Researched and written by Vansh Chaudhary.
In 2008, China sent a naval task force to the Gulf of Aden as part of a multilateral anti-piracy mission. It was the first time since the 15th century that their warships had been deployed that far away from the Chinese mainland.
Fast forward to August 2017, when China opened its first official military base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa. Additionally, Chinese firms acquired – albeit on lease – multiple ports in South Asia along the proposed Maritime Silk Road, under the wider ambit of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Few would have imagined a rapid expansion of a China’s footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in the span of a decade
Consequently, alarm bells have been ringing amidst resident powers such as USA and Japan. More immediately, India has always considered the IOR under its sphere of influence. Hence, China’s attempt to alter the status quo poses serious security implications for India in the future.
So What Exactly Is China up To?
China’s strategy towards expanding its sphere of influence in the IOR consists of two key elements.
The first is the Maritime Silk Road initiative, under which the Chinese are targeting key littoral states (countries that lie along the shore of a sea or a lake) of the Indian Ocean. These states are offered large sums of money — mostly as concessional loans — for “high-visibility” infrastructure projects such as dams, bridges and ports. Over $300 billion has already been invested and China plans to spend a lot more in the coming decade.
Chinese conservative scholar Yan Xuetong has stressed the importance of China’s economic power as a means to build international political leverage. In his words, “We let them benefit economically and, in return, we get good political relationships.” This strategy allows the Chinese to effectively “purchase” relationships with regional countries such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan under the BRI. Hence, the Maritime Silk Road allows the Chinese to assemble the infamous “string of pearls” along the Indian Ocean trade arteries in the form of refuelling stations and naval outposts. Chinese firms have recently acquired ports in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan, thereby operationalising the first element of their strategy.
The second element lies in strengthening the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) force projection capabilities, usually measured by a country’s capability to effectively deploy hard power assets such as aircraft carriers, soldiers, and submarines. In this regard, China has commissioned into service their first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Moreover, reports suggest that the construction of two more indigenously-designed aircraft carriers is underway, one of which is said to be deployed in the Indian Ocean. Additionally, as part of their unprecedented military expansion, the PLAN recently incorporated a new underwater surveillance system which will enhance its submarines’ capabilities. PLAN submarines now frequently accompany other Chinese ships on anti-piracy missions in the IOR, which was noted by the Indian Navy as a rather “odd” duty for submarines.
The Chinese Rationale
The Straits of Malacca are critical to the energy security of China. Hence, the Chinese leadership has long been afraid of the “Malacca Dilemma” — the prospect that an unfriendly nation could operationalise a military blockade of the Malacca Straits, effectively paralysing the Chinese economy. The US$46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — which links Gwadar in the Arabian Sea to the Chinese city of Kashgar — has been proposed as a result of the Malacca Dilemma.
Other choke points in the Indian Ocean like the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf can now be monitored effectively by PLAN’s military base in Djibouti and the Gwadar port in Pakistan. Some Chinese analysts have also suggested that China’s expansive policy is a response to Indian activity in the South China Sea (SCS), where India conducted a major naval drill with Singapore in May 2017.
The Indian Response
Threatened by China’s growing presence in the IOR, India’s response strategy also consists of two elements.
First, India is seeking to develop closer ties not only with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean but with Japan and the United States, which have a critical naval base in Diego Garcia. Under Prime Minister Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” foreign policy, the enhancement of ties with neighbours is treated as a fundamental feature to ensure India’s best interests. As a result, considerable developmental and military assistance has been provided to neighbours in the past couple of years.
Apart from this, India’s strategy includes enhancing its relationship with the United States, Japan, and Australia, collectively known as the ‘Quad’. The Trump administration is looking to develop the Quad into a military alliance as part of its strategy to contain China in the IOR. Military alliance notwithstanding, bilateral naval drills, called the Malabar drills, in the Indian Ocean with the U.S. and Japan has been an annual feature. China has traditionally closely monitored these naval exercises, indicating their symbolic importance.
Second, in order to fulfil its self-assigned role of “Net Security Provider” in the IOR, India is engaging in a more proactive “mission-ready deployment concept,” under which mission-ready ships and aircrafts are deployed along the sea routes and choke points from the Malacca Straits to the Persian Gulf. A 24/7 surveillance of all choke points in the IOR has been institutionalised by the Indian Navy with a special focus on “visibility”, which Navy Chief Admiral Arun Prakash says is “an important part of peacetime signalling.”
In order to improve upon its military capabilities, India has emerged as the largest weapons importer in the world. The Indian Navy is also in the process of acquiring naval fighter aircrafts and the Japanese amphibious aircraft US-2 ShinMaywa.
2017 was an extremely strenuous year for the Sino-Indian relationship. Some of the events that brought the two countries at crossroads were the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, China’s continued blocking of the bid to classify Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, and no change in China’s policy with regard to India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) bid.
While these developments are important, they were eclipsed by two other episodes that seriously damaged bilateral relations — the Doklam standoff and India’s decision to boycott the BRI. While the former shed light on the deep sense of mistrust between the two sides, the latter elucidated the security dilemma that the Indian and Chinese governments face.
The damage caused in 2017 may be repairable, but it is indicative of the steadily deteriorating trajectory of Sino-Indian relations. By virtue of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s economic interests in the IOR are expanding. In order to safeguard these interests, China will look to further increase its military footprint in the region. With the Chinese encircling India’s Southern Peninsula, it is likely for officials in New Delhi to feel threatened. In the meanwhile, the “Quad” will continue to work towards containing expansive Chinese policies. It is only inevitable that this conflict of interest in the Indian Ocean Region will result in increasing amounts of tension and hostility between India and China.