India and China Battle for Maritime Influence
Image Credit: flickr/US Navy

India and China Battle for Maritime Influence


Although excursions along the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) are the most obvious sign of Sino-Indian jockeying, the more subtle battle for maritime influence between Beijing and Delhi is also intensifying.

India has made a number of moves in recent months to strengthen its “Look East” policy. As noted earlier this week, Delhi has offered Vietnam a credit line of US$100 million to purchase four patrol boats that will undoubtedly be used to resist Chinese inroads in the South China Sea. The follows Vietnam’s India-born Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh’s trip to Delhi earlier this month, where he participated in the 15th Joint Vietnam-India Commission meeting. While in Delhi Pham Binh Minh also gave an important speech outlining Hanoi’s vision for regional security, as well as India’s important role within it.

Vietnam is not the only ASEAN country that India is shoring up its ties with. In June, Defense Minister A.K. Antony visited Singapore to reaffirm their long-standing bilateral defense ties.

Additionally, following Manmohan Singh’s visit to Thailand at the end of May, where the two sides pledged to work towards a free trade agreement, Antony visited Thailand on the same June trip that brought him to Singapore. India and Thailand already conduct regular joint patrols together. During the trip, Antony proposed they expand their joint defense production, incluing India increasing its arms sales to Thailand.

While in Bangkok, Antony also affirmed: “We support the resolution of differences and disputes through the process of dialogue and consensus between the parties to such disputes. All countries must exercise restraint and resolve issues diplomatically, according to the principles of international law.”

In between his stops in Thailand and Singapore, Defense Minister A. K. Antony also visited Australia, a country that—while maintaining strong ties to China—is also hedging its bets against its rise. It was the first time an Indian Defense Minister had traveled to Australia, a country that is strategically placed and a potentially strong naval ally to India. Indeed, not surprisingly Antony and his Australian counterpart, Stephen Smith, pledged to strengthen ties between their militaries during the visit.

Then there is Japan. India has significantly strengthened ties to Japan in recent months even as Tokyo’s relationship with China has deteriorated over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. This can partially be attributed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conscious courting of maritime democracies like India as a means of balancing against China. Still, India is clearly interested in further strengthening its ties with Japan as well.

This was evident from, among other things, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declaring during his May trip to Japan that Tokyo is a “natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast region of [the] Asia-Pacific.” Furthermore, shortly after that visit it was announced that Japan’s emperor and empress will make their first ever trip to India later in the year.

Notably, along with the U.S.—with whom India has had a number of senior meetings with in recent weeks—Japan, Australia, and Singapore were the countries that joined India for the 2007 Malabar Naval exercise in the Bay of Bengal that so spooked China.

India is also concerned with its position closer to home as China has used Delhi’s frosty relations with many of its neighbors to make inroads into South Asia. It was in this context that India this week finally approved Myanmar’s long-standing request for help in building offshore-patrol vessels (OPVs). The OPV announcement was made as part of a larger agreement to expand Burmese-Indian defense ties during Myanmar’s Naval Chief Thura Thet Swe’s visit to Delhi this week. 

“"Myanmar is one of our closest neighbors. We share a land border as well as maritime border with them," India’s Naval Chief Joshi said after his meeting with Thura Thet Swe. He added that the Indian Navy hoped to take its “existing excellent relations” with the Burmese Navy “to the next level.”

Indeed, the two sides already enjoy friendly military-to-military ties. According to Times of India, India has in the past sold Burma everything from “islander maritime patrol aircraft and naval gun-boats to 105mm light artillery guns, mortars, grenade-launchers and rifles.” It also regularly hosts Burmese officers at its military academies. In March of this year the two navies conducted their first joint exercise in the Bay of Bengal.

Still, India had demurred on Burma’s OPVs for some time and its willingness to approve it now demonstrates a diminishing concern for offending China. One Chinese policy that is particularly alarming to both India and Myanmar and India is Beijing’s arms sales to Bangladesh, with which Burma has had a maritime dispute that was only ostensibly solved by an international court ruling last year.

For India, China’s proposed arms sales are indicative of Beijing’s growing presence in its neighborhood and the India Ocean more generally.

In May for instance, Xi Jinping hosted Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Beijing and the two leaders agreed to upgrade their relationship to a strategic cooperative partnership. Then, last week, China Communications Construction Company Limited (CCCC) signed a deal with the state-run Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) in which CCCC pledged to spend US$1.4 billion to build a “port city” around the Colombo harbor. Another Chinese company, China Harbour Engineering will open a new container port in the Colombo harbor next month, which it will maintain control over for the next 35 years. Chinese oil companies are also operating in the area.

Bangladesh’s Foreign Secretary Md Shahidul Haque headed an inter-ministerial delegation on a five-day trip to China at the end of June. Similarly, Seychelles Foreign Minister Jean-Paul Adam wrapped up an extended visit to China over the weekend. Although few details have been released about the visit, concern inside India that China is establishing a naval base in Seychelles has been so high that Defense Minister Antony recently felt the need to issue a statement denying a deal had already been struck. China has, however been increasing its defense ties with the Maldives, and Seychelles would be a logical next step.

Perhaps most troubling from India’s perspective is China’s apparent offer to fund upgrades to Iran’s Chabahar Port, one of India’s long-standing pet projects and the last remaining viable port standing between China’s Gwadar Port in Pakistan and the Middle East.

These moves are already prompting a response from India. Earlier this month Delhi signed a trilateral maritime security pact with Sri Lanka and Maldives. Much to Washington’s chagrin, India began July by publicly calling Iran “critical” to its energy security. The two sides then worked out an agreement for Delhi to purchase Iranian oil all in rupees.

Delhi has also expedited discussions with the Iranian government for Indian businesses to be given the exclusive rights to develop Chabahar Port for 60-90 years. This comes despite Indian media outlets noting that the Chabahar Port does not have any “immediate commercial viability.”

These moves appeared to pay off when Iran’s President-Elect Hassan Rouhani stated, “Expansion of all-out relations with India will be a foreign policy priority for the next Iranian administration.”

August 28, 2013 at 13:48

Well I agree with your assessment regarding internal security challenges to China but I wonder in case China would be attacked or declarred war against any country, don't you think, Chinese would react as a nation against any threat?

August 11, 2013 at 14:17

all asean nations should form one army like NATO

Ramesh Deshmukh
August 5, 2013 at 01:23

First of all, me must accept some basic facts. China is militarily far more strong than India. India can not overtake China in strength. To add to the agony of India , there is unholy China – Pakstan military alliance against India.That makes India  the most endangered nation in this region. India's basic need is to protect from the joint agression of Pakistan and China.           In this respect India is making stedy progress. India has developed and successfully launched Agni -5 nuclear missile which is China specific. Agni -5 can be launched from land, air and sea. Soon India shall be able to launch Agni missile from submarine.            India is not alone. There are many friends. The U.S.A., Japan, South Korea,  Vietnam ,Phillipines ,Australia, Singapore ,  Israel and many others. All the NATO   nations of Europe are friends of India. While China has got only two friends, North Korea and Pakistan.    Last many years, China is bent upon creating enemies in it's neghbourhood .The list is long— Japan, India, South Korea ,Vietnam etc.                    China is flexing muscles. Chin is very proud of it's military strength. But any military power should not forget the historical lesson that Nazi Germany  was defeted in World War -2 because Germany created many enemies at a time.

Little Helmsman
August 3, 2013 at 00:44

Well comrade, at least India has a free press that writes about problems of India for everyone to see while China hides all her problems. Indian government does not have a huge security apparatus to guard its own people unlike China! What does that say about Chinese government own insecurity when the budget for internal security is more than the defense budget for external foe?

India has a lot of problems but at least she honest and not the aggressive bully of Asia!

papa john
August 2, 2013 at 01:06

That was first step. Next step would be the Vietnamese buy nuclear tipped BraMos missles that can be equipped on its Russian made navy fleet, then it would change something, comrade Kanes?

August 1, 2013 at 23:22

In my opinion, India and china should take care that they don't get blindsided by two highly stealthily emerging superpowers (or more accurately, emerging mini-superpowers) which are known to us as 'Israel'  & 'Turkey'.

August 1, 2013 at 21:40

The reality that Chinese comunist should know that they are no match with the India Navy in Naval battle if these Chinese will insist its bully behavior in the Western Philippine Sea and to the Senkako Island of Japan, in the long term the CCP will meet its own waterloo…

August 1, 2013 at 15:46

" Once the infrastructure is developed it can be used to destabilise Strait of Hormuz." 

If U.S. cannot guarantee flow of persian gulf oil to their allies in europe and Japan, those states will have to turn to China to stabilise oil flow. China also needs persian gulf oil. Europe, China and Japan can form a bloc via SCO to protect gulf oil supplies. U.S. alliance system in europe and Japan will be weakened in this way.

August 1, 2013 at 15:06

Respected All.,

I see this India and China Battle in otherway than what its generally discussion

- Because of this minor issues,  both are countries are trying to increase the Strength in all the Aspects including Economy, Defence, Govt Policies etc.

& Its not possible to go for War in these days. Then why don't we look this as an opportunity for Development???!!!

August 1, 2013 at 14:42

From the looks of things, India's playing catch up to China.  What strikes me the most about India's current outburst of diplomacy is that they are promising things they themselves can hardly provide for their domestic market.  Military procurement is a joke in India and for them to promise all sorts of military fare for their prospective allies leaves one wondering what exactly will be provided.  Perhaps the INSAS – the one rifle that proved someone could make a dysfunctional, fragile AK?  Or perhaps they'll be offering some diesel electric submarines… assuming Russia agrees to lease them a few more.

All the sarcasm aside, India's biggest policy problem is that they want so badly to be taken seriously as a great power by the rest of the world that they have pretty much neglected every single bit of domestic policy anyone could think of.  They talk endlessly about having a three-carrier blue water navy, but fully 80% of their sewage flows untreated into their waterways.  They put the cart before the horse and even the cart is falling apart.

Indians as individual people are amongst the most intelligent and creative on Earth, but collectively they have managed to concoct one of the most dysfunctional, ineffective governments in history.  This mad dash for regional friends in the face of China's rise will likely cost them a lot and result in something about as disjointed as a jigsaw puzzle with about half the pieces missing.   

Dr v n srivastava
August 1, 2013 at 14:27

Both India and China are ancient civilisation, china is all ready a big country, it should live in peace with its neibouring counties 

August 1, 2013 at 14:00

Looks like India's small neighbors, Vietnam, Seychelles and Singapore are benefitting from the rift between China and India. It is unthinkable they will take sides; certainly not the Indian side as it loses them more.

$100 million to Vietnam to purchase Indian PVs and Indian OPVs to Burma doesn't change anything in the sea. It would be different if they were US, Japanese or French equipment.

China abiding by sanctions in Iran is unwise. This is the time China can make its mark in Iran. If China reopens full trading with Iran, the sanctions become useless but benefits both nations. Chabahar is a tricky project. Once the infrastructure is developed it can be used to destabilise Strait of Hormuz. This port may not survive if USA and/or Israel go for military action against Iran.

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