The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest body of water and has become a growing area of competition between China and India. The two regional powers’ moves to exert influence in the ocean include deep-water port development in littoral states and military patrols. Though the probability of military conflict between China and India remains low, escalated activities (such as port development and military exercises) and rhetoric could endanger stability in a region that is critical for global trade flows.
Importance of the Indian Ocean
The Indian Ocean covers at least one fifth of the world’s total ocean area and is bounded by Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (known as the western Indian Ocean), India’s coastal waters (the central Indian Ocean), and the Bay of Bengal near Myanmar and Indonesia (the eastern Indian Ocean). It provides critical sea trade routes that connect the Middle East, Africa and South Asia with the broader Asian continent to the east and Europe to the west. A number of the world’s most important strategic chokepoints, including the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca through which 32.2 millions of barrels of crude oil and petroleum transported per day — more than 50 percent of the world’s maritime oil trade — are found in the Indian Ocean Region.
Why It’s a Source of Competition?
China and India are dependent on energy resources transported via the secure sea lanes in the Indian Ocean to fuel their economies. India imports nearly 80 percent of its energy, mostly oil, from the Middle East. As Beijing and New Delhi press to maintain economic growth, their dependency on the safe transport of resources will likely intensify. China’s growing global clout and India’s rapid economic rise have heightened the ocean’s strategic value. Meanwhile, the United States’ rebalance to Asia — shifting from a foreign policy dominated by the Middle East to one more centered on Asia — has also been a contributing factor elevating concern over Indian Ocean security.
China vs. India
Both countries have developed initiatives to bolster infrastructure and other connections in the region, which the World Bank describes as among the “least economically integrated.” The competition is not necessarily overt, but each country is seeking to strengthen ties with smaller regional states to secure their respective security and economic interests.
Beijing’s regional vision, backed by $40 billion of pledged investment, outlines its One Belt, One Road plan — combining the revitalization of ancient land-based trade routes, the Silk Road Economic Belt, with a Maritime Silk Road. China’s ties with regional states have deepened, including the influx of Chinese capital into construction projects in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. China has also undertaken efforts to modernize its military, particularly its naval deployment capabilities to protect overseas interests like personnel, property and investments. China’s ambitions in the region have come to be described by many scholars by the “string of pearls” metaphor.
For its part, India sees itself as the natural preeminent regional power. Prime Minister Modi has doubled-down on fostering stronger diplomatic, economic and security ties with IOR maritime states as a means to strengthen India’s economy, establish its role as a driver of regional growth and simultaneously diminish China’s growing appeal.
What fuels China-India Tensions?
China-India tensions have persisted despite overtures by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Much of the friction stems from a longstanding dispute along a 2,400-mile border in India’s Arunachal Pradesh and China’s Tibet and the legacy of the 1962 Sino-Indian War along the Himalayan border.
The expansion of Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean has heightened India’s concerns. Beijing says its activities are commercially motivated, but Indians think that a ramped up Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere is consistent with Xi Jinping’s intention of making maritime power central to achieving Chinese dominance in Asia.
Both sides continue to ramp up military capabilities in the ocean region. China continues to deploy greater numbers of naval forces to support counter-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean, and invests and sells arms, including tanks, frigates, missiles and radar, to India’s neighbours.
India is also reinforcing its regional maritime presence. It has vowed to spend billions to build up its navy, including anti-submarine capabilities, has sent vessels to visit the South China Sea, and called for freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes as part of its Act East policy. The construction of military bases, modernized equipment and fleets, new maritime assets, and the expansion of security ties are all part of New Delhi’s push to assert itself as the region’s leader.
Despite the rise in competition, multilateral cooperation involving China, India and other states, takes place on issues including piracy, disaster relief and drug smuggling.
Counter-piracy efforts near the Gulf of Aden have been the most successful manifestation of regional cooperation. More than eighty countries, organizations and industry groups participate in operations in the IOR under the auspices of the ad hoc, voluntary Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), created in January 2009 in response to UN Security Council Resolution 1851 on Somali piracy and armed robbery at sea. Since military cooperation began, the volume of attacks has shrunk.
China and India carry out anti-piracy activities independently, deploying naval vessels to escort merchant ships, provide protection, conduct rescue operations and confiscate contraband.
2. Search and Rescue
Another recent example of cooperation was the search effort for the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014. At the height of operations, twenty-six countries, including China and India, contributed to the search mission.
3. Disaster Relief
There is room for growth on humanitarian aid and disaster relief cooperation. After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, governments, including Australia, France, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the UK and the United States, participated in extensive relief and rehabilitation efforts.
Consumers in Indo-Pacific countries on average obtain 20 to 50 percent of their animal protein from fish, and industrial fishing is an important export for smaller countries in the IOR. Regional players identify overfishing and environmental degradation as serious risks to sustainable economic development and food security, but mechanisms to establish sustainable fisheries have not been effective.
Prospects for Improved Regional Governance
There is a growing need for effective regional security architecture, similar to extant mechanisms among major powers in the East and South China seas, to address the IOR’s diverse challenges. Regional multilateral organizations, such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), which facilitates the exchange of military views to enhance communication and transparency across the region’s naval forces, do exist.
China and India have expressed eagerness to assume greater responsibility in policing maritime global commons and to be recognized as major powers. China’s activities are likely to expand in conjunction with its One Belt, One Road initiative.