Relations between India and China look increasingly to be running along two parallel tracks – one of cooperation, the other competition.
While New Delhi and Beijing keep a wary eye on each other’s activities along the border, there’s growing engagement at the highest political and diplomatic levels. For example, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna made a three-day visit to China last month, meeting key Chinese leaders ahead of the BRICS summit to be hosted by India in April. As The Hindu newspaper reported at the time, “China appears to have laid out the red carpet for Mr. Krishna, arranging four high-level meetings for the minister in one day – a rare occurrence, according to diplomats.”
Krishna held talks with Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang and State Councillor Dai Bingguo, a meeting that followed Dai’s trip to India the previous month. Dai is China’s Special Representative on the boundary talks, and the two countries tooka major confidence building step in January, setting up an institutionalized border mechanism that “allows for real time contact between the two countries’ foreign offices in the event of a border intrusion by either side.”
But high level visits apart, and despite a history of recent diplomatic pin-pricks, Beijing and New Delhi are also quietly cooperating on a number of key global issues, reflected in their common stands on climate change and anti-piracy operations.
At the start of this year, India, China and Japan quietly entered into a mutual arrangement to share their naval assets in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations. According to an Indian Navy press release: “A Counter Piracy Shared Awareness and De-confliction (SHADE) meeting was established by Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) at Bahrain in 2011, so that the forces deployed for anti-piracy operations could exchange piracy related information over the internet.”
Under the agreement, India, China and Japan decided to share information about their warship movements and escort schedules in the Gulf of Aden. By putting in place this cooperative mechanism, the three Asian giants are hoping to optimize the use of their naval forces to safely escort merchant ships in the piracy-infested corridor.
“Earlier, the convoys [of India, Japan and China] would be bunched almost together in a short time frame leaving the Gulf of Aden without protection for a large part of the day,” Indian Navy Assistant Chief of Naval Staff Rear Adm. Monty Khanna said during a briefing in New Delhi last month. Khanna said that in contrast, the three countries have now “evolved a mechanism under which it will be ensured that there is enough gap between the Indian, Chinese and the Japanese convoys and they are well-displaced” to be able to escort a greater number of ships in a day.
Since 2008, India has had at least one warship stationed in the Gulf of Aden at any given time, compared to the three vessels reportedly fielded by the Chinese Navy. Japan’s deployment has varied. But with all three economies heavily dependent on keeping the sea lanes safe (the Indian Ministry of Shipping has estimated that Indian imports through the Gulf of Aden route are valued at $50 billion, while exports are worth $60 billion), it was clear that an agreement was necessary to ensure the slow flow of goods.
The importance of the Gulf of Aden was underscored by Indian Navy Chief Adm. Nirmal Verma at the end of last year, when he elaborated on the importance of anti-piracy operations.
“More than 90 percent of our trade by volume and 77 percent by value is transported over the seas. Over 97 percent of our energy needs of oil are either imported or produced from offshore fields,” he told the media. “The safety and unhindered continuity of maritime trade, through ships that use this route, is, therefore, a primary national concern. About 24 Indian-flagged merchant ships transit the Gulf of Aden every month. Additionally, a large number of foreign flagged vessels with Indian crew also sail on these waters.”
Since October 2008, the Indian Navy has escorted nearly 1,900 ships in the Gulf of Aden. Of these 1,700 ships were the foreign flagged.
But India isn’t the only country to have realized the importance of stemming the rise of hijackings that have taken place in recent years, even as that former hotspot the Strait of Malacca was calmed. China also began deploying its warships in the Gulf of Aden in 2008 after two high-profile attacks on Chinese merchant ships. Since then, the PLA Navy has increased the number of vessels typically deployed to three. PLAN ships, like the Indian asset, are deployed for four months at a stretch before being replaced by another group of warships. The Chinese task forces have, according to publicly available figures, safely escorted more than 1,000 ships through the treacherous waters in the past three years.
Given the high stakes involved in keeping the Gulf of Aden pirate-free, New Delhi, Beijing and Tokyo decided to pool their naval resources to build upon the progress already made. Indeed, the steady success of anti-piracy operations off the Coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden had already resulted in the pirates shifting their attention eastward. According to Adm. Verma, the Indian Navy substantially increased its anti-piracy deployments in the East Arabian Sea, including areas off Lakshadweep and the Minicoy Islands in 2011. “As a result of these deployments and actions against four pirate mother ships the threat of piracy attacks has sharply reduced in this area,” he said in December. According to officials, India apprehended more than 100 pirates and rescued 73 fishermen and crew in the East Arabian Sea last year.
However, fuzzy laws governing action against pirates, combined with a lack of consensus among nations on how to prosecute apprehended pirates, has been a major impediment in anti-piracy efforts. As a result, detained pirates continue to languish in Indian jails without trial.
So, does better co-ordination over piracy herald a new golden age in military ties between China and India? Not so fast, warn some in India’s defense establishment. A rising India that is increasingly willing to assert its independence, as was demonstrated in its decision to defy Chinese pressure over a deal to exploit natural resources with Vietnam, is bound to butt heads with China.
The fact is that the South China Sea and Indian Ocean region are seen by decision makers in both nations as potential flashpoints between the two navies, not least because there is a perception in New Delhi that in Beijing’s eyes, the Indian Ocean isn’t necessarily India’s ocean. In response, naval planners in India have factored in the growing power of the PLAN, and have ramped up development and production of the country’s naval assets, including Kolkata class destroyers and the Shivalik class of frigates.
New Delhi and Beijing undoubtedly realize the potential of a cooperative partnership on a vital issue like anti-piracy operations. But they are also fully aware of the limits of even this win-win situation.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7.