Indo-Pacific region.

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