If you believe the hype, India is intensifying its ocean diplomacy to counter the growing influence of China in the Indian Ocean. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation visit to Sri Lanka, Seychelles, and Mauritius in March has been seen in this light.
But that doesn’t explain what’s really happening. The power tectonics in the region are not between India and China, but are a result of Beijing hedging against Washington’s presence in the region. In the Indian Ocean, Delhi is increasingly aligning with the role that the U.S. wants it to play — that of a “net security provider.”
The Indian Ocean bears two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, one-third of its bulk cargo, and half of its container traffic, and serves as a key trade route between East Asia and Europe. Both the U.S. and China have high commercial stakes here. While the U.S. hopes to secure its trade routes across the Indian Ocean, for China, now the world’s largest net oil importer, defending the Malacca Strait is a matter of economic necessity.
Beijing has always feared for the security of its energy imports. It also worries about its reliance on American patrols to protect the oil tanker routes out of the Persian Gulf. In China’s Defense White Paper, released in 2013, two major themes are “protecting national maritime rights and interests” and “armed forces providing reliable support for China’s interests overseas.”
Pursuing this aim, China has embarked on a major naval modernization effort. It has procured maritime weapons such as anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), as well as submarines. Reports indicate that in late January, China’s Ministry of National Defense admitted that it could conduct escort missions of naval ships in the Indian Ocean.
Washington, preoccupied with the Middle East while trying to hone in on Southeast Asia, has responded by deploying an altered Nixonian policy, hoping to restore stability to the Indian Ocean without making any significant security investment itself.
India, with its central maritime position and proximity to the Malacca Strait, could be a perfect stabilizer in the region. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel noted at the 2013 Shangri-La dialogue:
India’s role as a stabilizing power is of growing importance with the increase of trade and transit between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The United States considers India’s efforts to enhance its military capabilities as a welcome contribution to security in the region.
Washington also strives to exert its influence in the region through a coalition of regional allies like Australia and Japan, and partners like India, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
India’s warming relations with Vietnam and effort towards enhancing political-military relations with Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar indirectly work toward American efforts to cement a coalition in the Indian Ocean region.
Modi used his recent visit to the countries of the region to promote closer defense ties with island countries. In addition to handing over to Mauritius an Indian built offshore patrol vessel and committing Indian surveillance aircraft to Seychelles, Modi also proposed that both Mauritius and Seychelles be added to a national security adviser-level “trilogue” between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives. The existing trilateral group carries out a variety of activities, including training drills, capacity building of maritime forces, regular joint exercises, and meetings of national security advisers.
These growing relationships, and India’s easier access to advanced military technology from around the globe, worry Beijing. India can readily import military technology from the United States. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) mentioned in its Blue Book, released in June 2013, that a “U.S.-India axis of relation” was additionally forming in the Indian Ocean.
To be sure, in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon clearly stated plans to deepen Washington’s strategic partnership with India through the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative. Today, the United States has supplanted Russia as India’s largest defense provider.
But despite its strong relations with Washington, China still believes that India will continue to maintain strategic autonomy. An editorial in China’s Global Times brushed aside the perception of “China threat,” stating flatly that China and India were not engaged in a zero-sum game in the Indian Ocean.
As two of the Indian Ocean’s biggest powers, India and China have plenty of room to build a dialogue concerning regional security.
As the geopolitical contest between the United States and China plays out, India will surely play a central role given its position at the tip of the Indian Ocean.
Jhinuk Chowdhury is an India based freelance journalist writing on South Asian affairs. Her Twitter handle is @jhinuk28