Currently, the Indian Ocean is a hotbed of conflicting interests for the two major South Asian political and economic rivals viz., India and China. While India rightly looks upon the Indian Ocean as its backyard with tremendous strategic importance, China has thrown down the gauntlet in its bid to claim political and commercial hegemony and naval supremacy among the countries of the Indian Ocean region.
Riding on a burgeoning volume of international trade and a booming military might, it has been on a spree of acquiring strategic assets in the form of ports in many countries across and beyond the region and setting up bases, like in Bangladesh (Chittagong), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Seychelles, Pakistan (Gwadar), Kenya (Lamu) and Tanzania (Bagamoyo). Called the ‘String of Pearls’ by Western sources, these ports would purportedly enable China to secure its commercial interests in the procurement of raw materials and sources of energy for its energy deficient economy.
A likely scenario to emerge over the years in the Chinese scheme of things is that the dependence of the world on crude oil will increase manifold; keeping pace with the demand in oil will be the control of China over the Indian Ocean. It has accordingly aligned its foreign and defence policies to ensure its economic success the world over and emergence as a market leader.
Although China claims that the underlying motive of the Pearls of ports is purely an economic one viz to ensure its maritime interests for energy security, the current ground realities in the Indian Ocean throw up a different kind of indicator, making the communist country’s intentions appear far from innocuous. China has set up electronic intelligence gathering facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, and funded construction of a canal across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand. It has entered into a military agreement with Cambodia and has been building up forces in the South China Sea.
The Gwadar deep seaport in Pakistan provides China with a ‘listening post’ from where it can monitor Indian activities in the Arabian Sea. China can patrol the Indian Ocean sea-lanes for its security of shipments. It has a naval base on Hainan Island that can hold submarines, which pose a major threat to the US, but could be a threat to India too. China has dismissed reports of any plans of creating military bases overseas, but Chinese maritime strategists such as Shen Dingli advocate the need for China to set up overseas military bases.
China would not fight shy of protecting its energy imports that pass through the Indian Ocean. Nor is it comfortable with Washington and New Delhi being the security providers in the region. Inability to sustain troops in the region would leave a chink in its armor, which would mean that China’s energy imports would be highly vulnerable in the event of a military standoff with either the US or India.
Being already embroiled in maritime disputes with several countries in the South and East China seas over the ownership of islands, China is wary of the possibility of the Indian Ocean waters becoming another contentious area at some point of time in the future; in the absence of an effective blue-water Navy to protect its commercial and political interests.
Ruffling Indian feathers
China has raised India’s hackles by docking submarines at the port of Colombo in Sri Lanka. India’s concerns have been further raised by the expansion of Chinese maritime powers with the development of aircraft carrier battle groups. Currently, China has the largest aircraft carrier in Asia. And alarm bells rang when Chinese nuclear submarines carried out patrols in the Bay of Bengal. The possible presence of Chinese nuclear missiles so close to its coastline was a matter of utmost concern to India’s nuclear deterrence.
The first salvo of a resurgent India under the Narendra Modi government in response to a belligerent China’s ambitious maritime agenda being aggressively pushed forward by that country was fired soon after Modi became Prime Minister and visited the US in September 2014. Prominent among the issues discussed by the Indian leader with President Obama was maritime security of all nations to peacefully carry out their trade activities in the Indian Ocean.
During the visit of President Obama to India in January 2015, the two leaders reaffirmed “the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. They also called “on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force” in maritime disputes. China sharply reacted to an India-US joint statement referring to the disputes in the South China Sea, saying that only the countries involved in the disputes should work together to resolve the problems.
“At the current stage, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and there is no problem with navigational freedom and freedom of flights,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said. According to political observers, Modi perceives a greater role for India in Asian affairs in pursuance of his policy of “Act East”, coinciding with Obama’s own pivot to Asia policy. Events after Modi assumed office as Prime Minister, have contributed to bringing India and the US toward a consensus on China.
During his August 2014 visit to Japan, Modi and his Japanese counterpart reaffirmed the importance of upgrading and strengthening of defence relations between the two countries in their strategic partnership. Keeping a wary eye on a rising China, the two leaders agreed to accelerate talks on the possible sale of an amphibious aircraft to India. The coming together of the two countries in matters of strategic partnership was seen by political observers as a bold initiative on the part of India and Japan to redefine the balance of power in the region and counter the ambitious expansionist policy of China.
India’s extended neighborhood
India has extended its neighborhood beyond the South Asian region where it has its presence in the Southeast and Indo-Pacific region. The Southeast Asian states have evinced interest in India by playing an active role in the region to counter the dominant Chinese position. India in recent years has strengthened its relations in the Southeast Asian region in pursuance of its ‘Look East Policy’ launched in the 1990s and reinvigorated and renamed under the Modi government as ‘Act East Policy’. India has integrated the Pacific in its extended neighborhood concept. It has signaled that its Act East Policy was not limited to Southeast Asia, but goes beyond that to Australia and other Pacific Ocean nations.
India is not interested in taking on China in a direct confrontation. However, Chinese imperialist designs may succeed in uniting the countries of the Southeast Asian region. China would not be inclined to bargain for such a situation as it would be difficult for it to contend with. Any alignment of interest in the region would significantly affect the balance of power, posing serious consequences for all nations. India’s growing technological advances (with the launch of Agni-V) has placed it amongst an elite group of nations. This in itself has far-reaching consequences for the States in the region.
Strengthening relations with island nations
With a view to countering China, India has upgraded its military ties with Maldives, Madagascar and Myanmar in the Indian Ocean and with Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and Japan. India has also enhanced its economic and security relations with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia.
In order to counter China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean, India has its naval presence in the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Malaysia launched defence cooperation with India by signing a memorandum of understanding in 1993. Defence cooperation between the two countries has been revived in 2008.
Since then India has had a substantive military mission in Malaysia, focusing on training pilots and air force personnel.
Singapore has emerged as the closest security partner of India in the East, given its critical location in the Strait of Malacca at the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Thailand is holding joint naval exercise with Indian Navy and under the comprehensive MoU signed in 2005 they are regularly conducting exercises in the area adjacent to their international maritime boundary lines. India is increasing its defence cooperation with Indonesia after the related cooperation agreement of 2001.
Australia and India concluded a pact on joint naval exercise in 2005 and a more comprehensive memorandum of understanding on maritime security cooperation in 2006. And during the visit of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to India in November 2009, both sides agreed to enhance their defence interaction, with a special emphasis on naval cooperation. Furthermore, India has signed agreements to develop infrastructure with two Indian Ocean countries, Mauritius and Seychelles in their two islands – Agalega and Assumption.
Despite its geographical proximity to India and having historically been within India’s sphere of strategic influence, Maldives has increasingly been strengthening its relationship with Beijing. Chinese investments in the Maldives have increased over the years, ranging from housing projects to other infrastructure projects such as building roads and airports. This has become a major cause of concern for New Delhi.
Location of Seychelles and its proximity to the coast of Africa makes it a lucrative option for Beijing to establish a naval base in that country. China is already participating in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and has growing economic interests in Africa. However, India and Seychelles share close military ties as New Delhi helps the island nation secure its EEZ by presenting surveillance aircraft and patrolling ships.
The previous government of Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared fairly China-friendly, awarding many infrastructure development projects to Beijing. The Maithripala Sirisena government is now reviewing all Chinese investments in the country, especially the US$1.5 billion port city project. The Sirisena government has also reassured India that such “incidents, from whatever quarter, do not take place under our tenure”.
As Mauritius looks to attract investments from China, India is stepping up its game by providing a 1,300-tonne Indian-built patrol vessel, the Barracuda, to Mauritius to help the island nation protect its coastline. While India may not indulge in any China containment policy, New Delhi realizes it is absolutely crucial to reengage with these islands and secure its strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s stated position
While affirming that it has no plans to set up naval bases in the countries of the Indian Ocean region, China has warned that the Indian Ocean could end up “as an ocean of conflict and trouble” if countries like India, the US and China itself failed to engage with each other more constructively as their interests begin to overlap.
This is an opportune moment for India which has achieved political stability under Narendra Modi’s leadership to expand trade with China and to go all out for the settlement of the border issue.
With support from regional countries and associations, India can play a decisive role in the region and the world. To this end, it is imperative that India take pro-active measures to engage China in dialogues for settling its long-standing border disputes with that country. It is an established fact that China would only involve itself in any meaningful exercise of resolution of disputes when the adversary nation is politically stable, economically vibrant and militarily formidable.
India should strive and acquire the required edge under the present dispensation in the country and emerge as a strong enough partner nation, to do business with China. Needless to say, despite the Western orientation of India’s foreign policy in recent times, India should accord top priority to its own interests while dealing with a militarily and economically stronger China which views the West with suspicion. And acquisition of an early Permanent Member status in the United Nations Security Council would set India in the same league as China, which is an essential prerequisite for checkmating the latter in the Indian Ocean.