11.10.2014 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The Indian Ocean: A Flashpoint of India-China Power Tussle?

234234234The Chinese President’s visit to India seems to have been a very successful one in terms of the amount of investments to be made in future. Promises were made from both sides to work together to resolve issues of politico-military significance and to focus on areas of co-operation where both states happen to have “common interests.” Although the visit was completely overshadowed by economic co-operation, it does not mean that power tussle between both states has come to an end, or lost its significance as a factor conditioning their overall relations. As such, left largely unspoken though, are the deep worries in India over Chinese manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean, where New Delhi`s position is being constantly challenged by billions of dollars in aid from Beijing and gargantuan Chinese construction projects.

While China`s recent push for dominance in the South China and East China seas gets more attention, the quiet contest for influence in the Indian Ocean is being watched carefully from Japan to the USA. More than anything else, the worries are over energy. As a matter of fact, the tankers that move through the Indian Ocean carry 80 per cent of China`s oil, 65 per cent of India`s and 60 per cent of Japan`s, making those waters crucially important to three of Asia`s great powers. A significant slowdown in tanker traffic whether from diplomatic stand-off, piracy or war could cripple those countries and send shock waves around the world.

That China is rapidly expanding in the region becomes obvious when we look at the strategy it has been following for last few years. Apart from building ports and forging alliances in coastal nations from Myanmar to Pakistan, China’s latest initiative is the maritime Silk Road. This maritime Silk Road is supposed to be a series of agreements that would link China to Europe by sea. But if China heralds the Silk Road as a vision of international cooperation, many in the Indian government perceive of it, naturally though, as a Trojan horse hiding Beijing`s expanding influence, and a prelude to eventually strengthening and perpetuating China’s geo-political position in the Indian Ocean.

Although China is making investments in India also, she is equally working on the other end of the oceanic spectrum. For example, before arriving in India, the Chinese President visited two of China’s allies, Maldives and Sri Lanka. In Maldives, Chinese influence has been increasing steadily for last few years. The source of influence is Chinese investments as part of its “String of Pearls” strategy. Similar is the case of Sri Lanka also where China has built a colossal port in the once-quiet town of Hambantota. Although Chinese president did not visit Pakistan, China is surely building port at Gwadar that overlooks the Strait of Hormuz. It is more than obvious that China is building pockets of influence in the India Ocean to counter the influence of both India and the US.

The Chinese strategy is, apart from expanding its own influence, is also to diversify routes of transportation that it uses to do trade, especially import of Oil. As a matter of fact, China is highly dependent on natural resources from the Middle East and Africa, and as such, is a country highly vulnerable to supply disruptions caused by political instability in supplier countries, or to problems caused by piracy or blockades in choke points such as the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Malacca, South China Sea or Taiwan Strait. Through a presence in ports in these strategic regions, China is basically securing its energy routes and, at the same time, expanding commercial and diplomatic relations by forging economic and strategic alliances.

In essence, Chinese endeavour basically hinges upon offering, without any additional ‘strings attached, real-time mutual benefits in terms of development of economic and social structures of partner countries. It is for this reason that more and more of the countries are accepting such partnership with China. A number of examples can be cited in this regard. However, it would be suffice to quote the case of Myanmar. Despite the best efforts of India to the contrary, Myanmar is gradually accepting its partnership with China in many such projects as obviously have geostrategic connotations. Those ongoing and planned projects include the Myanmar-China oil and gas pipelines, deep seaport project, industrial zone in Kyaukpyu and its planned expressway and rail link with southern China, and development assistance in health, energy, and agriculture sectors.

That China’s influence is expanding rapidly as compared to other regional competing states becomes evident when we take into account the rapid increase in bilateral trade between China and regional states on the one hand, and on the other hand, between India and other regional states.

On the other hand, India too is watching Chinese maneuvers closely enough and forging its own relations with other Asian states, some of which also happen to be China’s arch rivals. For example, just a few weeks ago, Indian Prime Minister returned from a highly successful trip to Japan, China`s fiercest rival, bringing home pledges of billions of dollars in aid and investment along with agreements to strengthen security and economic ties. Then, just days ago, the Indian and Vietnamese presidents issued a joint statement calling for freedom of navigation in the South China and East China seas, a clear jab at Beijing`s aggressive assertiveness in the region.

Besides it, there are also indications that India is now even contemplating to stretch its ‘oceanic domineering’ to the South China Sea. While the whole world is watching China’s confrontations in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, India is watching with particular concern. India has no territorial claims here per se, but one Indian official recently said that the South China Sea could be seen “as the antechamber of the Indian Ocean,” given the flow of maritime traffic. In this behalf, India has already taken certain concrete steps as well. For example, with upbeat expansion and modernization programme of India’s naval strength and capability well in place, it should be no wonder to find that in accord with India’s ‘Look East’ policy, four of the frontline Indian warships under command of the Flag Officer Commanding Eastern Fleet have been having a sustained operational deployment to the South China Sea and North West Pacific for more than a year now. This is a clear indication of India’s counter-maneuvers against China’s expansion as well as a manifestation of its own oceanic expansion.

Even the once much media-hyped India-US Strategic Partnership also appears to be going on the ‘back burner’, and is also affecting the dynamics of Indo-China relations; for, both India and the US have identical objective, that is, to prevent China from expanding its influence. There is no denying the fact that India has established enough naval capability; however, the very availability of this capacity is deepening the roots of power tussle going on between India and China. Whether or not this tussle would ever turn into conflict is a moot question; however, it is certain that this rivalry in the India Ocean is a very critical point which can lead to some sort of conflict between them.

In this behalf, we have to analyze how the situation is developing between India and China, especially with regard to the development of Gwadar port. India’s position is very much affected by what is known as “Hormuz Dilemma,” that is, its dependence on imports passing through the Strait of Hormuz, close to the shores of Pakistan’s Makran coast, where the Chinese are helping the Pakistanis in developing a deep-water port. To counter-balance this manoeuvre of China, India is developing a similar type of port in Iran, which the former will use to augment its own position in the Strait of Hormuz.

To further elaborate the extent of the on-going tussle between these two states, we must also look at the amount being spent to develop and expand naval force. For example, India is planning to spend almost $45 billion over the next 20 years on 103 new warships, including destroyers and nuclear submarines. By comparison, China’s investment over the same period is projected to be around $25 billion for 135 vessels. This huge spending is itself an indication of how these two competitors perceive each others’ position in the Ocean and how they want to counter it.

It is clear that the power tussle between India and China in the India Ocean can be a flashpoint of conflict in the region. Notwithstanding the ever increasing bi-lateral trade and investment between both states, this is also evident that they are equally engaged in beating each other militarily; and, given the critical importance of the Indian Ocean in the economies of both states, it can be argued that they would keep on spending huge amount of money to increase their respective capacity to be always in a position to respond to any military situation. Seeing this way, the India Ocean is certainly a critical flashpoint between India and China and can trigger long term conflict in the entire region.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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