A Zone of Strategic Competition
“Already the world’s preeminent energy and trade interstate seaway, the Indian Ocean will matter even more in the future. One reason is that India and China, major trading partners locked in an uncomfortable embrace, are entering into a dynamic great-power rivalry in these waters.”
Robert D. Kaplan
Indian Ocean region, which according to Robert D. Kaplan is the “Centre stage for twenty-first century,” never lost its strategic sheen since ancient times. During the Cold War, the Indian Ocean had been a zone of intense rivalry between superpowers sailing with their nuclear-armed flotillas. The superpowers were seen as interlopers by the Indian Ocean states and the efforts were pursued to declare it a ‘Zone of Peace’ through Sri Lankan efforts. By the end of Cold War, the confrontations and competitions in this region seem to be eluded but the power dynamics of the region were completely altered given the rise of India and China as major naval powers.
China’s ambitions of controlling Indian Ocean region (IOR) to fulfil its growing demand for raw materials, energy resources and finished goods prioritize the discourse on regional maritime security which envisages the freedom of Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs); strategic importance of the Straits of Malacca, Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb as vital chokepoints and growing naval competition have raised the stakes in IOR. India sees itself traditionally connected to Indian Ocean being its strategic backyard whereas China has major strategic interests connected to its economic rise. Given this background of engagements in IOR, both the countries remain at loggerheads.
India and China emerged as powerful economies with ample human resources being world’s most populous countries. The Sino-Indian relations were initiated through the principle of peaceful coexistence and entered a bitter phase of rivalry on border issues which culminated into Sino-Indian War of 1962. The Asian giants massively expanded their militaries with an added nuclear factor thus claiming regional as well as the global supremacy. With the expansion of their economies and geopolitical sphere, the bilateral relationship between both the countries could well be characterised more of a competition than cooperation.
Both the countries have shown some rapprochement in past few years to stabilise the relationships based on economic progress and growing sensitivity on bilateral security. The initiatives are backed by high-level bilateral visits but seem to be lacking the spirit of cooperation. The Chinese policy of rapprochement is being negated by confrontation in the disputed territories. The face-off between People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) troops with Indian Army in Chumar sector of Ladakh region just ahead of President Xi Jinping’s India visit raised concerns on the intentions and motivations of China. Though the visit claimed to be highly successful, it is debatable whether this act of détente will ever lead to entente cordiale.
The Pakistan Factor
China maintains a ‘special’ relationship with Pakistan to counter India’s dominance in the region and to maintain a regional equilibrium through politico-military alliances. The Sino-Pakistan alliance also points out their trust-deficit against India. Further, Pakistan’s geostrategic location creates a corridor for China to pursue economic alliances with West Asia and the Gulf region to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOCs) in the Indian Ocean to ensure uninterrupted supply of energy. It is also important to counter strategically placed India which has the capability to retaliate in Indian Ocean to compensate the setbacks in case of any mainland border conflict with China. China is also looking for bases in the Persian Gulf region as a palisade against United States.
Myanmar – China’s Gateway to Bay of Bengal
Bay of Bengal is gaining importance in Chinese strategic thinking as a gateway to Indian Ocean and so is Myanmar — a key transit zone in Bay of Bengal which is emerging as a new locus of strategic competition in Asia. China is investing heavily in Myanmar to achieve its strategic aim. Most notable is the construction of large-scale oil terminal and a gas terminal on Ma Dan Island adjacent to Rakhine and Shwe offshore gas fields where oil and gas is to be pumped to Kunming in China through a high capacity dual pipeline across Myanmar into Southern China. It will significantly reduce its dependence on Strait of Malacca. The activities of People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) are also expected to increase on the pretext of providing security to newly-created hubs and SLOCs in Bay of Bengal which includes possible military air bases at Mingalodon, Shante, Nampong and Namsang creating further suspicions.
Geostrategic Interests of United States
Indian Ocean region is also preeminent in United States’ national security policies. It is an important theatre for United States owing to incessant conflict in the Middle East and Global War on Terror (GWOT). Moreover, it is an imperative for United States to maintain its influence in the IOR for fulfilling its energy requirements from the Middle East as well as to safeguard its trade routes. Ashley Tellis’ notion of Indian Ocean as a commercial highway for the United States is upended by China’s continuous efforts to control and turn Indian Ocean as its freeway to energy hubs.
Indian Ocean is no more a unipolar domain and the US sees India as a major stakeholder in the Indian Ocean. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) of US Department of Defense asserts India as the largest power in the IOR and net exporter of the security in the future. India’s bilateral security engagements with United States have started very recently and India does not see itself under US security umbrella but as a strategic partner with mutually beneficial relationship — much to the annoyance of China.
Understanding China’s Strategies and India’s Security concerns
India’s major concern is China’s growing ambitions and its power-projection capabilities in IOR through the visible presence of its military assets and supporting infrastructure in the region. China’s notion of ‘String of Pearls’, coined by the Booze-Allen-Hamilton in 2003, might be considered frivolous by some experts but it holds significant strategic importance for the need of overseas bases in the IOR under the pretext of ‘cutting of supply cost through overseas military bases’ and to ‘promote regional and global stability’. In this direction, China’s new strategic discourse emphasizes control of its periphery through ‘Silk Road’ strategy and to augment its naval influence through the strategy of ‘Far Sea Defence’ enhancing its naval capabilities.
The Silk Road Strategy
China’s strategic discourse emphasizes its rise and harmonious growth through control and influence over China’s internal and external periphery. The Chinese leadership sensible to this strategic thinking held the first-ever conference on ‘periphery diplomacy’ just prior to its Third Plenum in October 2013. Apart from the members of Central Committee, the meeting was attended by a small group of leading members responsible for foreign affairs along with Chinese ambassadors to important countries. At the meeting, China’s need for stable external environment conducive for its domestic economic reforms was emphasized by President Xi. The underlying objectives revolve around China’s policy to exercise an influence along its periphery and to counter the US rebalancing towards Asia.
The Chinese proposal of continental or maritime silk routes is a grand strategy of extending peripheral influence and regional integration to enhance Chinese political and economic clout. From Indian perspective, the entire proposal is viewed in context of broader geostrategic implications, particularly the IOR. Though the initiative will bring economic integration and benefit the region at large, yet the strategic pitfalls cannot be neglected.
The major concerns emanate from the architecture of land silk routes which straddle India from west to east highlighting ‘String of Pearls’ strategy. In the west is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which connects restive Xinjiang province in China and Gwadar Port in Pakistan after passing through Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJ&K). In the east is Bangladesh-China-Myanmar-India (also referred to as BCIM) economic corridor which connects India’s north-eastern region with Kunming province of China. It is an acceptable idea for the economic development of India’s north-eastern region and its connectivity with Southeast Asia but the strategic concerns hover around the security of Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh and Myanmar being major energy transhipment hubs for China may create a strategic challenge on India’s eastern seaboard given the obvious presence of PLAN (People Liberation Army-Navy).
China’s Strategy of ‘Far Sea Defence’
Chinese military strategy and capabilities evolved alongside its power aspirations over a period of time. The consolidation of its naval power is highly desirable to accomplish the task to control the SLOCs in the Indian Ocean region. The Chinese naval strategy went through major changes over a period of time — from ‘near-coast defence’ (jin’an fangyu) strategy designed for coastal defence to the ‘near-sea active defence’ (jinhai jiji fangyu) to counter United States in Pacific have been extended to ‘far-seas defence’ (yuanhai zuozhan) strategy which may create implications in IOR with respect to PLAN’s future development and deployment.
The Chinese Strategy of ‘far-seas defence’ gained prominence during Jiang Zemin’s regime who advocated enhancing far-seas defence and operational capabilities to preserve China’s maritime security and protection of its maritime interests vital for its economic rise in the territories away from Chinese mainland. The far-seas naval strategy is aimed at gaining control over IOR for the security of its transport routes as all its energy requirements are catered through here. The far-flung naval operations also require continuous logistical support; therefore, the notion of ‘String of Pearls’ seems to be closely related to ‘far-seas defence’ strategy given the Chinese infrastructure investments in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Construction of these facilities may have economic and commercial motivations but military connotations are also attached to it. Incidentally, the bases around India appear to be ‘String of Pearls’ but as a matter of fact the locations are most ideal to control China’s SLOCs extending from Straits of Hormuz to Malacca entering into Pacific Ocean. Strategically, Indian Ocean also serves as China’s backdoor in event of any confrontation with United States or Japan in the Pacific, thus, extending its theatre for naval operations.
China reportedly built Yulin (Sanya) Naval Base — an underground nuclear submarine base at Hainan Islands around 1200 NM from Malacca Straits for expeditionary and defensive operations.
Détente or Entente?
The Sino-Indian relations can be characterised as détente with an undertone of strategic competition. A desire is reflected in the relations to reduce tensions through negotiations but at the same time countering each other’s influence in the region negates it. The missing element of trust along with a viable solution to amicably resolve the land border issue is a major stumbling block in building partnerships and cooperation.
Both the countries are engaged in diplomatic manoeuvres to cease opportunities with Indian Ocean littoral states. Though China has frictions in Southeast Asia yet it remained successful in consolidating the region through its booming economy and trade partnership with ASEAN. India is responding to the China’s strategic initiatives in the Indian Ocean through its engagements with Vietnam and rest of ASEAN nations with its naval presence in the South China Sea. Further, India has modified its “Look East Policy” to “Act East” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deepen its economic and strategic links in the Southeast Asian region. India has several interests in the South China Sea including joint oil exploration with Vietnam. At the same time, China has embarked upon its “Look West Policy” which seems to be giving primacy to Sino-Indian relations but tilted more towards countering American influence in Pakistan and involves geopolitics of energy.
The friction between both the countries is more on strategic front, but at economic front the Sino-India relations are successful with estimation of bilateral trade nearing $100 billion. Combining their population, the Sino-India bilateral relations will impact the international order to address the transnational threats of pandemics, climate change and global terrorism. Both the countries came forward to establish BRICS Development Bank on the lines of World Bank and Asian Infrastructure Development Bank.
India’s engagements in IOR are more like an act of balancing China than to contest it. The usage of the phrase ‘strategic rivalry’ seems less appropriate here as both India and China are still restraining themselves from a full-fledged contest. It seems that both the countries are following the principle of peaceful coexistence, which holds the foundation of their relationship from the very outset but have virtually turned into coexistence in belligerence. Jeff M. Smith has aptly termed the Sino-Indian relations as ‘Cold Peace’, which seems to be turning warm after fresh initiatives of both the governments towards cooperation – moving in the direction of entente.
Courtesy: Oval Observer Foundation