The competition between India and China is heating up in the Indian Ocean region with the regional powers’ moves to exert influence in the domain through development of port facilities and military patrols.
According to a recent US report, China is constructing a second military base in Jiwani, south west of Gwadar, that could be seen as part of its ‘String of Pearl strategy’ to expand its presence in the region.
This is effectively counterpoised by the recently inked pact signed between India and Seychelles which allows India to develop, manage, operate and maintain facilities on the Assumption island as part of its quest to boost influence in the Indo-Pacific strategy.
Historically India has viewed the Indian Ocean as its ‘backyard’ which first manifested during the Cold War period where it wanted the major powers to withdraw themselves from the region as it constituted a threat to India’s presence in the region.
However, China’s increasing reliance on energy security and its trade with the Indian Ocean littorals act as determinants to its increasing strategic calculus in the region. Compounded with the economic imperatives, China’s motive to utilise the Indian Ocean as the space for its power projection capabilities has complicated the regional stability.
This has important repercussions for India as the significance of the Indian Ocean remains unparalleled. A succinct manifestation of this is PM Modi’s remarks in 2016 at the International Fleet review in Vishakhapatnam where, noting the crucial role played by the Indian Ocean, he asserted that “for us the (Indian Ocean) serves as a strategic bridge with the nations in our immediate and extended maritime neighbourhood”.
Chinese ‘String of Pearls’ Doctrine
The Chinese doctrine of ‘String of Pearls’ coined in 2005 has been a prominent factor in the Indian public debate about China and its intentions in the Indian Ocean region. The ‘String of Pearls’ is aimed at expanding China’s footprint into the Indian Ocean region by allowing the PLA navy to develop bases or have access to facilities across the northern Indian Ocean.
The strategy gained significance in the 21st century with the US military and economic retrenchment in Asia that paved the way for the Chinese upsurge of influence in the region.
The main point of this policy is the strategic placement of these ‘pearls’ with one another in order to make a chain of hubs that can serve as both economic as well as military and intelligent cores in the IOR.
‘Far Seas Operations’
An appraisal of the above Chinese strategy will need us to consider China’s perception of maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean region. The crux of it points towards its ‘two ocean strategy’ formulated by the Communist Party of China (CPC) way back in 2005. The narrative behind this is to regain control of the waters surrounding it so as not just end its ‘century of humiliation’ but to project the Chinese power both regionally and globally.
Devised under Admiral Liu Huaqing, the PLA’s naval strategy had undergone a massive transformation from coastal operations to an ‘offshore defense strategy’.
Heavily influenced by Alfred Mahan’s depiction of importance of naval power in his seminal work The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 where State power was equated with assuming a stronghold in the seas in terms of trade and commerce, Liu entertained a similar vision.
He envisaged China as a vibrant sea power whose maritime ambitions manifested themselves in a navy capable of protecting seagoing trade and staking the nation’s claim to great power.
A strong characterisation of this vision resonated in Xi Jinping’s lofty pronouncements of the ‘China dream’ made during the 19th CPC Central Committee in 2017.
Expanding naval operations in the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean along with building a network of naval facilities including ports and construction facilities exemplifies its present strategy of conducting ‘far seas operations’.
The BRI’s Footprint in the Region
A natural corollary of the above strategy is its Maritime Silk Road initiative, colloquially termed as the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) that includes the construction of new overland pathways to South Asia and maritime pathways across the Indian Ocean connecting China with the Indian Ocean region.
The BRI initiative initially advocated by the Chinese, purely in the pursuit of improving its domestic economy, has a strong strategic implication. Through controlling the construction, expansion and operation of the numerous port facilities by the Chinese companies, BRI serves to expand its political and economic footprint in the region.
As a result, this pinpointing of ports across the region ranging from the Sittwe, Chittagong, Hambantota and Gwadar in effect is a reproduction of its ‘String of Pearl’ strategy subsumed under the BRI.
India’s Strategic Necessity
In this sense, India’s maritime policy has been constructive in the recent past where policymakers are concerned about China’ assertive policy towards the country as well as its growing influence in the Indian Ocean that they view as an attempt to gain permanent access to the waters and ‘encircle’ India strategically.
From mooting the idea of SAGAR during the commissioning of the Barracuda in 2015 , Modi’s foreign policy has come a long way that underscores the importance of the Indian Ocean both for its national and regional imperatives which included deepening economic and security cooperation in the region.
Further the aspiration of positing itself as the ‘net security provider’ has been echoed consistently in the present times with the epithet ‘ securing’ the seas forming a key term in the Indian Navy’s revised official maritime strategy in 2015.
Although India is making some incremental policy advancements in its backyard with policies like ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ initiatives designed to buttress India’s strategic position in the IOR, the scenario is fraught with challenges. A tangible demonstration includes the recent US strategy that emphasised the concept of a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’.
This policy under Trump was carefully structured to give the US a policy continuity where they have the option to withdraw in the future rather than being a pivot that resulted in a deep void in the regional balance of power.
However, an important offshoot of such a policy is forging partnerships with like-minded democracies to ensure regional balance and stability. In this regard, India’s position as the rising power both as the one ‘balancing’ the power and the provider of credible net security in the region becomes imminent.
Where India is looking forward to pursue its global ambitions, it has to show leadership in its own backyard. The latest India-ASEAN summit and India’s increasing bilateral engagement with the IO littorals marks a positive step in this direction.
(The author is a researcher presently working in the Strategic Studies Program under Prof Harsh V Pant at the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)