India-China Maritime Competition: The Way Ahead

China’s effort to expand its power is not a new phenomenon. China has been challenging India’s attempt to dominate South Asian Water for the past couple of decades. Even though India lies at geographical proximity to the Indian Ocean, highly ambitious China denies withdrawing its claim of gaining supremacy in India’s maritime backyard through its economic and military resources. The maritime trade route starts from the South China Sea and passes through the Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Arabian sea; from here, it goes into Gulf countries and European countries. Implementation of the ‘one belt, one road (OBOR) project, and the two-ocean strategy gained momentum in the public domain. The ‘oceans’ around which the strategy revolves are the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The former becomes significant from the Indian point of view. China’s massive capability to conduct military and trade operations in the region is marked as a threat to India. It may cause economic loss, and it is equally a security concern. Both these strategies are interlinked and enforced mutually. OBOR aids in rejuvenating the economy of China, while two ocean strategies help expand zones and ease of operation.

What is China’s two-ocean strategy?

China’s objective of growing its naval operation from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian ocean by redistribution of power in its favor refers to China’s two Ocean strategy.

In the present times, both India and China have a robust set of geopolitical and economic objectives and strive hard to ascend to deriving these goals; the Indian Ocean has become the hot-spot for the conflict. The recent development of new trade routes through Pakistan and Myanmar found to diminish China’s sensitivity to the Malacca dilemma and reduced shipping time is an added advantage. As IOR is a major sea line communication for ASEAN countries, it acts as a trade and energy corridor. So evidently, the region is vulnerable and sensitive.

Now to list down, there are three major geo-political-economic implications to this strategy:

  • It is speculated that PLAN will continue to modernize the operation and extend its zones.
  •  There will be a tug-of-war situation as some regional players welcome China’s presence. In contrast, others will oppose the same, leading to polarization in the ASEAN region, calling for unrest.
  • There will be an expansion of the Chinese economic presence by increasing the volume of trade and infrastructure, which is termed hard economic expansion. At the same time, there will be a soft presence through foreign direct investment, lines of credit, central bank currency swap, etc. 

Timeline & the reasons for the conflict :

In the Mid 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) cultivated its presence on far seashores. It has used decades of unilateral deployments and strategies to claim its power. Thus, the age-old conflict between Indo-China seems to be tightening its neck in the Himalayan region and continuing on the waters. This conflict between countries is not the sole reason for the extreme pressure. As per available data, China’s engagement in Asia has seen a robust increment post-2012. Post-2014, China’s strategic presence in the Indian Ocean region has also witnessed rapid growth. China providing public goods in the region is also a part of the acclamation of control. 

Several reasons are underlying it as follows:

  • China, as a manufacturing hub, is attempting to have power over every vein throughout the world. Since the Indian Ocean accounts for 70% of the world trade, China aims at tightening its grip. 
  • China is attempting to spread its hub across the weaker economies, i.e., Srilanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, African countries, etc. Notably, the economic importance of Africa is high for China, and the Indian Ocean trade route has utmost significance.
  • Since China’s superweapon- superfast trains, which helped beat the 2008 crisis and emerged as a superpower itself, is failing and not being able to gain profit anymore, the nation naturally is trying alternatives way out.

Why has China’s Two Ocean Strategy gained significance again?

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visiting Maldives, Srilanka, and Comoros in January 2022 pinpoints Beijing’s strong will to claim its power in South Asian Waters. Also, the inclusion of the Comoros islands on the visit spotlight the heightened significance that Beijing places on the Indian Ocean. 

During Srilanka visit on 9th January 2022, Wang Yi’s significant statements are as follows:

  • There should be no “3rd Party Intervention” in China-Srilanka ties. In the prevailing times, it can be deciphered as the statement points out India as 3rd party.
  • The foreign minister has put forward a proposition about establishing a forum of Indian Ocean Island nations offering Srilanka a vital role under the supervision of China, which is a serious threat to India as it considers itself as a “Net Security Provider” in the Indian Ocean.

Along with this, China has stated that it will consider Srilanka’s request about debt and reschedule the loan repayment. Since Japan accounts for 10% of China’s loan, Quad might be requesting Japan on behalf of Srilanka to reschedule the debt repayment. 

Responses of regional players :

Since the competition to acquire a dominant position in South Asian waters is escalating with time, the countries around IOR have given mixed responses. Thus India is facing difficulties countering China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region. 

  • Pakistan is found aligned with China, and it is reported that China State Shipbuilding Corporation designs an advanced Warship is delivered to Pakistan. In the latter part of 2021, China acquired the Gwadar port of Pakistan in the Arabian Sea, called the China Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC). 
  • In the Maldives, the” India Out “campaign has been a threat to India’s efforts and an opportunity for China to establish its presence. For the last three years, this campaign has been stirring up now and then in the Maldives. India and Maldives being silent about the actual arrangements has created an Information gap and acted beneficially to China for its strong will to acquire dominance in the IOR.
  • Malaysia has been neutral regarding China’s two-ocean strategy. Malaysia maintains a historical sino-Malaysian relationship, and simultaneously it has a cordial relationship with India.
  •  As a counter-reaction to China’s maritime route, Jakarta had shown willingness to make Indonesia the ‘global maritime fulcrum,’ which is also in favor of India.
  • Despite China’s influence on trade and investment, Japan is still a major player and is countering China. At the same time, the vision of QUAD nations has visibly aligned with India.

India and the way ahead:

The Indian Ocean holds significance to India due to strategic and security concerns. IOR being a vital trade hub, including energy, connects India to the Middle East, Southeast, East Asia, Europe, and America. Due to several ASEAN countries’ presence, the IOR is densely populated. Moreover, it is also a hub for mineral resources and fishery. Therefore, it holds much more importance to a country like India, for which agriculture is the primary sector and backbone of the economy. The basin is rich in minerals such as manganese, copper, cobalt, nickel, iron, etc. Specific choke points need surveillance: Malacca Strait, Strait of Hormuz, and Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. On average, it is found that 40 % of the world’s oil supply is conducted through these choke points. 

To analyze the security aspects, IOR holds the dimension of traditional naval concerns. The 2008 terrorist attack through the Arabian Sea is an example and underlines the need for vigilance.

But at the same time, it is practically impossible for India to keep China away from the neighboring countries due to China’s strong trade hub and influence. But keeping the network alive and strengthening cooperation with Srilanka, Maldives seems to be the best way to combat China’s efforts. India has been promoting the trilateral security dialogue with Maldives and Srilanka, which was reemphasized in 2020 as ‘Colombo Security Conclave.’ In August 2021, deputy national security advisers of India, Srilanka, and the Maldives renewed the policy for cooperation established in 2011. Goa Maritime Conclave was organized in November 2021, where navy and coast guard chiefs participated. This conclave discussed the potentiality of establishing regional training arrangements to tackle the threat. Thailand, Seychelles, Singapore, Srilanka, Myanmar, Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Indonesia, Comoros, Bangladesh, and India participated in the Goa Maritime Conclave. 

Established in 2004, QUAD, which stands for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue including USA, India, Japan, and Australia, still holds the magnitude. Since the group has advanced countries, this is an opportunity for India to increase its relations and ensure its scope in the Indian Ocean Region. India needs to emphasize its strength and brace itself to utilize emerging new opportunities. Since the information is asymmetric regarding the choice of other South Asian countries, specifically concerning the Indo-Pacific region, long-term policy reformulation needs to be considered. 

What is the Sagar Initiative?

SAGAR – Security and Growth for All in the Region is the Indian policy of maritime cooperation and synergy in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR).

This initiative helps leverage the’ Blue Economic’ project, which includes ecological resilience, energy security, livelihood generation, and strengthening strategic partnerships with neighboring countries. The weakness of the initiative is the lack of execution capacity. Even though India can develop infrastructure and offer so much more to create value to self and neighborhood, the lack of implementation acts as a factor of disappointment to the neighborhood. This is the scope that China is willing to utilize and expand its power over the Indo-Pacific region.

India needs to think about assisting Srilanka and strengthening its relationship with Japan. India should also assess the proposed SAGAR initiative and utilize it to build closer relationships, security, and economic and financial cooperation; since it holds a high potential of interlinkage with other policy initiatives such as Blue Economy, Project Sagarmala, Project Mausam, etc. India should utilize it for security and economic coordination, cordial engagement with neighborhoods and expand the scope and leverage its strength.

A synergetic and coordinated approach amongst the leading Indo-pacific powers – India-Japan-USA and Australia can be a way out of the conflict at the energy corridor, i.e., IOR, but this requires common terms, conditions, and vision-oriented close cooperation between the partners.

Geethalakshmi K