Supporting India’s growing maritime interests in the South China Sea is the tri-services Andaman and Nicobar (Southern) Command, which was established at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca in 2001. The command was expanded with the establishment of Campbell Bay (INS Baaz), a deep-water maritime facility at the southernmost point in the Andaman Islands in July 2012. This complements the Eastern Command headquartered in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, which has received a growing proportion of the Navy’s resources, correcting for the Navy’s traditional bias in favor of the Indian Ocean and Gulf regions. Interestingly these facilities were initially developed and expanded to strengthen India’s sea-denial capabilities in response to the threat posed by the United States following its deployment of the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Now, however, they are increasingly relevant to maintaining the freedom of navigation in the region.
Preventing “spill-over” into the Indian Ocean
Beyond accessing offshore energy resources and ensuring the safe passage of its vessels through the Strait of Malacca, India also has broader interests in the South China Sea: ensuring that China’s increasingly assertive position over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea China is not repeated in the Indian Ocean. Notably, recent events in the South China Sea could be a harbinger of China’s potential behavior in the Indian Ocean, especially if China elevates the protection of sea-lines of communication to a “core interest” (hexin liyi) on par with its sovereignty interests in resolving maritime and continental territorial disputes and reunification with Taiwan.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Moreover, an expanded Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean could result in a role reversal of its position in the South China Sea; whereas China is the coastal state and India the external maritime power in the South China Sea, the tables are turned in the Indian Ocean. This could entail China intervening in disputes over the demarcation of maritime boundaries that India has with its neighbors (namely Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), and intelligence gathering and exploitation of maritime resources close to India’s coastline. The fact that China secured a permit to engage in deep seabed mining in the southwest Indian Ocean in July 2011 demonstrates the potential for such a scenario.
In this context, China’s nascent naval presence in the Indian Ocean, including the PLA Navy’s ongoing anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean, have been viewed by some with suspicion. Reports that an Indian submarine and Chinese naval unit were “locked in a tense stand-off” near the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in the Gulf of Aden in January 2009 illustrates the potential for the Indian Ocean Region to emerge as a new theater of competition between China and India. This strengthens the case for India to engage in the South China Sea so as to deter China’s increasingly aggressive maritime behavior from repeating itself in the Indian Ocean.
Toward a new regional architecture
Finally, India’s growing interest in the South China Sea comes amid the United States’ “forward-deployed diplomacy” towards the Indo-Pacific region. However, the United States is both “pivoting” towards the region and “re-balancing” within it. In other words, Washington is both reiterating its commitment towards the region, as well as calling on its allies to share the burdens of regional security. Evidence of this is seen in Japan’s increasingly proactive role in forging bilateral and multilateral regional security partnerships, such as Prime Minister Shinto Abe’s proposal for a “security diamond,” which would “safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean to the western Pacific.”
While the United States may not yet be following in the footsteps of the British withdrawal East of Suez in the middle of the last century, it nonetheless is reducing its global military footprint amid the operational fatigue of two consecutive land wars and the pressures of fiscal austerity. Further, the U.S. quest for energy independence fuelled by its own shale gas revolution and energy efficiency gains across OECD countries could act as a further catalyst for a loss of interest in protecting global energy transit corridors, including vital sea-lines of communication. In 2011, the United States imported 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil from the Middle East, accounting for 26 per cent of its global imports. This is projected to fall to 100,000 bpd or 3 per cent of its oil imports by 2035.