There is a growing strategic competition underway in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea between India and China focused on acquiring commercial ports and military facilities. It is a race for strategic access, leverage, and influence for energy resources, markets, and national security. This competition between two relative new naval powers in the region will directly influence the U.S. and its regional partners in the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) Area of Responsibilities (AORs), beyond the usual purview of Pacific Command (USPACOM) whose AOR India lies within. For the U.S., this represents a strategic opportunity to compete against China’s growing influence by expanding its relationship with India in the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AORs.
While China expands its presence, India has not remained idle. It has invested in the commercial port of Chabahar, Iran to give it greater access to Afghanistan, circumventing Pakistan. However, questions arise on whether India can use the port to effectively compete against Chinaand its One Belt and One Road (OBOR) strategy. In addition to the port in Iran, India is competing for access to the Seychelles, Maldives, and Oman. The recent tensions between China and India, after China deployed 11 warships to the Maldives in February illustrates this growing rivalry. In the Seychelles, India is spending $46 million dollars in foreign aid to improve costal defense and airstrips; however, that has run into recent issues with the president of the Seychelles. While India doesn’t lack in its ambition to compete with China, it lacks a cohesive political and economic decisionmaking body like China to invest and outcompete, and lacks in its naval capabilities to effectively challenge the Chinese. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), China’s naval surface combatants dwarfs India (83 Chinese combatants vs. 27 Indian Combatants; 57 Chinese attack submarines vs. 15 Indian attack submarines; and 4 Chinese ballistic submarines vs. 1 Indian in development). Of course, the naval disparity between the two nations is spread out across the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and China must overcome its “Malacca Straits Dilemma” to surge forces into the Indian Ocean.
This growing competition between China and India present a strategic opportunity for the U.S. to offset China’s growing presence in the region. While the U.S. has generally viewed India as a strategic partner in the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) AOR to offset China, it represents an opportunity to counter-balance China in the USCENTCOM and AFRICOM AOR as well. In concerted effort by USCENTCOM, in partnership with PACOM, can find ways to enhance the Indian Navy’s force projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea to challenge China’s small, but growing, military presence in the region. U.S. Navy Central Command (USNAVCENT) can spearhead this effort on behalf of CENTCOM by encouraging India to more fully participate in the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) that focuses on Counter-Piracy operations. NAVCENT could consider future joint naval exercises focusing on combined naval operations, Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), and carrier-based operations. Such combined exercises can assist India in expanding its capabilities and capacity to exert greater influence, in concert with U.S. interests, in the region as a means to counter-balance China’s presence. Additionally, as Harry Halem recently noted, the U.S. can encourage greater cooperation between its allies and partners in the region, to include Israel, to cooperate with India. This also includes expanding ongoing Indian-French naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean as seen by France’s deployment of its Charles De Gaulle strike group to exercise with the Indian Navy. For the U.S., these efforts will have to be delicately balanced with the U.S. relationship with Pakistan and it may raise concerns on the Pakistani Navy’s ability to counter-balance India as well.
While China is attempting to build upon the legacy of Zheng He (Ming Dynasty), India must learn to use its geographic positional advantage in the Indian Ocean that dominates east to west maritime traffic. The key to leveraging its geographic positional advantage in the Great Game of the Indian Ocean will be based on a mutual desire by India to expand its military, primarily naval, capabilities to compete with China and, a mutual desire by the U.S. and India to expand their military cooperation. For the U.S., India can no longer be viewed simply as a PACOM partner. Instead, it must be viewed as a trans-regional partner who has the ability to influence both the CENTCOM and AFRICOM AORs as a counter-balance to China’s growing global ambition. As Robert Kaplan, author of Monsoon, has noted, the Indian Ocean represents the fulcrum between American Power in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific, and its growing relationship with India will shape its desire to remain atop the global order against a rising China.
Chad M. Pillai is an experienced Army strategist and is a member of the Military Writers’ Guild, Army Strategy Association, and contributes to the U.S. Naval Institute. He has operational experience in the CENTCOM AOR and has traveled to India, to include 1998 during the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests of 1998. He received a Masters in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The article reflects the opinion of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Featured Image: SASEBO, Japan (June 10, 2016) – Rear Adm. Brian Hurley, center, deputy commander, U.S. 7th Fleet, tours the Indian navy Kora-class corvette INS Kirch (P62) during Malabar 2016. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan J. Batchelder/Released)
This past January, Benjamin Netanyahu undertook a high-profile visit to India, becoming the second Israeli Prime Minister to travel to the country. Accompanied by a 130-member delegation, Netanyahu’s trip included a stay in New Delhi, and visits to the Taj Mahal, Mahatma Gandhi’s grave, and Gandhi’s home in the state of Gujrat. The personal relationship between Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, seems extremely strong – in a distinct break from protocol, Modi greeted Netanyahu at the airport, an honor denied to the popular Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit a month later.
Netanyahu and Modi’s strong personal relationship indicates the growing closeness of Indo-Israeli relations. While India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv only 26 years ago, since the two countries have engaged in growing levels of trade and military cooperation – the present diplomatic evolution simply reflects underlying trends. Since 1992, India has also engaged in a sustained rapprochement with the United States. Tacitly aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the USSR’s collapse revolutionized India’s strategic situation, and has resulted in progressively improving relations with the U.S., despite multiple hiccups along the way.
Strategic trends dictate growing areas of cooperation between India, the U.S., and Israel, particularly in the maritime sphere. As such, U.S. policymakers are faced with the unique opportunity of being able to forge an alliance with a major power that could revolutionize American security architecture in the Near East and Indian Ocean. Despite the potential points of Indo-American and Indo-Israeli friction that remain, Washington can use the relationship between its critical Near Eastern ally and New Delhi to actualize the full potential of this partnership.
The Development of Indian Foreign Policy – Non-Alignment to Balancing
India’s shifting policy toward the West is the culmination of steady changes in India’s approach toward the external world since its independence in 1947. Despite its initial war with Pakistan, India faced few external threats during its first decade of independent existence. Its armed forces were employed internally, enabling the absorption of reticent enclaves into the fledgling Republic. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, embarked upon an anticolonial foreign policy, using India’s ostensible moral capital to build links with other nations emerging from their colonial pasts.
The outbreak of war with China in 1962, therefore, was a distinct shock for the Indian governing establishment. Up until that point, China had been viewed as a Marxist brother in arms – Nehru hoped to anchor Indian foreign policy on cooperation with China, and use the combined authority of the two formerly colonial powers to remain independent from the Cold War. Despite its border dispute with China, the PRC’s invasion across the McMahon Line and into Ladakh was utterly unanticipated. Not only were India’s armed forces unprepared for conflict in Jammu and Kashmir’s harsh mountain conditions against the more experienced People’s Liberation Army, China also executed its offensive concurrent with the Cuban Missile Crisis, ensuring that neither Washington nor Moscow could properly focus on the region and lend New Delhi support until after Beijing consolidated its initial gains.
Following the Sino-Indian War, India’s foreign policy shifted away from its idealistic roots. However, relations between India and the West remained chilled, particularly over America’s persistent support for Pakistan, a critical facilitator in Nixon and Kissinger’s attempts to realign China during the early 1970s. Ideologically, the socialist, anti-Imperialist Indian National Congress (INC), which dominated Indian politics until the late 1970s, found the Soviet Union to be a more amenable partner than the United States, with its capitalist ideology and close relationship with Britain and other former colonial European powers, while the Kremlin had a progressively increasing interest in balancing China as relations cooled and animosity increased from Stalin’s death onward. India’s relationship with Israel was similarly frigid, albeit for more pragmatic reasons. India initially refused to recognize Israel, and remained wary of appearing too close to the Jewish state despite recognition in 1950. Indian politicians feared the response of the significant Muslim minority population if New Delhi formally opened an embassy in Tel Aviv. Moreover, India was dependent upon Israel’s Arab adversaries for energy supplies, relied on the Persian Gulf states to maintain Indian foreign exchange reserves, and significantly benefited from the productivity of Indian nationals working in the Near East. Formally engaging with Israel would therefore have risked Indian economic and energy security.
The Cold War’s conclusion was a major turning point for Indo-Israeli and Indo-American relations. INC progressively lost its political monopoly from Indira Gandhi’s ouster in 1977 after unprecedented centralization. By 1989, India’s political environment had become much more balanced, with various opposition parties, namely the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates challenging long-standing socialist economic policies, and implementing free market reforms. American loans underwrote India’s market liberalization. The U.S. also identified India as a potential defense export market, and gradually increased technological transfers. More notably, the U.S. Navy began its Malabar exercises with its Indian counterpart in 1992, explicitly focusing on rehearsing combat operations, rather than non-wartime activities. Indo-American relations then cooled in 1998 when the Clinton administration sanctioned India for its nuclear testing. However, President Clinton quickly abandoned his sanctions policy, while President Bush identified India as a critical potential partner in the Global War on Terror after the September 11th Attacks. The Malabar naval exercises have continued to increase in scope, while Indian Navy and U.S. Navy ships cooperate on antipiracy, counterterrorism, and other maritime patrol missions in the Indian Ocean.
Indo-Israeli relations also progressively thawed. India opened an embassy in Tel Aviv in 1992. Economic relations have flourished since, while India and Israel also have a progressively expanding security relationship. Indian forces have participated in training exercises in Israel, while Israeli defense companies sell advanced technologies to the Indian military – India has used Israeli drones to offset the advantages of its regional rivals. Increased state visits demonstrate the strength of this relationship: the Netanyahu-Modi visits are only the most recent of a rising number of high-profile diplomatic exchanges. Additionally, significant are changes in Indian rhetoric. In the 2014 Gaza War, India broke with its previous strong condemnation of Israeli action in the Palestinian territories, instead blaming both parties for the conflict, and calling upon the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to limit civilian casualties. This reflects a broader attempt to “de-hyphenate” Indo-Israeli relations: New Delhi wishes to build an independent relationship with Tel Aviv, regardless of the Palestinian issue. One can only expect this cooperation to increase in the future.
The Strategic Roots of Cooperation
Policymakers rarely have the opportunity to forge new, lasting alliances. The uncertainty of the international environment makes ensuring sustained cooperation difficult, particularly among great powers – a cursory observation of Sino-Russo-American relations from 1945 to the present indicates this fact. However, the clear confluence of interests between India, Israel, and the United States makes the potential for cooperation extremely high, particularly in the maritime domain.
The U.S. and Israel have clear shared interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabian Gulf, and Indian Ocean. Both require Near Eastern stability to advance their interests. The Islamic Republic of Iran is presently the greatest regional threat to both of their goals. Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon poses a physical threat to Israeli security through irregular assets like Hezbollah and their missile capabilities, or, potentially in the future, a direct threat from conventional ground forces. Iranian expansion in the Indian Ocean also threatens the U.S.’ ability to impose a “far blockade” on China in the event of conflict by attempting to closing the Strait of Hormuz and pressure American sea lines of communication running from the Near East to the Western Pacific. Hence, Israel and the U.S. have a clear joint interest in ensuring their control over the Eastern Mediterranean and Indian Ocean.
India and the U.S. also share a critical interest concerning China. China is a blatant threat to India’s sphere of influence in South Asia. The Doklam Crisis is only the most recent evidence of Chinese encroachment on Indian or Indian allied borders, while China’s hedging strategy involves supporting India’s chief rival, Pakistan. India is the only regional actor that can offer China significant resistance without external support. The qualitatively sophisticated JSDF and Taiwanese militaries are too small to sustainably challenge the PLA absent American aid, while the Vietnamese and Philippine Armed Forces are qualitatively and quantitatively outmatched. India’s active military ranks only behind China’s numerically, while if reserves and paramilitary groups are included, the Indian Armed Forces could field nearly two million more personnel than the PLA. Moreover, as a nuclear-armed state, India can limit Chinese escalatory options in a way no other regional power can. However, India’s military is outmatched by the PLA. The PLAAF fields more combat aircraft than its Indian counterpart, and faces only three substantial regional threats aside from India – the Taiwanese Air Force, Japanese Air Self Defense Forces, and Republic of Korea Air Force (assuming the ROK is not tied down in some fashion by North Korea either through conflict or deterrence requirements) while the Indians will need to divert forces to deterring or fighting Pakistan’s Air Force in any conflict. At sea, the PLAN outmatches the Indian Navy. The PLAN’s two STOBAR carriers’ air wings match the INS Vikramaditya’s in size, while it outnumbers India in every surface combatant category. In the near future, the Indian Navy could face as much as a one-to-four disadvantage in a conflict with the PLAN. Nevertheless, India has a commanding geographic position over the approaches to and from the South China Sea, and can use both naval forces and land-based maritime patrol craft to prevent PLAN surface combatants from entering the Indian Ocean. Considering concurrent American interest in countering China’s rise, formalized cooperation between the U.S. and India would significantly improve the relative position of both countries in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific.
Israel and India also share a number of direct interests outside of their present economic and military transactions. Israel is not directly threatened by China – indeed, Israeli companies have sold the PLA military technology – while India relies on Iran for a significant portion of its energy imports. However, both have a clear interest in Indian Ocean maritime security. Chinese patrols in the Indian Ocean could pressure Indian supply lines, while China’s growing economic relationship with Iran could allow it to diplomatically leverage the Islamic Republic into choking off its oil flows to New Delhi. Israel, alternatively, would be unable to respond to Chinese submarine harassment of Israeli shipping in the Indian Ocean. Despite the IDF’s military sophistication, it lacks a blue water navy, and small powers remain at the mercy of larger adversaries in conflict absent a great power partner. Additionally, damage inflicted upon the Indian economy would harm Israel’s own productivity: Israel has a clear interest in ensuring India remains insulated from Chinese economic pressure. Finally, Israel could benefit from the ability to pressure Iran from the Indian Ocean, rather than simply overland. The U.S. Navy’s current presence in the Arabian Gulf allows for greater Israeli freedom of action on land. However, Israel would benefit from having its own naval forces, giving it the ability to act more independently.
These bilateral interests cohere into a broader whole. India, Israel, and the U.S. would all benefit from a more formal maritime arrangement in the Indian Ocean, while each nation would directly or indirectly benefit from the increases to the others’ security. These overlapping strategic interests are reinforced by the broader desire of all three potential partners to combat terrorism and respond to Islamic extremist organizations. With the roots for cooperation evidently existing, one must understand how to leverage this into a more explicit framework.
Future Steps to Facilitate Cooperation
Despite the clear cooperative potential between India, the U.S., and Israel, actualizing cooperation is a difficult task. Israel would likely be hesitant to be drawn into a formalized security architecture that would commit it to defending tangential interests with force, while India would reasonably be wary of jeopardizing relations with Iran, and by extension its access to oil. Nevertheless, American policymakers can take several steps to increase cooperation and lay the groundwork for a broader Mediterranean-Indo-Pacific security architecture that can respond to increasing Chinese, Russian, and Iranian southward pressure. Four specific policy recommendations can actualize this cooperation.
First, the U.S. should consider inviting the Israeli Navy to future iterations of the Malabar Exercises. Israel’s participation at Malabar would be a public way to signal Indo-Israeli cooperation, without Israel making any formal commitments in the Indian Ocean. Ensuring the stability of military-to-military contacts between the IDF and Indian Armed Forces will help insulate the security relationship between Israel and India despite changes in administration. Other joint training exercises are possible, and would be beneficial. India already sends fighter aircraft and Special Operations Forces units to Israel for various activities – America’s CENTCOM military forces could engage in exercises along their IDF and Indian Armed Forces counterparts.
Second, the U.S. can encourage further defense cooperation by making a concerted effort to win over the Indian market. The Indian military largely uses Soviet and Russian equipment. All but six percent of the Indian Army’s main battle tanks, and 20 percent of its combat aircraft, are Russian made or designed. Two-thirds of the Indian Navy’s attack submarine fleet, and slightly under half of its large surface combatant fleet of guided missile destroyers and frigates were produced in Russian shipyards. The U.S.’ high-cost systems, and Israel’s smaller industrial base, makes it difficult to imagine either one of them singlehandedly crowding out Russian production. But at least when it comes to surface combatants, one could envision Israeli or American ships being increasingly represented in the Indian fleet, with Israeli and American-designed small surface combatants competing for purchase. Moreover, the Indian Navy’s undersized submarine fleet offers U.S. producers an opportunity to revive diesel-electric submarines, and produce cheaper platforms to counter growing Chinese numerical superiority. Just as the British shipbuilding industry benefited from building capital ships and surface combatants for foreign nations before the Great War, American shipyards could help expand and maintain critical wartime capacity by producing warships for friendly and allied foreign powers. This could extend to IDF and American tanks and other armored vehicles replacing Soviet and Russian alternatives. Israel’s unmanned expertise is a critical facilitating factor. The Indian Air Force already uses Israeli UAV’s, namely the IAI Harop, a loitering munition, the IAI Searcher, a light scout platform, and the IAI Heron, a MALE reconnaissance and strike UCAV. Not only will demand for these sorts of platforms grow, as armed forces globally develop their understanding of teaming between manned and unmanned assets, but increases in AI technology will likely lead to a fully unmanned fighter aircraft in the next two to three decades. India, the U.S., and Israel would all benefit from research and production of such platforms – or risk being left behind by their Russian and Chinese rivals, who are undoubtedly engaging in developing those capabilities.
Third, American diplomacy can help decrease Iran’s role in India’s energy supply by leveraging energy supplies in the Eastern Mediterranean’s Leviathan Gas Field and other neighboring energy deposits. Current exploration indicates that these newly-discovered Eastern Mediterranean resource deposits contain upwards of 16.5 trillion cubic feet of gasoline. Combined with an increase in already high exports from Saudi Arabia, and a concerted effort to export North American oil and natural gas to India, the U.S. can decrease the proportion of India’s Iranian energy imports, and thereby give India the ability to more openly cooperate with the U.S. and Israel by lessening energy security risks.
Fourth, the U.S. should explore political and military relationships with India to increase security in the Indian Ocean. The present Indo-American relationship is remarkably similar to the early stages of Anglo-French cooperation before the First World War. The 1912 Anglo-French Naval Convention, in which Britain offered to secure the North Sea and France’s Atlantic coastline in return for France’s safeguarding of British interests in the Mediterranean, allowed Britain to concentrate its forces against the Imperial German Kaiserlichmarine while maintaining a degree of security in other global chokepoints. Even if implemented successfully, the PLAN will outnumber the U.S. Navy by nearly 150 ships in 2030, and could outnumber the U.S. Navy as early as 2020, and has nearly achieved numerical surface combatant parity today.Most dangerously, between 2025 and 2035,the U.S. Navy’s ship numbers will hover between 310 and 320 – such a disparity increases potential instabilityAbsent a colossal shipbuilding program, the U.S. Navy’s only hope for parity will involve transferring the vast majority of American combat power to the Pacific, while easing force commitments elsewhere. Turning Indian Ocean and Arabian security over to the Indian Navy, in return for American guarantees to protect shared Indo-American interests in the South and East China Seas, may therefore be a preferable solution. At a minimum, the U.S. should consider joint basing arrangements with Indian facilities in the Southern and Western Indian Oceans, replicating the Royal Navy’s commanding position in the Indian Ocean during the Second World War. Israel could also benefit from such an arrangement – its submarines could refuel and resupply from Indian bases, or Indian support ships, enabling more consistent presence on Iran’s southern flank.
Conclusion – Forging the Strategic Relationship
Seldom does the international environment explicitly conform to the goals of high policy. Sophisticated strategies can easily unravel when they encounter certain facts on the ground. However, this makes identifying the points where a state can exert its influence even more critical. The confluence of interests between Israel, India, and the U.S. creates such a situation. With proper American policy action, the U.S. can effectively further its interests in the Near East, Indian Ocean, and Western Pacific, and potentially build a lasting partnership that stabilizes critical regions stretching from Cyprus to Ceylon.
Harry Halem is an undergraduate at the University of St Andrews studying International Relations and Philosophy. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.
Featured Image: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi shake hands at a joint press conference in the president’s house in New Delhi, India, on January 15, 2018. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
The ongoing disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have been regarded as one of the most enduring and complicated regional conflicts in the Asia-Pacific. The disputes involve China along with several states in the region and encompass issues such as overlapping territorial claims and access to critical resources like energy and fisheries. Within this turbulent environment, India has been expanding its influence through implementing its Look East Policy (LEP). This has not been taken well by China, who has for years tried to curb New Delhi’s growing involvement in the SCS. India’s decision to involve itself in such a complex environment, even at the risk of provoking its giant neighbor, demonstrates the significance it places on the region and its sea lanes.
The SCS is located in a region of great strategic interest for India. Geographically, it connects the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea via the Malacca Straits, which is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. This important waterway serves as a vital economic artery for the South Asian state. Up to 97 percent of India’s total international trade volume is sea-borne, half of which, passes through the straits. In addition, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) constitutes one of India’s largest trade partners, with total trade valued at $71 billion in 2016/2017.
Energy is another component of India’s interest in the SCS. In 2015, India became the third largest oil consumer in the world, with industry experts predicting that its energy consumption would continue to grow by 4.2 percent annually. Already importing up to 80 percent of its total oil requirements, India will likely need to secure new energy sources as domestic demand rises. The potential energy deposits in the SCS have thus drawn New Delhi’s attention. In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)estimated the region to contain up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in reserves. As such, India has been continually involved in offshore energy development projects in the SCS since the early 1990s, bidding for new oil and gas blocks and conducting oil exploration in the region.
The region’s economic importance translates into national security interests for New Delhi. With half of its maritime trade passing through the Malacca Straits, any instability in the SCS would adversely affect the shipping lanes and have a knock-on effect on India’s economy. Similarly, should a potentially hostile power come to control this region, it could threaten India’s access to this vital waterway. New Delhi’s involvement in the SCS thus, focuses on three objectives. First, to ensure peace and stability in the region and keep the vital sea lanes open; second, to maintain cordial relations with regional powers; and third, to ensure that no potentially aggressive external power comes to dominate the region.
Through the LEP, New Delhi has pursued these objectives by seeking to intensify its engagement with ASEAN states. Besides increased economic engagement, strategic cooperation was expanded through joint naval exercises, generous lines of credit, military training, and sales of military hardware with regional states. Moreover, the enhanced presence of Indian military assets in the area not only served to protect the sea lanes, but also provided ‘domain awareness’ of potential regional developments.
Engagement also served to counter China’s growing influence in the region. India’s relationship with its giant neighbor has been difficult and tenuous. Both sides have been embroiled in a long, ongoing border dispute that resulted in a war in 1962 and till today remains a source of tension that has resulted in occasional crises. This has perpetuated the sense of suspicion and mistrust between the two. As the Doklam standoff in 2017 shows, conflict between the two sides remains a very real prospect. Hence, from New Delhi’s perspective, it is imperative that the SCS does not turn into a ‘Chinese lake.’
Managing the region’s competing territorial disputes has required shrewd diplomatic awareness and delicate balancing from India. On one hand, the South Asian state wants to maintain friendly relations with the various SCS claimants; on the other, it has to avoid excessively provoking its Chinese neighbor. In New Delhi’s view, while activities such as energy exploration and weapon sales to the region would incur Beijing’s disapproval, such ventures are unlikely to instigate anything more than a verbal response from the Chinese. Taking a stand on the territorial disputes is another matter. China has repeatedly described the SCS as a “core interest”, indicating its willingness to use force to protect its claims. Thus, India’s stand on the issue has been one of deliberate ambiguity – not favoring any one side, but instead advocating freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On the South China Sea Arbitration ruling in 2016, India, which had not taken sides in the dispute, urged all parties to respect and uphold the verdict of the UNCLOS-based tribunal.
Recent developments in the SCS, however, have been a source of concern for New Delhi. China, which lays claim to 85 percent of the contested region, has been reclaiming and militarizing features in its possession. Between 2013 and 2016, Chinawas reported to have reclaimed seven islands and built military installations including airfields, radar systems and missile bases on its reclaimed possessions in the area. Furthermore, Chinese vessels in the area have been known to act aggressively, harassing and intimidating vessels of other nations into steering clear of islands they claim. In response, other SCS claimants have also begun augmenting their deterrence capabilities on their islands with infrastructure such as coastal defenses, airfields and surveillance systems. Rather than peace, such actions have generated tension and destabilized the region.
Even the United States (US), once a strong proponent for ‘freedom of navigation’ in the region, has been of little help to India. During his first year in office, President Trump failed to show any willingness to challenge Beijing over its behavior in the SCS. The new administration seemed to lack a clear policy towards the SCS, choosing to focus its attention instead on North Korea. More recently however, there are signs that change may be on the horizon. In late 2017, the once dormant Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – a defense partnership involving the U.S., Japan, India and Australia – made a sudden comeback, indicating the growing unease over China’s rise. The recently unveiled U.S. military strategy also indicates a shift in focus back towards China and Russia. While it is too early to tell how well this plan will be carried out under this administration, the U.S. is likely to seek closer ties with India as a counterweight to China’s regional dominance. Furthermore, it may also signal Washington’s renewed interest to check Beijing’s behavior in the SCS.
What does the future hold for the SCS? New Delhi’s decision to recently host all ten ASEAN heads of state shows its intention to buckle down on its policy of strengthening ties with the region. Beijing’s policy in the SCS also seems unlikely to change. It has already swung the opinion of states like Malaysia and the Philippines, who have since softened their stances, and chosen to focus on cooperation with the Asian giant. With or without the U.S., India will have to continue to strengthen its ties with the region and play a part in managing its turbulent waters.
Byron Chong is a Research Assistant at the Centre on Asia & Globalisation in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He graduated from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies with a Masters in Strategic Studies. His research interests focus on Sino-Indian relations and international security in Asia.
The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.
Featured Image: As part of the ongoing sea trials, the first indigenously built, Scorpene class submarine Kalvari undertook it’s first torpedo firing on 26 May 2017. (Wikimedia Commons)
Chinese maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean reflects a couple of simple inter-related planks; espousal of a “two ocean” navy and espousal of the Maritime Silk Road. 2017 has witnessed important consolidation of each maritime plank. Each plank can be looked at in turn.
“Two Ocean” Navy
In expanding naval operations from the South China Sea and Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, China is pursuing a “two-ocean” (战略, liang ge haiyang) strategy. This is the manifestation of China’s new strategy of “far-seas operations” (远海作战, yuanhai zuozhan) endorsed since the mid-2000s, to be achieved through deployment and berthing facilities across the Indo-Pacific, in part to meet energy security imperatives and thereby achieve “far seas protection” (远海护卫, yuanhai huwei) and power projection by the Chinese Navy. This shift from “near sea” to “far sea” is the decisive transformation in Chinese maritime thinking; “China’s naval force posturing stems from a doctrinal shift to ocean-centric strategic thinking and is indicative of the larger game plan of having a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean.”1 This naval force posture has brought Chinese naval operations into the eastern and then western quadrants of the Indian Ocean on an unprecedented scale in 2017.
In the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean, February 2017 witnessed the Chinese cruise missile destroyers Haikou and Changsha conducting live-fire anti-piracy and combat drills to test combat readiness. Rising numbers of Chinese surface ship and submarine sightings in the eastern quadrant of the Indian Ocean were particularly picked up in India during summer, a sensitive period of land confrontation at Doklam – e.g. Times of India, ‘Amid Border stand-off, Chinese ships on the prowl in Indian Ocean,’ July 4; Hindustan Times, ‘From submarines to warships: How Chinese navy is expanding its footprint in Indian Ocean’, July 5. This Chinese presence included Chinese surveillance vessels dispatched to monitor the trilateral Malabar exercise being carried out in the Bay of Bengal between the Indian, U.S., and Japanese navies, which represents a degree of tacit maritime balancing against China. Chinese rationale was expressed earlier in August by the Deputy Chief of General Office of China’s South Sea Fleet, Capt. Liang Tianjun, who said that “China and India can make joint contributions to the safety and security of the Indian Ocean,” but that China would also not “be obstructed by other countries.” India is increasingly sensitive to this presence (Times of India, ‘Chinese navy eyes Indian Ocean as part of PLAs plan to extend its reach,’ 11 August) in what India considers to be its own strategic backyard and to a degree India’s ocean for it to be accorded pre-eminence. In contrast, China’s growing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean lends maritime encirclement to match land encirclement of India.
In the western quadrant of the Indian Ocean, another first for Chinese deployment capability was in August when a Chinese naval formation consisting of the destroyer Changchun, guided-missile frigate Jingzhou, and the supply vessel Chaohu conducted a live-fire drill in the waters of the western Indian Ocean. The reason given for the unprecedented live fire drill was to test carrying out strikes against “enemy” (Xinhua, August 25) surface ships. The “enemy” was not specified, but the obvious rival in sight was the Indian Navy, which was why the South China Morning Post (August 26) suggested the drill as “a warning shot to India.” Elsewhere in the Chinese state media, Indian concerns were brushed off (Global Times, ‘India should get used to China’s military drills,’ August 27). Finally in a further development of Chinese power projection, in September a “logistics facility” (a de facto naval base) for China was opened up at Djibouti in September, complete with military exercises carried out by Chinese marines.
The Maritime Silk Road
At the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, the Congress formally wrote into the Party Constitution the need to “pursue the Belt and Road Initiative.” The “Road” refers to the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative pushed by China since 2013, with the “Belt” referring to the overland land route across Eurasia. The MSR is a maritime project of the first order, involving geo-economic and geopolitical outcomes in which Chinese maritime interests and power considerations are significant. May 2017 saw the high-level Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing, focusing on the maritime and overland Silk Road projects. A swath of 11 Indian Ocean countries participating in the MSR were officially represented, including Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia (President), Iran, Kenya (President), Malaysia (Prime Minister), the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan (Prime Minister), Singapore, and Sri Lanka (Prime Minister).
On 20 June 2017, China unveiled a White Paper entitled Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. This vision document was prepared by China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). It was classic win-win “pragmatic cooperation” involving “shelving differences and building consensus. We call for efforts to uphold the existing international ocean order.” This ignored China’s refusal to allow UNCLOS tribunal adjudication over its claims in the South China Sea.
The MSR presents a vision of interlinked ports and nodal points going across the Indian Ocean. The significance of the MSR is that China can expect to be involved in a three-fold fashion. Firstly in infrastructure projects involved in building up the nodal points along these waters that was alluded to in the Vision document by its open aim to “promote the participation of Chinese enterprises in such endeavors” and which could “involve mutual assistance in law enforcement.” Secondly, Chinese merchant shipping is growing greater in numbers, and thirdly, deploying naval power to underpin these commercial interests and shipping.
This pinpointing of ports across the Indian Ocean reproduces the geographical pattern of the so-called String of Pearls framework earlier mooted in 2005 by U.S. analysts as Chinese strategy to establish bases and facilities across the Indian Ocean – a chain going from Sittwe, Chittagong, Hambantota, and Gwadar. China of course consistently denied such a policy, but its drive during the last decade has been to establish a series of port use agreements across the Indian Ocean, now including infrastructure and facilities agreements at Mombassa and Djibouti.
Chinese penetration of ports around the Indian Ocean rim gathered pace during 2017. September saw Myanmar agreeing to a 70 percent stake for the China International Trust Investment Corporation (CITIC) in running the deep water port of Kyauk Pyu. The port is the entry point for the China-Myanmar oil and gas pipeline. CITIC is a state-owned company, and so represents deliberate central government strategy by China. In July Sri Lanka agreed to a similar 70 percent stake for the China Merchant Port Holdings (CMPH) in the Chinese-built port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease. CMPH is another state-owned company, and so again represents deliberate central government strategy by China.
Gwadar, nestled on the Pakistan coast facing the Arabian Sea, has been a particularly useful “pearl” for China. Built with Chinese finance, it was significant that its management was taken over by the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) for a 40 year period in April 2017. This is deliberate strategy on the part of the Chinese government, given that COPHC is another state-run entity. The Chinese Navy has started using Gwadar as a regular berthing facility, in effect a naval base established for the next 40 years. Gwadar is also strategically significant for China given its role as the link between maritime trade (i.e. energy supplies from the Middle East) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which is set to improve infrastructure links between Pakistan and China.
From a strategic point of view, China’s use (and control?) of Gwadar and Kyauk Pyu will enable China to address its present vulnerability, the so-called Malacca Dilemma, whereby Chinese energy imports coming across the eastern Indian Ocean into the Strait of Malacca, could be cut either by the U.S. Navy or the Indian Navy.
It is significant that although India has been invited to join the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative, India has avoided participation. Its absence at the Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing in May 2017 was conspicuous. The official explanation for this Indian boycott was China’s linking of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (which goes through Kashmir, a province in dispute between India and Pakistan) to the MSR initiative. In practice, India is extremely wary of the whole MSR initiative. Geographically, the MSR initiative surrounds India, and geopolitically Indian perception tends to be that it is but another Chinese way to encircle India. China of course denies any such encirclement strategy, but then it would deny such a policy anyhow.
The geo-economics of the Maritime Silk Road present China with interests to gain, maintain, and defend if need be. How can China defend such interests? Ultimately, through the Chinese Navy.
A More Powerful Navy
Chinese maritime strategy (a “two ocean” navy) is not likely to change, what will change is China’s ability to deploy more powerful assets into the Indian Ocean. This was evident at the 19th Party Congress. The formal Resolution approving Xi Jinping’s Report of the 18th Central Committee included his call to “build a powerful and modernized […] navy.” 2017 has seen Chinese naval capabilities accelerating in various first-time events.
One indicator of capability advancement was the unveiling in June at Shanghai of the Type 055 destroyer, the Chinese Navy’s first 10,000-ton domestically designed and domestically-built surface combatant. The Chinese official state media (Xinhua, June 28) considered this “a milestone in improving the nation’s Navy armament system and building a strong and modern Navy.” The Type 055 is the first of China’s new generation destroyers. It is equipped with China’s latest mission systems and a dual-band radar system.
So far aircraft carrier power has not been deployed by China into the Indian Ocean. China has converted one ex-Soviet carrier, the Varyag and inducted it into the navy in 2012 as the Liaoning. But China is already deploying “toward” the Indian Ocean where in January 2017 the Liaoning led a warship flotilla into the South China Sea, including drills with advanced J-15 aircraft. This was the first Chinese aircraft carrier deployment into the South China Sea, and constituted a clear policy to project maritime power. This projection was partly in terms of demonstrating clear superiority over local rival claimants in the South China Sea, and partly to begin matching U.S. aircraft carrier deployments into waters that China claims as its own, but which the U.S. claims as international waters in which it could undertake Freedom of Navigation Exercises.
A crucial development for China’s aircraft carrier power projection capability is the acceleration during 2017 of China’s own indigenous construction of aircraft carriers. This will deliver modern large aircraft carrier capability, and enable ongoing deployment into the Indian Ocean. China’s first home-grown aircraft carrier Type 001A, probably to be named the Shandong, was launched in April 2017 at Shanghai, with mooring exercises carried out in October at Dalian. Consequently, this new aircraft carrier is likely to join the Chinese Navy by late 2018, up to two years earlier than initially expected, and is expected to feature an electromagnetic launch system. It is expected to be stationed with the South China Sea Fleet, thereby earmarked for regular deployment into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. This marks a key acceleration of China’s effort to build up a blue-water navy to secure the country’s key maritime trade routes and to challenge the U.S.’s dominant position in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea as well as India’s position in the Indian Ocean.
The very success of China’s Indian Ocean strategy has created countervailing moves. In reaction to China’s Maritime Silk Road Initiative, India has pushed its own Mausam and Cotton Route projects for Indian Ocean cooperation, neither of which involve China; and alongside Japan has also started espousing the Africa-Asia Growth Corridor (AAGC), which again does not involve China. U.S. espousal of the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor (IPEC) connecting South Asia to Southeast Asia is also being linked up to the Indian and Japanese proposals. With regard to China’s “two-ocean” naval strategy, the more it has deployed into the Indian Ocean, the more India has moved towards trilateral security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan. Australia beckons as well in this regional reaction to China, as witnessed in the revival of “Quad” discussions between Australian, Indian, Japanese, and U.S. officials in 12 November 2017. This countervailing security development includes trilateral MALABAR exercises between the Indian, Japanese, and U.S. navies, in which their exercises in the Bay of Bengal in July 2017 showed a move of venues (and focus of concern about China) from the Western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, and with Australia likely to join the MALABAR format within this “Quad” development. China has become a victim of its own maritime success in the Indian Ocean, thereby illustrating the axiom that “To every action there is an equal and opposed reaction” – which points to tacit balancing in other words.
David Scott is an independent analyst on Indo-Pacific international relations and maritime geopolitics, a prolific writer and a regular ongoing presenter at the NATO Defence College in Rome since 2006 and the Baltic Defence College in Tallinn since 2017. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Kupakar, “China’s naval base(s) in the Indian Ocean—signs of a maritime Grand Strategy?,” Journal of Strategic Anaysis, 41.3, 2017
Featured Image: Pakistan’s Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Zakaullah visits Chinese ship on visit to Pakistan for participating in Multinational Exercise AMAN-17 in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 12, 2017. (China.org.cn)