The Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest body of water and has become a growing area of competition between China and India. Escalated activities such as port development and military exercises and rhetoric could endanger stability in a critical region for global trade flows.
India has treated the Indian Ocean as an ocean of peace and stability. Now that China has decided that it is going to become one of the major player in the region, India has reasons to worry because China will come to India’s immediate neighbourhood.
Importance of the Indian Ocean
- The Indian Ocean littoral has the potential to become the leading source of new global growth over the next 20 years.
- One-third of the world population lives in the region, including one-quarter of the UN members.
- It provides critical sea trade routes that connect the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia with the broader Asian continent to the east and Europe to the west.
- A number of the world’s most important strategic choke points are found in the Indian Ocean.
- Indian Ocean channels carry 2/3rd of the world’s oil shipments, 1/3rd of the bulk cargo and half of all container traffic.
- Nearly 40 per cent of the world’s offshore petroleum is produced in the Indian Ocean.
- The Indian Ocean hosts heavy mineral deposits, and fisheries are increasingly important for both exports and domestic consumption.
- China and India are dependent on energy resources transported via the secure sealanes in the Indian Ocean to fuel their economies.
- India imports nearly 80 percent of its energy, mostly oil from the Middle East.
- For New Delhi’s press to maintain economic growth, its dependency on the safe transport of resources will likely intensify.
- The region is home to some of the most intense conflict-prone areas and hosts various nuclear powers of the world.
India and China In Indian Ocean
- China’s growing global influence and India’s rapid economic rise have heightened the ocean’s strategic value.
- Both countries have developed initiatives to bolster infrastructure and other connections in the region.
- Each country is seeking to strengthen ties with smaller regional states to secure their respective security and economic interests.
- Since launching counter-piracy operations in 2009, Beijing has become increasingly active in the region.
- Beijing’s regional vision outlines its One Belt, One Road plan.
- China’s ties with regional states have deepened, including the influx of Chinese capital into construction projects in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
- Beijing’s forays into the Indian Ocean are driven by China’s excess capacity challenges, incentivizing Chinese firms to compete in and open new markets abroad.
- India sees itself as the natural preeminent regional power.
- India has doubled-down on maintaining stronger diplomatic, economic, and security ties with IOR maritime states.
- It is meant to strengthen India’s economy, establish its role a driver of regional growth, and simultaneously diminish China’s growing appeal.
- It is India’s neighbourhood that holds the key to its emergence as a regional and global power.
- China’s movements in the region have been described by the “string of pearls” metaphor, which holds that China is taking on economic and investment projects with Indian Ocean states to secure ports or places for its military stations.
Impact of Chinese Influence on India
- The Indian Ocean is the only ocean which has been named after one of the countries. So, this indicates the important presence of India in this zone.
- About 7000 km of India’s coastal land borders around the Indian Ocean. Most of its trade through sea-route occurs through this Ocean and some of the islands belonging to the Indian territory lie in this Ocean, whose safety is also a primary responsibility of India.
- China’s increased presence can mean a great harm to this position.
- Chinese are increasing their trading posts all around the Indian Ocean and also exploring mineral and oil resources in these areas.
- India has a competitive and cooperative relationship in many countries of Africa and Southeast Asia which might get affected due to Chinese presence.
- China has become the first or second major trading country with all these countries in the Indian Ocean region and Australia as well.
- There could possibly be China-led alliances, Chinese client states and the establishment of Chinese spheres of influence, affecting India’s clout in the region.
- With China, stepping up its political and economic footprint in the region, revisionist claims in the land and oceanic space could be brought up again like the issue of Doklam and Arunachal Pradesh.
- With the presence of Chinese strategic bases, there will be constriction of the Indian strategic manoeuvre space within its own geographical area.
- India has legitimate strategic concerns because any conflict in the Indian Ocean will have ramification in the whole region.
- It may hamper regional security situation and in such case, India’s relationship with IOR countries may get disrupted.
- There is global maritime security interest involved in the region and many nations want India to balance the assertive and rising China and like it to get involved in the dispute to maintain peace and security in the region.
India’s current strategy in the Indian Ocean
- India is moving to shore up its position against a more assertive Chinese presence by developing its own ‘string of pearls’.
- New Delhi recently signed a strategic pact with France, with each opening their naval bases to the other’s warships across the Indian Ocean.
- That gives the Indian navy access to strategically important French ports including one in Djibouti that offers easy access to key oil supply and trade routes.
- Prime Minister Modi finalised an agreement for a new base in Seychelles and negotiated military access to facilities at Oman’s port and airfields.
- India signed an agreement with Singapore and Indonesia for naval cooperation.
- India has expanded its bases on Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
- India has realised that it needs to match China’s assertiveness, and that includes expanding its reach into the Pacific.
- India is creating a security grid with the littoral countries so that militarization of the Indian Ocean can be prevented.
- For Delhi, having a counter power-projection capability in the South China Sea is now seen as critical to its strategic deterrence against Beijing.
- India has also stepped up aid to littorals through its Project SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), which is designed to revive India’s ancient trade routes and cultural linkages around the Indian Ocean. It is a counter-move to China’s maritime silk road.
- India is seemingly increasing its alliance with the US to deal with Beijing; most recently the Quad.
What More India Should Do
- The idea of selling the illusion of China as a villain in Asia may not work beyond a point.
- Instead, view China as part of the solution to the region’s challenges.
- A mutual ‘complex interdependence’ in economic, security and other domains should be strengthened by initiating structured consultations. E.g. the current India-China joint anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden.
- India should certainly focus on the Indo-Pacific and consider cooperating with China, even while being part of the Quad.
- India also needs to strategize a plan to nudge China towards playing a role so as to ensure a stable regional security order.
- This is particularly in the context of its role in Pakistan, where China has to balance trade and terrorism.
- Despite this strategy of mutual trust, the role of military strength in guaranteeing national security cannot be underestimated.
- Thus, India would be better served by adopting a more nuanced strategy of ‘smart-balancing’ China.
- It is suggested that India should use its $70 billion-strong trading relationship with China as a bargaining chip to check Chinese behaviour.
- India needs to plan its own sea and road linkages with its neighbouring countries.
- Indian Ocean RIM Association should be a force multiplier for India’s interests and for this, bilateral relations with all countries in this region has to be revived.
- Maintaining peace and stability of the Indian ocean is very important.
- The militarization of Indian ocean must be prevented.
- A proper framework must be developed by the littoral countries to deal with any type of crisis be it natural or any other.