Base Race in the Indian Ocean: China Is Snapping at India’s Heels

With the Indo-Pacific emerging as a likely new theatre of conflict, India & China are battling for naval supremacy.

3 min read

Video Editor: Kunal Mehra
Camera: Athar Rathar


The Indo-Pacific is heating up.

Yes, that's Indo-Pacific, not the 'Asia-Pacific' that was common for so long. In fact, US Pacific Command even renamed itself US Indo-Pacific Command in a nod to India's role in the region – just as America's rivalry with China on the seas ramps up.

When we hear international conflict, we tend to think land battles – but the next big confrontation might be at sea. Maritime defence and control is becoming increasingly important, especially to India in the Indian Ocean.

And with China’s brand spanking new indigenous aircraft carrier – the Type001A, complete – it looks like India’s rival is set on a path to project power into India's own backyard.


The Aircraft Carrier Frenzy

Sure, the carrier is aimed more at countering the US in the South China Sea than at India... but that doesn't change the fact that with China's new carrier, the pressure on Indian Navy is up.

India has one operational aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya. Its second, INS Vikrant, is currently being built in Kochi and set to enter service by the end of 2020. There's a third proposed, the tentatively named INS Vishal, which is facing delays and is only expected to be complete by the 2030s.

But by 2020, China plans to have its second aircraft carrier in the sea-trial phase, even as its third is being built. With its goal of eventually commissioning six aircraft carriers compared to India's 3, and with its furious pace in building them, China threatens to leave India in the dust, in its own sphere of influence.


A String of Pearls

India is well positioned and well defended in its maritime playground, having enjoyed strategic superiority here, but China has one thing India doesn't – vast economic might, and the political will to wield it single-mindedly.

So China has fashioned a 'string of pearls' – these are commercial and strategic bases right around India's neck. These efforts would encircle India in its own neighbourhood. Here's what that looks like:

1. Pakistan: Gwadar
Having built Gwadar for Pakistan as part of CPEC, China will be able to station its naval forces here, using it as a valuable base of operations.

2. Sri Lanka: Hambantota port
After Sri Lanka was not able to make repayments on the Chinese loans it took for the building of the Hambantota port, China swooped in and took a 99-year lease of the port, effectively bringing it under its control.

3. Djibouti naval base in the Horn of Africa
Djibouti hosts naval bases for the US, China, and India too has access via France's base. Djibouti just nationalised a port previously run by a Dubai company, that just so happens to be located right next to China's naval base, reportedly to give as a gift to a Chinese company – that's in keeping with China's signature style of mixing military and commercial interests.
4. Myanmar: Kyaukpyu
China has also won the tender to build a deep sea port in the Burmese town of Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal. There are fears that the $7.5 billion price tag could put Myanmar in a debt trap, the way Hambantota was caught, giving China another foothold in the Indian Ocean.


But hold up, India's not taking this lying down.

Earlier in 2018, India and Indonesia pledged to set up a strategic Indonesian naval port in Sabang, right at the mouth of the crucial Malacca Strait, to be used jointly with India. This base gives India control over the entry to the Malacca Strait, a strategic chokepoint.

In early 2018, PM Modi secured Indian naval access to an Omani port in the Strait of Hormuz – around 30% of the world's seaborne oil passes daily through this strait. In late 2017, India also boosted its access to Singapore's Changi port, opposite the Sabang port we just saw.

India can't currently rival China's extravagant investment packages, but it does offer one thing China hasn't – mutually beneficial deals that are more partnerships than predatory lending.

The game is still wide open.

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Topics:  Indian Ocean   Indian Navy   Chinese Navy 

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