India and China Battle for Maritime Influence

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India and China Battle for Maritime Influence

From the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf, Delhi and Beijing are vying for influence with littoral states.

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.”