Overarching ambition

Overarching ambition

China and the indian ocean

Revelations that Pakistan has invited China to construct a naval base at the strategically located port of Gwadar once again underlines widespread anxiety in India and beyond about Beijing’s Indian Ocean objectives. Gwadar is a predominantly Chinese-funded commercial port about 500 km from the Strait of Hormuz and is considered by many as the most significant of ‘pearl’ in Beijing's ‘string’ of facilities around the Indian Ocean littoral. Though the Pakistani request has not yet been entertained by China, Indian Ocean is fast emerging as the main front in the struggle between China and India.
The Indian government last year explicitly acknowledged what many have been warning for years: China’s role in the Indian Ocean is growing at a rate that underlines much more than a normal expansion of capabilities. External affairs minister S M Krishna, informed Parliament last year that “the Government of India has come to realise that China has been showing more than the normal interest in the Indian Ocean affairs.” He went on assert that the government is “closely monitoring the Chinese intentions.”
 But monitoring intentions of a state is a fool’s errand. Intentions cannot be empirically verified and even if one could determine China’s intentions today, there is no way to know what they will be in the future. What India should instead focus on is China’s rapidly rising naval capabilities in and around the Indian Ocean. For some time now Indian naval expansion has been undertaken with an eye on China, but despite some positive developments, India has nautical miles to go before it can catch up with its powerful neighbour, which has made some significant advances in the waters surrounding India.

China’s growing naval capability was on full display as it paraded its nuclear-powered submarines for the first time as part of the celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2009. Gone was the reticence of yore when China was not ready to even admit that it had such capabilities. Chinese commanders are now openly talking about the need for nuclear submarines to safeguard the nation’s interests, and the Chinese navy, once the weakest of the three services, is now the focus of attention of the military modernisation programme that is being pursued with utmost seriousness.

China’s navy is now considered the third-largest in the world, behind only the US and Russia and superior to the Indian navy in both qualitative and quantitative terms. The PLA navy has traditionally been a coastal force, and China has had a continental outlook to security. But with a rise in its economic might since the 1980s, Chinese interests have expanded and acquired a maritime orientation with intent to project power into the Indian Ocean.

Investing in modernisation
China is investing far greater resources in the modernisation of its armed forces in general and its navy in particular than India seems either willing to undertake or capable of sustaining at present. China’s increasingly sophisticated submarine fleet could eventually be one of the world’s largest, and with a rapid accretion in its capabilities, including submarines, ballistic missiles and GPS-blocking technology, some are suggesting that China will increasingly have the capacity to challenge the US.

Senior Chinese officials have now openly acknowledged that China is ready to launch its first aircraft carrier with tests starting later this year, a capability that is viewed as being indispensable to protecting Chinese interests in oceans. Such intent to develop carrier capability marks a shift away from devoting the bulk of the PLA’s modernisation drive to the goal of capturing Taiwan. With a rise in China’s economic and political prowess, there has also been a commensurate growth in its profile in the Indian Ocean region. China is acquiring naval bases along the crucial choke-points in the Indian Ocean, not only to serve its economic interests but also to enhance its strategic presence in the region.
It is China’s growing dependence on maritime space and resources that is reflected in the country's aspiration to expand its influence and to ultimately dominate the strategic environment of the Indian Ocean region. China’s growing reliance on bases across the Indian Ocean region is a response to its perceived vulnerability, given the logistical constraints that it faces due to the distance of the Indian Ocean waters from its own area of operation.

Given the immense geographical advantages that India enjoys in the Indian Ocean, China will find it very challenging to exert as much sway in the Indian Ocean as India can. But all the steps that China will take to protect and enhance its interests in the Indian Ocean region will generate apprehensions in India about Beijing’s real intentions, thereby engendering a classic security dilemma between the two Asian giants.
Tensions are inherent in such an evolving strategic relationship as was underlined in an incident last year when an Indian kilo class submarine and Chinese warships, on their way to the Gulf of Aden to patrol the pirate-infested waters, reportedly engaged in rounds of manoeuvring as they tried to test for weaknesses in each others’ sonar systems. The Chinese media reported that its warships forced the Indian submarine to the surface, which was strongly denied by the Indian navy.

Unless managed carefully, the potential for such incidents turning serious in the future remains high, especially as Sino-Indian naval competition is likely to intensify with the Indian and Chinese navies operating far from their shores. The battle to rule the waves in the Indian Ocean seems to have only just begun.

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