China’s growing economic and naval presence in the Indian Ocean region challenges India, the major South Asian power in the Indian Ocean area, and the US, the primary power since 1945. The question is why.
The Indian Ocean in International Power Politics
Since ancient times the Indian Ocean has been a dynamic area of interaction between traders, cultures and civilizations from Africa’s eastern coastline across the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal to Australia. Its major sea lanes connect the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia with Europe and the Americas.
Strategically, the Indian Ocean is the location, among other things, of much of the world’s energy supplies, key trade routes, the incipient Sino-US and Sino-Indian rivalries, Islamist extremists and a powerful Iran committed to a nuclear program which could be militarized.
Most of the world’s trade passes through the Indian Ocean. Oil is one of the most important goods to be carried through the Indian Ocean: some 40 billion barrels traverse it every day.
For the US, the Indian Ocean is the main gateway to Asia, where 60 percent of its navy is placed.
Parts of the Indian Ocean comprise India’s territorial waters. About 90 percent of India’s trade by volume — and all its vital oil imports — are carried by sea, so the protection of international sea lanes is a strategic and economic imperative.
China’s rising economy is reliant on trade routes that cross the Indian Ocean. Beijing would therefore wish to protect Chinese interests along the Indian Ocean’s seaways. Threats to China’s trade could range from maritime piracy to the potential for India or the US to disrupt Chinese supply routes, especially in the event of conflict.
The Indian Ocean has not been a traditional Chinese sphere of interest. But over nearly a decade, China has expanded its economic and military presence in its international waters. The established American superpower, as well as the rising Chinese power, have tended to make a show of strength by deploying naval power in the Indian Ocean. And, challenged by China’s economic and military expansion in a strategically important area, India is strengthening its own military presence in the Ocean. The great naval game in the Indian Ocean is being played vigorously by all three countries.
China has increased its influence in two outstanding ways. First, it has built trade and investment ties with many countries in the Indian Ocean region. Unsurprisingly, it has gained strategically by creating economic partnerships with these countries. Second, it has expanded its naval presence. These intertwined policies have enhanced its regional clout.
However, China is unlikely to displace the US as the primary Indian Ocean power. The reasons? The US spends more than USD 700 billion annually on defense. China spends a little over USD 200 billion. And despite its expansion over the last decade, China’s navy is still behind America’s in both technology and operational capability. The US retains maritime superiority throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
China’s military forays into the Indian Ocean and its acquisition of bases — the “string of pearls” — reflect its enhanced presence in the Indian Ocean. The term “string of pearls” was first used in a report, Energy Futures in Asia, which was prepared in 2004 for the US Department of Defense. It showed how much China’s rising geopolitical influence is owed to its increasing access to ports and airfields, developing special diplomatic ties and modernizing its military forces. The US National Security Strategy Document of 2017 sees China and Russia as strategic competitors and revisionist powers, contesting America’s geopolitical advantages and aiming to change the international order in their favor.
There is debate about China’s intentions. Does China seek to dominate the Indian Ocean area? Or is it merely trying to safeguard its trading interests and securing its maritime supply lines? What China has certainly gained by assembling the so-called “string of pearls” is a network of overseas deep water port facilities to service its expanding navy. This string of pearls is really a series of trade routes from China across the Asian land mass and the Indian Ocean to Europe. Together they symbolize China’s attempt to position itself as a generous friend to Indian Ocean countries by building roads, ports and railways.
How China Projects Power in the Indian Ocean
To project power in the Indian Ocean, China has gained reliable access to naval facilities in key points around the area. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has simultaneously advanced its trading and strategic interests. In South Asia, all the countries in which China has access to deep water ports are India’s neighbors. They include Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Pakistan, like China, has a border dispute with India. That has aroused Indian fears about both its South Asian rivals uniting against it. Further to the west, in North Africa, just off the Red Sea, China has acquired a base in Djibouti, where the US and France already have military facilities. Whether and how much that threatens the American and French positions in the Horn of Africa remains to be seen. China has also built ports and acquired port facilities in Kenya and Tanzania. These ports can be used for both commercial and military purposes.
How would China use such bases? A primary concern would be to use the ports to refuel and resupply its ships — and even to carry out at least minor repairs. It would not then be necessary for them to return to China for those purposes. Such facilities would enhance China’s ability to sustain its armed forces in an Asian strategic theater.
China’s rise as a naval power has been based on the sustained development of its economy and domestic infrastructure, followed by the strengthening of economic and military ties with Indian Ocean countries.
In the short run — and in peacetime — China might conduct counter-piracy operations around the Horn of Africa. This could serve many purposes. For instance, Chinese forces could gain practice in organizing operations far away from their home turf. At another level, counter-piracy could provide opportunities to observe the activities of foreign militaries, especially of the US, India, Japan and, Australia — the four countries comprising the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.
Meanwhile, China is selling arms to Indian Ocean countries. Myanmar, Pakistan and Bangladesh buy most of their weapons from China, and Pakistan is the biggest buyer of Chinese materiel. In return, China is helping Pakistan to develop its military capabilities. China has also invested USD 46 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Corridor is a bilateral project to transform Pakistan’s economy by modernizing its road, rail, air and energy transport systems —and to connect the deep sea ports of Gwadar and Karachi to China’s Xinjiang province and beyond by overland routes. Cutting across Kashmiri territory disputed by India and Pakistan, the Corridor has aroused New Delhi’s concern about China’s intentions in the Indian Ocean area.
Generally, China intends to increase its military footprint in the Indian Ocean, while claiming to protect its economic investments along the Silk Road. Confirming the link between strategy and economics, the 2015 Defense White Paper highlights “the new requirement of safeguarding national security and development interests”. It confirms China’s ambition to develop a modern maritime military force “commensurate with its national security and development interests, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power”. The Defense White Paper also underlines a change in naval strategy. China’s navy will gradually shift from “offshore waters defense” to the combination of “offshore waters defense” and “open seas protection”. The implication is that the navy will defend China’s interests beyond its core interest (the South China Sea) and will aim at securing vital maritime trade routes internationally.
Implications for India
India has traditionally regarded the Indian Ocean as its sphere of maritime influence. China recognizes that geography gives India a special role to play in stabilizing Indian Ocean and the South Asian region, but has warned that the Ocean is “not India’s backyard”.
India has been concerned at China’s securing refueling and docking facitlities for its warships involved in anti-piracy operations. In 2018, it signed trade and investment agreements with The Seychelles and Mauritius. But the Seychelles did not allow India to develop a military base on its territory. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, China has invested billions of dollars in loans and infrastructure ventures. There have been reports that China is developing Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and Pakistan’s Gwadar ports as military bases.
India still enjoys advantages in the Indian Ocean region. Geography gives it an edge. India’s navy is well acquainted with this large oceanic space, and the country’s strategic location facilitates efforts to keep watch over maritime traffic passing through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. India is building bases on its own: Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie close to the Strait of Malacca, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
The big challenge for the Indian navy is keeping track of Chinese submarines in its near seas. The present Indian government has denied that there is tension between the Indian and Chinese navies in the Indian Ocean. But some Indian strategic analysts hold that China’s naval activities have already restricted India’s space for political and operational ploys. They point out that China has moved submarines, destroyers, special operations forces and guided-missile frigates into the Indian Ocean.
Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific
One American response to Chinese maneuvers in the Indian and Pacific Oceans is President Donald Trump’s call for a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP). The US, India, Japan, and Australia visualize the FOIP as a rules-based order. But the concept is vague and ASEAN countries are wary of getting embroiled with China. They are also unenthusiastic about a concept from which the word “Asia” has been excluded, and which disregards the historical significance of the “Asia-Pacific”.
In its attempts to maintain a favorable balance of naval power in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi has drawn close to Washington and Tokyo. The trilateral India–US–Japan Malabar exercises have grown in scope and complexity with the addition of more combat drills.
New Delhi is also investing more in the Indo-Pacific region — especially in infrastructure. It has signed logistical pacts with Oman and France, strengthened maritime ties with Mauritius, Seychelles, Mozambique and Madagascar. And a visit by Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to East African island states in April 2018 showed New Delhi’s resolve to rise to the perceived challenge posed by China in the Western Indian Ocean littoral.
Three to four decades economically behind China, India faces tough competition in the Indian Ocean. China’s rise as a naval power has been based on the sustained development of its economy and domestic infrastructure, followed by the strengthening of economic and military ties with Indian Ocean countries. India also needs to modernize its armed forces — especially its navy. And India must strengthen its capacity to implement major infrastructure projects in littoral states and islands scattered around the Indian Ocean.
Chinese investments have reportedly left some countries in the Indian Ocean region indebted to Beijing. They include Djibouti, Pakistan and Maldives. India, the US, Australia and Japan will appear as more attractive partners to Indian Ocean countries only if their financing of infrastructure and other projects can match the huge investments made by China.
Initially driven by China’s growing economic interests, China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean is likely to increase in the years to come. Yet the possibility of catching up wth the US — let alone displacing it — is not even a spot on the distant horizon. China cannot dominate the Indian Ocean. But its mix of economics, strategy and building of a world class navy have already secured it a major role in the enduring Great Game in the Indian Ocean.