FEATURE | Understanding India and China’s evolving Indian Ocean roles

Featured Chinese Fishing Nets, Cochin, India Photo: Flickr.com/Tim Moffatt Chinese Fishing Nets, Cochin, India

Beijing claims the South China Sea as China’s own. But it completely rejects any notion that the Indian Ocean should be treated either as India’s ocean or as an Indian preserve. The implications of these inconsistent positions may become increasingly important in the China–India relationship, and have important consequences for other countries in the region.

Beijing wants to be a "resident power" in the Indian Ocean – just like the US, the UK and France. Chinese naval ships and submarines are now making frequent forays into India’s near seas. Many on India’s maritime periphery have embraced China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

In the face of growing Chinese heft in India’s "front yard", there’s an intensifying Sino–Indian geopolitical rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Delhi’s traditional influence there is now under serious challenge.

New Delhi has long feared being encircled by China’s "string of pearls" network of installations in the Indian Ocean, and many of its fears may now be coming true. Last year, China opened its first overseas naval base in Djibouti. China may be planning to open a new naval base at Jiwani, next to Pakistan’s China-controlled Gwadar port.

In Pakistan, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, China is using the BRI to create client states. Beijing is using its infrastructure projects, while also creating debt dependency, with corrupt and weak regimes to increase China’s political leverage.

To give a recent example, the pro-Chinese leader of the Maldives, President Abdulla Yameen, declared a state of emergency in February. The Maldives has long been a foundation of India’s sphere of influence in South Asia. Nevertheless, China’s warnings against Indian intervention probably emboldened the autocratic leader of the Maldives to extend the state of emergency despite India’s strong opposition. It also seems to have cowed India, which sent aircraft and ships to its southern bases but didn’t follow up with action to restore democracy in the Maldives.

In the meantime, China is rapidly moving to increase its investments in the Maldives, which include an US$830 million upgrade of the airport, and a 1.3-mile bridge to link the airport island with the capital, which is a US$400 million project.

China has signed a free trade agreement with the Maldives and has leased the uninhabited island Feydhoo Finolhu for tourism use for 50 years. It has probably leased several other islands as well. Because of sea level rise, the Maldives also hopes to receive Chinese help in reclaiming land and creating artificial islands via dredging.

There are also reports of a Joint Ocean Observation Station that China is looking to establish in the Maldives’ western-most atoll in the north, not far from India. There are concerns that this would give the Chinese a vantage point to monitor an important Indian Ocean shipping route. Noted Indian strategic affairs analyst Brahma Chellaney argues that India should warn the Maldivian and Chinese governments that it won’t accept an ocean observation centre.

It’s too early to say whether any of these projects will end up like the Chinese-built international airport in Sri Lanka that’s a rarely used white elephant.

But all of this is a direct challenge to New Delhi in the Indian Ocean. And India is moving to shore up its position against a more assertive Chinse presence by developing its own "string of pearls".

New Delhi recently signed a strategic pact with France, with each opening their naval bases to the other’s warships across the Indian Ocean. That gives the Indian Navy access to strategically important French ports – including one in Djibouti that offers easy access to key oil supply and trade routes.

Apart from the French agreement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi this year finalised an agreement for a new base in the Seychelles and negotiated military access to facilities at Oman’s port and airfields. Last year India signed an agreement with Singapore to allow deployments from each other’s naval facilities. And India has expanded its bases on Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the end of the Malacca Strait.

Belatedly, India has realised that it needs to match China’s assertiveness, and that includes expanding its reach into the Pacific. For Delhi, having a counter power-projection capability in the South China Sea is now seen as critical to its strategic deterrence against Beijing. Indeed there has been a recent surge in India’s eastern naval deployments.

India has also stepped up aid to littorals through its Project SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), which is designed to revive India’s ancient trade routes and cultural linkages around the Indian Ocean – a counter-move to China’s maritime silk road.

To get a good understanding of all of these developments in the Indian Ocean and how China and India are increasingly bumping up against each other across the Indo-Pacific, there’s no better source than the recently released India and China at Sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean.

The editor of the volume, Australian scholar David Brewster, points out in his introduction that how India and China get along in the shared Indian Ocean – whether through cooperation, coexistence, competition or confrontation – will be one of the key strategic developments for the entire region.

The book has essays from scholars from Australia, the US, China and India. The essays examine Indian and Chinese perspectives of each other as major powers in the Indian Ocean, China’s growing security presence in the region, the evolution of Indian policymakers’ views towards China’s role in Indian Ocean, the reasons China doesn’t understand India’s concerns (there’s a suggestion that China is an "autistic" superpower), China’s evolving naval strategy and security presence in the region, and how the Indian navy would respond in the event of a conflict, including an examination of subsurface capabilities.

There are valuable chapters on India’s maritime domain awareness strategy in the region, and on its naval interests in the Pacific. There’s also a skeptical view on China’s maritime silk road and the risks that China faces with that initiative.

This book is essential reading on the maritime great game in progress and has many useful insights on how China and India – each a rising power in its own right – are competing to gain relative advantage over the other in the Indian Ocean.

Article reprinted with permission from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's magazine The Strategist.