- India’s 95 per cent of trade by volume and 68 per cent by value comes through the Indian Ocean and it plays a pivotal role in its economy and security.
- The Malacca Dilemma is Beijing’s most critical concern due to the strait’s economic importance.
- Maritime security issues such as freedom of navigation, piracy operations, sea lane safety, fishery, energy security, and environmental protection have become prominent issues in the Indo-pacific region.
- The rapid expansion of Chinese PLAN and its presence in the Indian Ocean through different means of security patrol, the gulf of Eden missions and recently acquired ports have very much concerned the regional powers in the Indian Ocean Region.
- India has a defence edge in the Indian Ocean and Malacca strait due to its military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which acts as a bulwark for defence against China.
The Indian Ocean is an important strategic location and a critical point for major economies like India and China. 80 per cent of China’s oil imports and 95 per cent of its trade with the Middle East, Africa and Europe passes through the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. In accordance with its trade volume and security concerns, China has developed its naval forces at an unprecedented level. Whereas India’s 95 per cent of trade by volume and 68 per cent by value comes through the Indian Ocean, with 85 per cent of oil imports and 45 per cent of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the Indian Ocean plays a pivotal role in its economy and security. India also has a long cultural footprint, with people, religion, goods, and customs spreading from India to Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, which demands India’s presence in the Indian ocean.
Historically, China’s outlook was continental, unlike the contemporary aggressive maritime policy it pursues. Liu Huaqing, also known as the father of the Modern Chinese Navy, proposed the Near sea active defences which were implemented by President Jiang Zemin. In 2002, under Hu Jintao, the seeds for the construction of a strong naval force were sown. His successor President Xi Jinping followed the former’s footprints and reaffirmed to build a strong naval power. China faces at least one dispute with all its neighbours. The issues in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Malacca Dilemma and the palpable feeling of being surrounded by the U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea is a strong push factor for China to increase its maritime power.
The Malacca Dilemma is Beijing’s most critical concern due to the strait’s economic importance. Since 2010, there has been a 20 per cent increase in port visits in the Indian Ocean region, the activity which until 1999 was absent. Additionally, China is the only country to establish embassies in all the six island nations in the Indian Ocean – Comoros, Madagascar, Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka. China which primarily concentrated on Near-sea active defences has now begun looking towards the Indo-Pacific and the far seas. It is now an enviable navy with advanced systems, ships, submarines, aircraft carriers, and missiles. According to the Pentagon’s annual China military report 2021, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has about 355 ships, including significant maritime warships, submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, minesweepers, and other support ships, it excludes 85 patrol boats and combat platforms equipped with anti-ship missiles. Pentagon predicts that by 2025 and 2030, the PLA Navy will have 420 and 460 ships, respectively. China has also launched its third indigenously developed aircraft carrier, which will enhance its maritime capabilities with an advanced catapult-launch system. A fourth aircraft carrier with nuclear capabilities is also planned.
The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has about 355 ships, including significant maritime warships, submarines, aircraft carriers, amphibious ships, minesweepers, and other support ships.
In 2015, the Chinese navy operated 57 diesel-electric submarines and five nuclear attack submarines; according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, by 2030, Beijing’s underwater fleet might increase to 60 diesel-electric vessels and at least 16 nuclear attack submarines. The Chinese Coast Guard is the world’s largest blue-water navy and a para-military coast guard. China has gradually become a more robust regional and possibly a global sea power. The Chinese government has pursued a multi-dimensional strategy to achieve its goal. The emergency of grey zone operations and the setup of the Djibouti offshore base are the best examples.
Maritime security issues such as freedom of navigation, piracy operations, sea lane safety, fishery, energy security, and environmental protection have become prominent issues in the Indo-pacific region in which China has actively participated. Since the growth of piracy at the coast of Somalia in 2008, the Chinese stood in the Indian Ocean through its three-ship anti-piracy task force and one way or another, either through these security issues or through Gulf of Aden missions, it always maintained its presence in the Indian ocean. On 20 September, addressing the 49th Annual Management Convention, the Chief of Indian Naval Staff, Admiral Hari Kumar, said that China remains an alarming challenge for India. It has continued its presence since 2008 on the pretext of anti-piracy operations. He states, “…at any point; we have anything between five to eight Chinese navy units, be it warships or research vessels and a host of Chinese fishing vessels operating in the Indian Ocean region.”
China has become a potential challenge to the region by countering American as well as Indian interests. The U.S. and India have promoted the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific through a Quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD). Beijing describes it as the ‘anti-China Small Coterie’. In 2019 China’s National Defence White paper (NDWP) titled “China’s National Defence in a new era” clearly outlined that maintaining maritime rights and interests is one of the major military objectives. Indeed, China has become a significant security threat to India with its policy of “string of pearls”, with which it is strategically building ports and military bases around India. The recent inception of its first overseas military base in Djibouti through which it has been actively making its presence in all security-related issues, the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, which can potentially turn into a military base, its huge investments in Gwadar port in Pakistan is critical concerns for India. Pakistan has nearly become a “satellite state” where China has invested more than 62 billion dollars in the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), constructing roads and railways, building ports and supplying military equipment, and creating special economic zones for Chinese nationals.
China has also lent a massive amount of 38 billion Dollars to Bangladesh Since the turn of the strategic partnership in 2016. Through Foreign Direct Investments, the Construction of Bridges, road rail projects across Padma River, and its ambitious renewable energy power plants and investments in the special economic zones, the Chinese had made their economic presence. The recent involvement of Chinese officials in the India-Nepal border tussle, and the signing of 25 years Strategic and Economic partnership agreement between Iran and China with investments of 400 Billion in the coming future, all indicate how China is trying to counter India by all means.
China has become a significant security threat to India with its policy of “string of pearls”, with which it is strategically building ports and military bases around India.
Hu Bo Director of Beijing University for Maritime Strategy Studies, has proposed two naval fleets as Pacific Fleet keeping the United States in mind, and the Indian Ocean fleet to make its presence on far seas. The two-ocean strategy of China’s maritime security stings toward the forward edge defence plan, which calls for the creation of an arc-shaped strategic zone that includes the western Pacific Ocean and the northern Indian Ocean. These long-term plans for the Indian Ocean have become a concerning Issue for India and its regional partners.
China has been actively observing the Indian Ocean and the ways to counter the Indian navy. In 2021, it successfully installed a new ocean observation satellite by which it was constantly monitoring the Indian ocean. China is not far from becoming the strong maritime power overtaking the United States. Its growing presence in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean has become an issue of concern to the region.
The formation of QUAD is a great step in countering China. The recent construction of the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant has expanded India’s options in defending from both fronts and gave more access to the Indian Ocean. India is also trying to cooperate with Seychelles and Mauritius in building naval facilities. The investment in Chabahar port in Iran, through which India aims to connect to Central Asia, is critical. India has entered into agreements for logistics and intelligence sharing with countries such as the United States and France, where it can have access to bases such as Reunion and Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. It also has invested in Sabang port of Indonesia since 2014, which is less than 500 kilometres from the entrance of the Malacca Strait, through which 40 per cent of India’s trade passes. Military access to the strategic island was granted in 2018, and ever since then, coordinated naval patrols have taken place. In June 2022, the 38-edition ended in Sabang port.
The formation of QUAD is a great step in countering China and the construction of the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant has expanded India’s options in defending from both fronts and gave more access to the Indian Ocean.
Additionally, India conducts Naval exercises such as Malabar, which began as a bilateral exercise between India and the United States in 1992 and became multilateral with the addition of Australia and Japan, Bilateral Exercise such as Jimex with Japan, Simbex with Singapore, Varuna, with French, Slinex with SriLanka, Bongosagar with Bangladesh, Passex with Australia, Samudra Shakti with Indonesia, Konkan Shakti with the UK, Indra with Russia, and also participate in Trilateral exercise involving Singapore, Thailand. India has a defence edge in the Indian Ocean and Malacca strait due to its military base in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It acts as a bulwark for defence against China. In fact, it serves as an Iron curtain which can effectively block China’s entry into the Indian Ocean.
The Indian Ocean is a witness to the competition, tussle, action and deterrence between India and China, vying for maritime dominance. The rapid expansion of Chinese PLAN and its presence in the Indian Ocean through different means of security patrol, the gulf of Eden missions and recently acquired ports have very much concerned the regional powers in the ocean. Nevertheless, with its Strategic partners, India has made its presence known in different ways. The power equilibrium has shown efficiency in controlling Chinese influence in the region; at the same time, India has been in the process of rapid upgradation of its Armed forces simultaneously, and small counties around the ocean are forced to take sides while being concerned about their security.
(Azhar Shaik is a Postgraduate student pursuing Masters’s in International Relations at Pondicherry University)