China’s Maritime Overdrives in Indian Ocean Region and it’s Strategic Implications for India


I. Introduction

The intricate, yet crucial link between the sea and human civilization can not be denied if we want to study the history of the mankind. The sea serves as one of the important bases of human civilization and nation-building. From the Indus to the Mesopotamian civilization, sea has contributed its role towards survival and affluence being the pivotal medium for creating flourishing sea trade and link for inter-civilizational economic cum cultural rich discourses.

The Indian Ocean, world’s third largest ocean and the only ocean to be named after a nation-state (India) is, therefore, crucial to the making of the present trial and future destiny of India located at the center of this ocean with its triangular peninsula shape jotting towards it.

The vast ocean landscape of the Indian Ocean region (IOR) has, throughout history, been a theatre of intense endeavour, enterprise, competition and friction of more of an extra-regional nature with the Dutch, Portuguese, English and other imperialist powers fighting amongst themselves for their one upmanship in this region. The IOR has long been a pivot in global power equations, whose domination, or control, has guaranteed prosperity, and even mastery, of the greater global commons.

With the two fastest growing economies namely India and China with their global hunt for energy and the ever growing importance of sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) via the volatile Strait of Hormuz and the narrow Malacca Strait has made this Ocean as the global cockpit of great power rivalries vying for their pie in this resource rich ocean.

II. Strategic Importance of IOR: Neglected No Longer

The sheer imperative of geo-economics over the erstwhile geo-politics and the shift of balance of power from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific (earlier referred to as Asia-Pacific by the western strategic community) and the strategic location of the Indian Ocean has made as the noted US strategic thinker Robert D Kaplan has opined in his well-researched work “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power” (2010) s the ‘centre stage for the 21st century’ revisiting the Mahanian terminology of the importance of ‘sea power’ in the coming future in which the new Great Power game in the IOR is slowly but steadily being unfolding.

The great US naval strategist Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, celebrated globally as the enunciator of the ‘sea power’, observed so prophetically way back in 1890 in his epochal work, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783”, thus: “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia. This Ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the twenty first century, the destiny of the world will be decided in its waters.”

With the relative decline of the US as the sole hegemonic stabilizer (Charles Kindelberger) and the rapid rise of the communist China has also made India which has far greater vital stake in the safety and security in the Ocean to revisit the forgotten lessons of its own naval strategist, a brilliantly prescient Sardar K M Panikkar, who in no uncertain terms had warned us against neglecting the centrality of the Indian Ocean in making India’s strategic maritime destiny in the future.

In his prescient pioneering work, “Indian and the Indian Ocean” first published in 1945, a visionary realist Panikkar thundered, “While to other countries the Indian Ocean is only one of the important oceanic areas, to India it is a vital sea. Her lifelines are concentrated in that area, her freedom is dependent on the freedom of that water surface. No industrial development, no commercial growth, no stable political structure is possible for her unless her shores are protected.”

With an area of nearly 75 million sq km stretching across 7 time zones, 1/3 of world’s population, touching 25% of the land mass, its SLOCs carrying 70% of world’s oil and gas, the Indian Ocean is one of the most important water ways in the world. Apart from its importance as carrier lane of the ship borne commerce, it is also an important source of mineral resources under its expanding sea bed. The IOR boasts of 40% of world’s gold, 90% of diamond and 60% of uranium, apart from vast deposits of coal, copper and iron ore.

The Indian Ocean also provides major sea routes connecting the Middle East, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas. Four critically important access water ways or choke-points in the IOR are: the Suez Canal (Egypt), Bab-el-Mandeb (Djibouti-Yemen), Strait of Hormuz (Iran-Oman) and Strait of Malacca (Indonesia-Malaysia). Unfortunately, this region also suffers from a high level of international and internal conflict and is a hot bed of global maritime piracy. It suffers from some 70% of the world’s natural disasters and inter-State/intra-State conflicts. The region is an important locus of international terrorism, given its high levels of poverty and access to drugs and small arms.

As a consequence, there is ever growing strategic importance of the IOR due to:

  • Insecurity that destabilizes the region can have global ramifications.
  • The region’s vital role in global oil production and transportation.
  • Foreign powers numerous interests and multifaceted power projection efforts in the region.

III. China’s Growing Naval Profile in the IOR: Beijing’s New Game Plan

China, which is the largest nation on the Asian continent that borders 13 countries, is traversing the globe in search of energy resources and is seeking to keep the SLOCs safe for their uninterrupted shipment. Currently, China imports over 80% of its oil and gas through the Malacca Strait, which is just 2.5 km at its narrowest point, which Beijing fears could used to destabilize its regime via naval blockade by either India or the US or by both at some critical point of time like war. This, China’s former President Hu Jintao called the “Malacca Dilemma” in 2003.

China is well aware of its Malacca Dilemma at sea and therefore is engaged in building a “chain of naval port facilities” across the IOR with future potential of military use (which Beijing strongly refutes) termed as “Strings of Pearls” by the US Department of Defence 2005 Report titled as “Energy Futures in Asia” also called the ‘Booz-Hamilton Report’. But many in India’s strategic community believe that it solely aims at an “encircled strategic containment of India” as part of China’s ‘containment of India’ policy.

The list of pearls include the following (see Figure 1): upgraded naval facilities in Hainan Island, upgraded airstrip on Woody Island located in the Paracel archipelago about 300 nautical miles east of Vietnam, container shipping facility in Chittagong (Bangladesh), construction of deep water port in Sittwe (Myanmar), commissioning of a naval base in Gwadar (Pakistan), pipeline through Islamabad and over Karakoram Highway to Kashgar in restive Xinxiang province that would transport fuel to China itself, intelligence gathering ‘listening port’ facilities on Coco Island very near to the north of India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands (some say to monitor ‘activities’ of India’s Interim Test Range at Balasore on sea of Odisha), building port at Hambantota (extreme South of Sri Lanka); besides porting rights in Aden (Yemen), Salalah (Oman) and Djibouti.

In the strategic calculation of China’s strategic defence planners, the US will remain its primary threat followed by Taiwan, Japan and then India. In its successive National Defence White Paper (NDWP) which it has been issuing since 1998, especially from 2007 onwards has been very vocal about China’s ‘out of area operations’ beyond its territorial water in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean and called for strengthening capabilities for “winning both the command of the sea and air” in a full scale war scenario. It has laid emphasis on rapid modernization and strengthening of its People’s Liberation Army (Navy) or PLAN’s in the IOR and Indo-Pacific to manifold in recent years at an alarming pace.

IV. Strategic Implications of PLAN’s Plan in the IOR: Envisaging an Effective Indian Maritime Response

India occupies a central position in the IOR and as the last continental power with the wherewithal to take on China; India must rise up to the new syndrome of “China in My Backyard” (CIMBYISM) from erstwhile “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBYISM). This will exercise an increasingly profound influence on, indeed, almost determine India’s security environment as reminded by strategic thinkers to Panikkar and the successive Naval Chiefs of the Indian Navy (IN).

More than 90% of India’s trade by volume and about 70% trade by value are transported over the seas. The economy’s sheer dependence on oil imports makes the IOR pivotal for India. Therefore, protection of India’s vital SLOCs from Strait of Hormuz to Bab-el-Mandeb and to the Strait of Malacca is pivotal for India’s geo-security of energy supplies to pump its economic growth via-a-vis the People’s Republic China (PRC).

China’s PLAN has been making rapid strides in terms of both acquiring modern naval platforms as well as developing its offensive capabilities (having more lethal modern/nuclear powered submarines). Of late, it has developed greater bilateral relations with the IOR nations and also gets mining rights near the Madagascar Island in the western IOR given by the International Sea Bed Authority (ISBA) together with deep sea exploration near the Mariana Trench near Philippines.

This, therefore, calls for an effective Indian maritime response. An effective Indian maritime response strategy against the growing China’s naval footprints across the IOR must have the following core objectives:

  • Homeland defence, coastal defence and control over maritime economic zones.
  • Control of the waters adjacent to neighbouring littoral states of the IOR.
  • Unfettered control of the seas stretching from the Strait of Hormuz to the Malacca Strait in peace time and capacity to blockade these choke points effectively in war time.
  • The construction of a balanced Oceanic or Blue Water naval fleet able to project power into the Atlantic Ocean by way of the Cape of Good Hope and into the Pacific by way of the South China Sea.
  • More maritime strategizing with the ASEAN nations and factoring China’s vulnerability at sea, especially in the highly volatile East and South China Sea interspersed with many ‘disputed’ islands with competing claims for their ‘ownership’ viz Spratly Islands and Paracel islands.

India’s growing international stature gives it strategic relevance in the area ranging from the Persian Gulf in the North to the Antarctic in the South and Cape of Good Hope in the West to the Strait of Malacca in the East. India has suitably exploited the fluidities of the emerging world order to forge new links through a combination diplomatic repositioning, economic resurgence and military firmness.

By a curious quirk of fate, India’s rise to prominence is coinciding with the growing rise significance of the IOR. In the midst of potpourri of challenges or as India’s eminent strategic thinker C Raja Mohan calls it more aptly as ‘Sagar Manthan’ (Sea Churning) ranging from terror to energy security to natural disasters to great power rivalries, India’s growth has been complicated by interests of global powers, that permeate the larger geo-strategic matrices of this region. As India’s own interests sustained by its maritime enterprise become more ineluctable and compelling, India find itself at an unprecedented historic crossroads.

With the relative politico-economic and naval-military decline of the US as emphasized by Robert D Kaplan in his book “Monsoon” (calling it as US’s ‘elegant decline’), the growing Chinese outreach across the IOR via various over overt and covert moves, is, therefore a matter of great strategic concern for India and the Indian Navy, especially being China’s most important strategic adversary in South Asia region.

V. Critical Appraisal

Ongoing economic slump, notwithstanding, India today has the strategic wherewithal and global support on its side to take on China in the IOR. The world at large, with their ties with China notwithstanding, supports a ‘Democratic’ India vis-à-vis a ‘Communist’ China. As they said, the rise of India ‘inspires’, but the rise of China ‘scares’, India must use this global good-will to its benefit in effectively countering China’s growing naval profile in the IOR, albeit diplomatically using all measures of non-military means. As noted Sinologist and an expert on the Indian Ocean affairs, James R Holmes said so poignantly, “It is our contention that Indian Ocean stability will hinge largely on how India manages its maritime rise”, re-invoking the teachings of Panikkar who said so sagaciously writing over six decades ago that, “…..India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the sixteenth century.”

While China exhibits genuine Indian concerns, high profile Chinese engagement of the IOR littorals is breaching existing Indian spheres of influence, while opening the possibility of ‘strategic encircled containment’ of India via its well cultivated and meticulously planned ‘SoP’ as well as via growing naval might of the PLA-N and itself in the IOR.

VI. Concluding Remarks

India must utilize the time tested and trusted Chanakyaniti (principles of Chanakya) from his great strategic work on statecraft “Arthashastra” which has remained relevant till today of ‘countering without actual confrontation’ by using its “smart power” (Joseph Nye) in engaging and isolating China in its backyard in the highly volatile South China Sea so as to increasingly engage PLA-N there in order to check its expanding foray in the IOR in future.

The ongoing modernization of the Indian Navy’s both defensive and offensive capabilities as well as by befriending China’s sworn/historical enemies like Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea et al only reflects the welcoming dawn of pragmatism or realism on the part of India’s defence and foreign strategic planners. The IN is steadily moving from a ‘buyer’s navy’ to a ‘builder’s navy’ (indigenization) with ongoing plan for acquisitions of 49 modern platforms of which 46 are being built at India’s own shipyards. Recently, India has formally launched its Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) ‘Vikrant’ planned to join the IN by 2018.Also, there is ongoing transformation of the IN from ‘platform centric navy’ to a ‘network centric navy’ and the launch of twin indigenously built dedicated naval military satellites Gsat-7 and Gsat-7a in August this year. It will help India to maintain a ‘24x7x365’ ‘hawk eye’ in the IOR and especially on PLA-N’s activities in future in order to plan ahead in effectively countering them.

To conclude, as observed by Keshav Vaidya, contemporary of Panikkar, in his equally brilliant work “The Naval Defence of India” (1949), thus: “….even if we do not rule the waves of all the five oceans of the world, we must at least rule the waves of the Indian Ocean…..the Indian Ocean must become an Indian Lake.”

Poised at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen whether the two major regional powers of the Indo-Pacific are able and willing to transcend their historically conditioned roles as continental powers in order to assume expansive new roles as maritime powers.

Written by Sourabh Jyoti Sharma >>

Sourabh is a pursuing PhD research scholar working on ‘Chinese Navy in Indian Ocean and Strategic Implications for India”, at Department of Political Science, Delhi University.

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Indian Exponent: China’s Maritime Overdrives in Indian Ocean Region and it’s Strategic Implications for India
China’s Maritime Overdrives in Indian Ocean Region and it’s Strategic Implications for India
Indian Exponent
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