Chetananand Patil, Research Intern, ICS
The Indian Ocean is increasingly becoming a platform for the new emerging competition between major powers with China making its forays into the region, India seeking to preserve its dominance and the US keen to contain rise of China. Conventional wisdom perceives Chinese presence as a threat for the region and especially for India as it challenges Indian supremacy in its own backyard. Although China’s increasing presence cannot be overlooked or seen in idealist terms, there are certain limitations to its expansion which places Beijing in a strategically disadvantaged position vis-à-vis India.
The most important aspect that needs to be taken into account regarding China and the Indian Ocean Region is that China has no maritime territorial claims in the IOR and the region is not its strategic backyard. For Beijing, to protect maritime sovereignty in the South China Sea is the first priority as it is apprehensive of American involvement in the disputes in the area. Through its naval modernization, China is developing asymmetric warfare capabilities to confront the US threat, pursuing anti-access/area denial strategies for driving the US out beyond the first and second island chains. Thus, China’s focus on South China Sea places limitations on its naval capability transfer in the IOR where only sea-lanes of communication (SLOCs) need to be protected.
China’s primary interest in the IOR is protecting SLOCs and choke-points which are vital for its energy imports as almost 80% of its energy imports come through the most important choke point – Strait of Malacca (Hamza 2017). Beijing fears an interdiction of these choke-points by the US owing to the fact that such blockade may severely cripple the Chinese economy. Thus, any kind of military assertion in the region might come with retaliatory measures from other powers, which are better placed in terms of operational experience and naval capability. For instance, against the backdrop of growing Chinese submarine presence in the Indian Ocean, the Indo-US-Japan Malabar Exercise-2017 was conducted with an additional feature of anti-submarine warfare (Aneja 2017).
China’s strategic vulnerability is also reinforced by the scarcity of overland transport networks to the Indian Ocean. Although Beijing is developing alternative land routes for its oil and energy supplies for reducing dependence on sea, a significant amount of trade will continue to take place through sea routes as there is no land route available for trade with islands countries like Sri Lanka, Maldives or Seychelles for example. Besides, land routes like China-Pakistan Economic Corridor involve security risks due to its passage through unstable regions like Balochistan, and PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) where Indian sovereignty is involved (Brewster 2015).
In addition to its geographical advantage, India possesses an operational advantage vis-à-vis China in the Indian Ocean as it has institutionalized maritime exercises with foreign navies. The most important amongst these exercises is the Indo-US-Japan trilateral Malabar exercise conducted every year alternatively in the IOR and Pacific Ocean. Other naval interactions include the Milan exercises, International Maritime Boundary Line Meetings and anti-piracy operations to enhance mutual understanding, operational coordination and strengthen maritime security cooperation (MoD 2015). India is also stepping up cooperative ties with the IOR littoral countries through initiatives like Mausam, Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) to balance Chinese influence particularly in the neighborhood. Furthermore, India leads two significant institutions for regional cooperation – Indian Ocean Rim Association and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium which enables India to bring all regional countries together and address regional concerns. Regional mechanisms such as IORA and IONS serve India’s purpose of being a ‘net security provider’ in the region.
In 2013, China released its Indian Ocean Strategy in a document which emphasized deepening economic ties with the IOR countries to propagate its influence (Krishnan 2016). Despite its burgeoning trade and investment ties with the IOR littoral states, Chinese investment is pushing countries like Sri Lanka into a debt trap, which is prompting these countries to look for alternative investors, including India. For instance, India recently signed an airport deal with Sri Lanka where US$293 million is to be invested by India, which is also touted as India’s counter to China’s OBOR in Sri Lanka (Economic Times 2017).
Notwithstanding above strategic constraints, China also has some rhetorical obligations articulated in a document titled, ‘Maritime Cooperation under the BRI’, which seeks to promote market-based operation and multi-stakeholder participation in projects. This commitment binds Beijing to avoid interventionist policies to gain strategic advantage in the Indian Ocean (Xinhua 2017). Hence, considering its economic interests at stake, multi-polarity of power competition and rhetorical commitments, Beijing has limited leeway to intensify its military presence in the IOR.
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Project Mausam is an initiative launched by India which involves 39 countries from the Indian Ocean Region, will study the monsoon winds that help sailors to travel towards Southeast Asia and Africa.
 AAGC is an initiative launched by India and Japan to create a free and open Indo-Pacific region by rediscovering ancient trade routes and creating sea corridors that will connect Africa with Asia. It is also touted as a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
 SAGAR is a concept propounded by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a speech in Mauritius, which seeks to deepen India’s economic and security ties with IOR countries, especially littoral states.