India And China face off

India And China face off

Competition for naval dominance in the Indian Ocean region

Dr. David Brewster/Australian National University

India and China are fast emerging as major powers of the Indo-Pacific. As their wealth, power and interests expand, they are increasingly coming into contact with each other, including in the maritime domain. How these countries get along could be one of the key strategic challenges for the Indo-Pacific in the 21st century.  

The security relationship between India and China is complex. They have many unresolved issues between them. Not least is China’s growing presence in South Asia and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). For its part, New Delhi perceives China to be shaping the strategic environment and forming alignments that could be used against India. This shows some big differences in how India and China understand their status and roles in the region. 

China’s strategic imperatives 

China’s growing interests in the IOR likely will drive ever-greater military presence in coming years. China’s most important interest is the protection of its trading routes over which energy is carried from the Middle East and Africa. Beijing is keenly aware that these sea lines are vulnerable to threats from state and nonstate adversaries, especially at the narrow chokepoints of the Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait.   

China, however, has many other interests in the IOR, which may well end up becoming even more important drivers of China’s growing military presence. These include the need to provide security for Chinese people and investments in unstable countries and having the capability to evacuate Chinese nationals in response to local crises. Other interests include the need to support United Nations peacekeeping operations, conducting humanitarian aid and disaster relief/search and rescue operations and, potentially, the desire to conduct interventions against violent extremists or to support local partners. In addition, the Chinese government is increasingly subject to domestic political pressures that may force it to respond to an event when it may not have otherwise done.

All these factors are leading China to develop a military presence in the IOR. This began with a semi-permanent naval presence in the Arabian Sea in 2008, proceeding more recently to the establishment of China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. To be sure, China’s capabilities in the region are primarily focused on peacetime military operations, but this will likely evolve over time toward greater sea denial and even sea control capabilities.   

Much of the public focus has been on the Chinese navy, which is moving to a two-ocean strategy that incorporates the Indian Ocean as a normal part of China’s military reach. Furthermore, the presence of Chinese land forces in the region is likely to grow, including the People’s Liberation Army’s Marine Corps, which is now being expanded to 100,000 troops. As it did in Africa, Beijing may also rely heavily on Chinese private security contractors for local security tasks.

China’s growing military presence will require expanded basing in the region, which likely includes naval and air bases in Pakistan and probably elsewhere in the IOR, such as East Africa and the eastern Indian Ocean.   

The nature of many of China’s relationships in the IOR is changing, including the developing semi-military alliances, building dual-use port facilities for possible use by the Chinese navy, and increasing Chinese arms transfers into the region.  

India’s response to China

China’s growing presence in the IOR is provoking a sharp reaction from India. India has long harbored ambitions to be recognized as a leading power with special security responsibilities in the region. Many in New Delhi consider India the natural leader of the Indian Ocean, at least in the long term.  

India’s colonial history has led to a strong aversion to the presence of other major powers in the IOR. In the 1970s and 1980s, these concerns were directed at the U.S. Navy, but they are now very much directed at China.  

India’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean are not just defensive. They also reflect broader aspirations to be acknowledged as a major regional power, and potentially a great power that sits at the world’s top table. 

The Sino-Indian dynamic in the Indian Ocean is just one part of a multifaceted relationship that combines elements of cooperation, coexistence and competition. China’s presence in South Asia and the broader IOR is viewed with suspicion and anxiety. China’s growing relationships with countries in the region are generally not perceived in New Delhi as being a legitimate reflection of Chinese interests, but as being directed against India, to encircle it or keep it off balance. 

India’s claims to a special regional security role and its views on the legitimacy of China’s presence create fertile conditions for competition between the two countries. This is exacerbated by another factor: India’s desire to maintain China’s strategic vulnerability in the Indian Ocean.  

In most dimensions of the strategic relationship between the two countries — including nuclear weapons, the conventional military balance in the Himalayas or economic power — India is at a disadvantage. The geography of the Indian Ocean, however, is the one area in which India holds a clear military advantage over China.

India’s strategy of building its naval capabilities near Indian Ocean chokepoints involves an implicit threat of blocking China’s trading routes. Beijing is concerned that, in the event of a conflict between the two states on their shared border, India might escalate the conflict to the Indian Ocean. 

For these reasons, China’s projection of naval power into the Indian Ocean has become the Indian Navy’s principal long-term source of concern and is now an important driver of India’s growing security relationship with the United States and others. India sees the need to work with Washington and others, such as Japan, Australia and France, to balance or delay the growth of China’s presence in the Indian Ocean. India is actively building its own network of regional security relationships and basing facilities across the Indian Ocean, including with partners, such as Oman and Indonesia.

Chinese perspectives on India’s role

Beijing takes quite a different view from New Delhi on the legitimacy of China’s presence in the IOR. For a start, many Chinese strategists believe that India lacks comprehensive national power and tend to give it a status below other powers such as Russia or Japan. This may sometimes make China less respectful toward India compared with other powers. There is also a pronounced asymmetry in threat perceptions: India tends to regard China as a significant threat, whereas China is much more focused on the United States.  

Beijing also strongly resists any suggestion that India has a right to restrict China’s relationships in the IOR or that India should be recognized as having a sphere of influence in the region. China takes the view that it is free to enter relationships as it chooses with India’s neighbors, such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

These differences in perceptions mean that Beijing pays little heed to Indian sensitivities about China’s relationships in the region. For example, China’s growing military and economic links with Pakistan are brushed off as unimportant because they are “not directed at India.” None of this is of any reassurance to India.

Some argue that China suffers from strategic “blind spots” in understanding the perspectives of its neighbors, particularly with India. Strong Chinese beliefs about their country’s history may make it difficult for Chinese to put themselves in their neighbor’s shoes and reassure them about China’s growing power. These beliefs may also tend to make China dismissive of Indian fears.    

This negative dynamic is exacerbated by China’s approach toward its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) policy in which China is building a series of infrastructure projects throughout the IOR, many of them in India’s immediate neighborhood. Beijing claims these initiatives are purely economic and takes the position that it does not require India as a partner in the region. Beijing believes that it need not explain its regional initiatives to India nor ask for India’s cooperation.  

This approach has only fueled Indian suspicions about the OBOR. There is currently little indication that India is interested in buying into the OBOR in any significant way. Overall, there seems to be little chance that India will be a willing partner with China in the IOR and much more likely that it will oppose many Chinese initiatives. 

What does this mean for the region?

Competition between India and China is becoming an increasing factor in regional political dynamics in South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh as well as several island states in the Indian Ocean, such as the Maldives.  

Some countries are trying to capitalize on competition to extract economic, political and military benefits from one or both sides by playing them off against each other to attract more investment in major infrastructure projects. While this can lead to benefits, for small countries it is also a potentially dangerous game to play.

Competition between China and India can lead to political instability. Over the past few years, controversies over major Chinese infrastructure projects have contributed to changes in government in Burma and Sri Lanka. There will likely be more jostling for influence throughout the region in coming years. The political crisis that occurred in the Maldives in early 2018, when its President Abdulla Yameen defied a Supreme Court ruling to reinstall opposition military police and release political prisoners, was exacerbated by Sino-Indian competition, and this is continuing to play out.

Overall, it seems likely that strategic competition will lead to the greater militarization of the IOR, because India feels the need to respond to China’s moves. While the United States has been the unchallenged predominant power in the IOR for several decades, this is changing. We are seeing the rise of major powers such as India and China, as well as a host of several new middle powers. This will make the Indian Ocean a much more multipolar and complex strategic environment. This will require the United States to work with new partners and in new ways.