NEW DELHI - India is speeding up a navy modernization programme and leaning on its neighbours to curb Chinese submarine activity in the Indian Ocean, as nations in the region become increasingly jittery over Beijing's growing undersea prowess.
Just months after a stand-off along the disputed border dividing India and China in the Himalayas, Chinese submarines have shown up in Sri Lanka, the island nation off India's southern coast. China has also strengthened ties with the Maldives, the Indian Ocean archipelago.
China's moves reflect its determination to beef up its presence in the Indian Ocean, through which four-fifths of its oil imports pass, and coincides with escalating tension in the disputed South China Sea, where Beijing's naval superiority has rattled its neighbours.
"We should be worried the way we have run down our submarine fleet. But with China bearing down on us, the way it is on the Himalayas, the South China Sea and now the Indian Ocean, we should be even more worried," said Arun Prakash, former chief of the Indian navy.
"Fortunately, there are signs this government has woken up to the crisis," he said. "But it will take time to rebuild. We should hope that we don't get into a face-off with the Chinese, that our diplomacy and alliances will keep things in check."
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has ordered an accelerated tendering process to build six conventional diesel-electric submarines at an estimated cost of 500 billion rupees ($8.1 billion), in addition to six similar submarines that French firm DCNS is assembling in Mumbai port to replace a nearly 30-year-old fleet hit by a run of accidents.
The country's first indigenously built nuclear submarine - loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles and headed for sea trials this month - joins the fleet in late 2016. In the meantime, India is in talks with Russia to lease a second nuclear-propelled submarine, navy officials told Reuters.
The government has already turned to industrial group Larsen & Toubro Ltd, which built the hull for the first submarine, to manufacture two more nuclear submarines, sources with knowledge of the matter said.
Elsewhere in the region, Australia is planning to buy up to 12 stealth submarines from Japan, while Vietnam plans to acquire as many as four additional Kilo-class submarines to add to its current fleet of two. Taiwan is seeking US technology to build up its own submarine fleet.
Japan, locked in a dispute with China over islands claimed by both nations, is increasing its fleet of diesel-electric attack submarines to 22 from 16 over the next decade or so.