The China Factor in India’s Maritime Strategy

Richard Thokchom
3rd July 2021

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S. Jaishankar, India’s External Affairs Minister, in his book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, maintains that India would grow with others collectively and cooperatively rather than independently. For New Delhi, it implies the freedom to pursue prosperity by lawful means, an openness to nations in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and beyond who have a genuine stake in the region’s growth and development, and a collaborative and cooperative framework that welcomes everyone. The IOR’s significance in India’s Indo-Pacific strategy cannot be overstated. The Indian Navy’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy (MSS), Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy, emphasizes that the IOR, which roughly extends from South Africa to the Indonesian Archipelago, is New Delhi’s primary area of interest. The IOR remains at the heart of India’s maritime power projection, owing to the fact that it is one of the world’s most important trade corridors, carrying half of the world’s container ships, one-third of the world’s bulk cargo traffic, and two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, as well as being home to nearly 2.7 billion people. Although India has always seen itself as the dominant power and a net security provider in the IOR, the Chinese military’s growing presence and diplomatic clout in the region has been a source of concern in recent years.

Even when Chinese operations in the South China Sea began to alarm governments across the Pacific, notably following the Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012, the China factor in the IOR remained relatively insignificant to players in the region. China’s geographical isolation from the region would make sustaining its presence untenable, the establishment in New Delhi reasoned. However, over the years, China’s Defence White Paper has emphasized the necessity for logistical assistance for out-of-area activities (meaning activities outside of the Western Pacific) as well as the need to defend its interests, businesses, and people. The PLA Navy (PLAN) found justification to consolidate its position in 2008 when it began sending its ships for counter-piracy missions, but the concern for India was that the assets and capabilities deployed for the task such as nuclear powered submarines often outmatched the security challenge and environment at hand. The Maldives’ water crisis in 2014 gave Beijing another chance to demonstrate its interests and determination to gain a foothold in the IOR. As they say, ‘flag follows trade’, the maritime version of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has emerged as an umbrella project that anchors Chinese interests and presence in the region.

New Delhi needs to understand that Beijing has not gone and imposed these initiatives and projects on their own; they have been sought if not welcomed by the littorals of the Indian Ocean as an alternative power or security partner in the IOR. While the seeds of misunderstanding and political mistrust between India and the littoral states in the IOR before 2014-15 was partly fostered by certain apathy in India’s political orientation towards the littoral states, China expanded its diplomatic, political, and strategic ties with the IOR’s littorals and islands. China has employed illiberal and predatory economic practices in the region to achieve its geopolitical goals, most notably gaining access to military bases and strategic ports. For example, following Sri Lanka’s inability to repay a $1.1 billion debt to China, Chinese companies were given a 99-year lease on the country’s port in Hambantota. When considered in the context of other countries in India’s strategic backyard, such as Myanmar, Maldives, and Pakistan, which are also exposed to above-average Chinese debts, these strategies become even more alarming.

As a result, geopolitical strategists such as Brahma Chellaney at the Centre for Policy Research, claim that China is attempting to establish a string of pearls in India’s strategic preserve. However, China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean region has traditionally been limited; three to four PLAN ships are deployed in anti-piracy missions in the southern Indian Ocean, and another three or four ships are deployed in intelligence, hydrographic, and surveillance missions elsewhere in the international waters of the Arabian Sea. One of China’s challenges in the region is Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Beijing’s approach to enhancing its MDA has not entirely been military; it has intensified its surveillance and mapping exercises in the region, which have taken the shape of scientific and fishing vessels, as well as hydrographic missions. Given the dual nature of the exercise, it is difficult to say what Beijing is up to in the region, but it is reasonable to believe that it is working to improve its undersea data and oceanographic mapping, which is essential for submarine deployment with other missions. China’s capacity to acquire information and enhance its MDA will determine what roles it can play in the area in the foreseeable future.

Given that China’s approach in the IOR has not been strictly military, India’s response must address both traditional and non-traditional security concerns.  India’s biggest strength is its geography, which has remained a significant constraint for China and will play a major role in determining the outcome of a Sino-Indian maritime conflict. New Delhi has entrusted the Indian Navy with enhancing visibility and maintaining its presence in the SLOCs, as Beijing continues to emphasize the significance of defending the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) since most of its energy linkages with West Asia are traded through the Indian Ocean. In April 2018, the Indian Navy informed the government of its fleet’s reoriented mission pattern. As a result, the IN has initiated Mission-Based Deployment (MBD) around the IOR, with mission-ready ships stationed at seven binding sites supervising all entrance and exit points.

In addition, India has reaffirmed its role as the region’s net security provider under the SAGAR doctrine. Coastal Surveillance Radar projects, for example, will offer a comprehensive image of shipping activity, including submarine activity throughout the IOR.  These steps are expected to increase New Delhi’s visibility as a supplier of internet security and enhance its MDA capabilities. Apart from that, India has been proactively deploying a variety of technical assets, including the P81 Poseidon aircraft. Earth observation satellites and military satellites, such as GSAT-7A augments MDA by providing high definition images of the region. Several drones, including underwater drones, have also been deployed to monitor military activities. India has also conducted joint military exercises, including aircraft carriers, search and rescue, and anti-submarine warfare across the Indo-Pacific.

India’s maritime security architecture is experiencing significant adjustments. New Delhi’s broad maritime diplomacy brand appears to have been eclipsed by a greater emphasis on pragmatic bilateralism; New Delhi seems to have gotten closer to Washington and other major players in the Indo-Pacific. Most nations, including India, have hitherto observed the IOR in silos. For instance, until 2016, when the MEA established the Indian Ocean division, the Indian Ocean has been divided into numerous sub-regions by New Delhi’s political elites, with the northern (Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal) and eastern Indian Oceans (the Andaman Sea and Straits of Malacca) being accorded greater importance. As a result, India’s strategic cooperation in the Indian Ocean has traditionally been limited to the Seychelles and Mauritius.

India must develop partnerships with other like-minded countries to improve strategic cooperation in the coming years.  The first area of cooperation is to expand the 2+2 talks, trilateral and quadrilateral meetings, and staff discussions to include all three services of the Indian military. Secondly, increased interoperability, which includes but is not limited to military exercises. For example, India is looking to enhance its liaison partnership with the US Central Command. The fourth component is capacity building, which is aimed to do in two ways: importing technology from more advanced and developed countries and aiding countries like Myanmar and Vietnam, whether via training or technical assistance.

*The author is a Post Graduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author