The Indo-Pacific region, it is the most vital region for any country to wield influence because of its trade and strategic importance. With the rise of China, the great game is on, to increase its influence and control vital strategic choke points and SLOCs of the region. India, as a major regional player has a massive role to play in the region. However, as a sovereign state with independent strategic interests, it always considered the Indian Ocean as its backyard, and as KM Panikkar says India wants to keep “Indian ocean as India’s Ocean”. New Delhi’s definition of the Indian Ocean is, as Prime Minister Modi said at Shangri-La dialogue, “from the shores of Africa to that of Americas”. The politics of the Indo-Pacific has been changing at a faster pace ever since Chinese President Xi Jinping announced BRI and especially the twenty-first-century Maritime Silk Road, which actually accelerated India’s role in the region and race between two countries in increasing influence. India’s play in the region is so important that U.S.A changed the name of its Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific command by acknowledging India’s role in countering China. US state department document named, “A free and open Indo-Pacific” stated “Authoritarian revisionist powers seek to advance their parochial interests at others expense… The USA is strengthening and deepening partnerships with countries that share our values”. India has vigorously increased its activities in the Indo-Pacific ever since China announced its twenty-first-century MSR.
The Maritime Silk Road (MSR) which is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) is a strategy pursued by China to expand its influence beyond its immediate maritime boundaries. The MSR as a concept goes back to China’s Han Dynasty era(206BC-220AD) when key land and sea trading routes carried the Chinese Silk to Europe. The strategy is to enhance trade connectivity through the development of ports, ports related infrastructure, and developing industrial zones in the partner countries. Due to overproduction in the domestic manufacturing sector and in order to promote overseas demand for Chinese goods, the BRI took birth. The MSR which offers both security and development to member nations acts as an attractive proposition for the developing and underdeveloped countries, especially for South-East Asian and African countries. Ever since President Xi announced this grand project there have been many analyses and strategic opinions on how MSR could amend the current world order, especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Though so far it has been said to be economical in nature, fear of Chinese debt trap policy for several littoral states coupled with China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and increased presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has got the major Regional powers like India thinking.
Ever since MSR’s inception the China managed to build its first overseas military base Obock in Djibouti and ports like Gwadar in Pakistan, Lamu in Kenya, Maputo in Mozambique, Hambantota and Colombo in Sri-Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Kyaukpyu in Myanmar to name a few. Though the actions seem like they are solely backed by trade and economic aspirations but let us not forget that it is easy to convert a port into a naval base. In fact, an U.S.A report claimed that China would construct a new naval base in “Jiwani” which is 60km west of Gwadar. Apart from ports, China has managed to increase its influence by heavy investments, for example, in the east African states alone, China has been involved in nearly 600 projects. A country that had no substantial presence or influence in IOR in the 20th century has over the last decade increased its presence substantially. This is a great concern for India since it looks at IOR as its backyard.
India, as a major South-Asian naval power and aspiring to be a superpower, has been unable to match and counter China in both economic and strategic support to the countries in the IOR and certainly is not clear on how to respond to China. Traditionally, India had always more focused on the territorial threats posed by Pakistan and China to its northern borders. However, unlike the Himalayas, Indian Ocean is the turf where China is strategically vulnerable and its very essential New Delhi strategizes better. From China’s behavior in the South China Sea, lessons from its debt trap policy, and considering the nature of the nation it would be difficult to have a rule-based order with China and it would be a strategic blunder if assumed so! Many strategic thinkers feel China’s BRI could be seen as a counter to U.S.A “Asia Re-balance” strategy and some feel China’s attempt to establish military bases in IOR could be seen a counter to the Malabar exercise which is the trilateral exercise between India, Japan and U.S.A conducted annually since 1992 (Brewster, 2018). However, it’s important to note that most of the Chinese strategic thinkers do not consider India as a threat but consider it as a risk to their activities in IOR. Thus, to address all these issues a ‘Bold and Grand’ strategic policy is required from New-Delhi.
The Indian Ocean is the world’s only region and ocean named after a single state, i,e. India. In order to counter China’s MSR and to cutback it’s influence, New-Delhi has come up with several strategic projects such as Mausam, SAGAR(Security And Growth for All in the Region), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium(IONS), QUAD(Quadrilateral Dialogue between four Democracies), BIMSTEC(Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and several bilateral projects. The predicament of all these projects is that none of them are clearly directed towards China apart from QUAD and they are all stuck in their initial stages. The IONS, the brainchild of the Indian Navy has great potential but the presence of Pakistan as a member will make it defunct just like SAARC. Many of the Chinese thinkers believe that India is playing the role which U.S.A wants it to play in IOR and so it is necessary to let China grasp that India has its own indigenous game plan for IOR.
While it may be possible that China may not convert its ports of Indian Ocean as many analysts advocate these bases are wholly commercial bases like in Maldivian are onerous to defend during wartime (Brewster, 2018). Nevertheless, their mere presence and influence are a risk to India’s ambitions. As China’s official media advocated once that the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) should build no less than 18 military bases in the IOR, it only resembles that China has more vested interests in the Indian Ocean. So, what is the way forward for India to counter China? Many advocates that it is possible that India and China have a mutually respected regional rules-based order but how feasible is it is not clear. This is because Indian continues to protest when Chinese vessels enter its EEZ as China does for the US and other foreign vessels but India has been silent on USA vessels moving in its EEZ. This kind of selective way of conduct would make India’s positions for a rules-based order weak.
The naval exercises have been traditionally India’s confidence-building measure and Indian Navy holds these exercises with a number of countries. It is important to note that Naval exercises are essential for strategic signaling to a third country. The most strategically winning exercise has been the Malabar exercise in which navies of Japan, the USA, and India participate but members reluctance to include Australia has been a setback. Indian navy conducts bilateral exercises with most of the ASEAN nations and it would be strategically relevant if such exercises happen at a multilateral level with Vietnam and the Philippines as they have been very skeptical about China’s BRI. India must join Vietnam and the Philippines in countering China because both these countries have increased their bilateral engagement and agreed on a strategic partnership. The multilateral naval exercises are more relevant, for e.g., the exercise conducted last year with the Philippines, USA, and Japan in the South China Sea had a significant impact on China. Since it’s difficult to conduct more multilateral exercises a complex inter-dependent Bi-lateral and Multi-lateral naval exercises would be a workable option to signal China in its own backyard that its activities are not going unnoticed.
The conclusion of Logistics Exchange agreements with the countries of common interest in IOR can also play a crucial role in India by providing access to naval bases for Indian vessels. India must completely operationalise the already signed agreements and complete the pending Logistics Exchange agreements with the UK, Japan, and Australia because their common interest is also China. The Logistics agreements with USA, France, Japan, and Australia would provide access to Diego Garcia, Cocos, and La Reunion naval bases which are vital in the IOR. However, it is important to successfully conclude Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Japan since the nation remains our utmost important partner in Asia and was the only nation that publicly supported India during the “Doklam” conflict. Along with that, India’s focus should also prevail in pursuing the East-Asian nations which will serve as our answer to China’s growing influence.
USPACCOM Admiral(retd.) Harry Harris once said, “Great power competition is back, geopolitical competition between free and oppressive visions is taking place in the Indo-Pacific”. How India plays in this Indo-Pacific game will determine its aspirations to become Global power. If India wants the Indian Ocean to be India’s Ocean, then its influence and role must be increased, and completing Assumption Island in Seychelles and Agalega of Mauritius would be a great boost for this. So far India’s response to China’s activities in IOR has been defensive and it is necessary for India to elevate its approach from Defensive realism to a shade of Neo-Realism. Only then can India move from a mere “Net Security Provider” to a “Net Security Providing” nation in the IOR. In so while countering China, its importance India should not develop an Indian ‘Monroe Doctrine’ (i.e., the complete rejection of outside powers presence in its waters).
Where would this race lead both the countries? Both countries can choose to either lead to a direct conflict or can choose to cooperate in maritime security issues such as Piracy, Smuggling, illegal fishing, and human trafficking. Every maritime power would want to jump to “sea denial” capacity from “sea controlling”, is New Delhi prepared for this?. Three important policies of India will define the future Sino-Indian relations, SAGAR, QUAD, and AAGC (Asia Africa Growth Corridor). QUAD, which China considers as an Indo-Pacific NATO is struck at the initial stage and If QSD( Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) is elevated to the apex level and Australia is invited to join the Malabar naval exercise this will begin the change in the paradigm of existing relations. AAGC which is still at inception but has enormous potential to stand up to China’s BRI, specially MSR in the region. Neither India nor China would want to lag in the race, and this was evident during the Maldivian crisis when Chinese vessels were in IOR. The future relations would only be dependent on how India acts along with its de facto strategic allies.
Brewster, D. (2018). India and China at Sea. Oxford.