The Indian Ocean: Emerging Great Power Competition
As the global nexus of power continues shifting from West to East, so too do intermingling pressures evoking the savage conflicts of the previous century. Economic expansion, shipping lanes, geography, territorial disputes and natural resources all intermingle to form a potentially toxic environment across the regions of Southern and Eastern Asia.
Avoiding the missteps that led to such catastrophes as occurred in Europe in the last century has increasingly become a metaphorical tightrope walk for these regions' two preeminent powers, China and India.
Nestled together along the Himalayas and Kunlun mountain ranges, these economically ascendant and burgeoning military powers warily eye each other's moves, hoping to prevent the other from gaining an insurmountable strategic advantage. The two nations fought a five-month border war in 1962. The end result was a military victory for the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA), a disputed Indian claim to a slice of territory known as Aksai Chin, a heavily militarized border (referred to as the "Line of Actual Control"), and a traumatized psyche in India where China is concerned.
Now, over a half-century later, both are competing to assert influence over the world's third-largest oceanic area.
Ever mindful of encroaching steps by China, India has watched with anxiety as Beijing has invested in a network of roads, railways and pipelines linking it to India's fiercest regional rival, Pakistan (the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of China's larger "One Belt, One Road" regional plan).
This land route joining China's western Xinjiang Province with the Pakistani port of Gwadar signals an attempt by Beijing to circumvent a crucial Chinese vulnerability, one that India might exploit in the event of another outbreak of hostilities between the two nations: China's need for secure shipping lanes that ensure its vital energy supplies from the Middle East are not disrupted.
Thus when looking at the bigger picture, a strategic quandary emerges whereby India fears a tightening Chinese noose around its neck and China's leadership worries about its "Malacca Dilemma," loosely described as the vulnerability of its seaborne energy-importation economic lifeline.
With both countries proceeding to expand their military capabilities and both heavily dependent upon Middle East oil to fuel their economic growth, maneuvering for the upper hand in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has intensified.
The shipping lane that stretches from the Persian Gulf into the Arabian Sea and across the Indian Ocean represents the crucial transport lifeline for about 60 percent of Chinese oil and over 70 percent of India's. More significantly, some 84 percent of China's imported energy passes through the heavily pirated maritime choke-point Straits of Malacca from the Indian Ocean.
The length and delicacy of such a journey make protection of this vital shipping lifeline a fundamental security priority for China. That India, hoping to project its power throughout the IOR, is in the midst of a prolonged naval buildup only adds to the sense of urgency of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) regarding sovereignty over its sea lines of communication.
As a result, China has launched an effort to protect its commercial interests by undertaking a series of port development and construction projects in Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Myanmar (Kyaukpyu), Pakistan (Gwadar), and the African nations of Djibouti (Port of Djibouti), Kenya (Lamu), and Tanzania (Bagamoyo). The Chinese government has assiduously cultivated warm relations with Indian Ocean rim nations, signing friendship pacts and providing them with large amounts of aid in a bid to build up its political capital in the region.
The PLAN, meanwhile, has constructed a hardened deep-water base at Sanya, on Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The base is capable of accommodating both attack and nuclear ballistic submarines, enabling these vessels to perform patrols in the northern Indian Ocean. The naval complex at Sanya supports the PLAN's rapidly growing South Sea Fleet and would, reportedly, serve as the home base for a rumored "Fourth Fleet" that would ostensibly be charged with jurisdiction over the IOR if ever stood up.
In addition, China has embarked on its notorious island-building program in the South China Sea with an increasingly militarized bent, resulting in burgeoning airstrips, logistics facilities, and surveillance systems.
China's expansionary efforts in the Indian Ocean Region have been dubbed by the Pentagon as the "string of pearls" strategy. But while the creation and development of logistical support bases represent a necessary component of this strategy, military muscle is what underwrites its execution. With a current budget of roughly $142 billion, China is far and away the world's second-largest military investor and continues allocating greater resources toward building blue-water naval capabilities.
India, meanwhile, is undergoing its own blue-water naval buildup in order to project power across the IOR. This includes a 198-ship Navy that will be composed of three Carrier Battle Groups by 2027. India also aims to expand its military-basing infrastructure and maintenance capabilities in its Andaman and Nicobar islands archipelago some 1,200 kilometers off the country's coast, thus enabling its military to rapidly respond to Chinese naval forays near these strategically located offshore territories.
This dual naval buildup has become worrisome for those with vested interests in the greater Indian Ocean.
The U.S. Navy had long been entrusted with protecting shipping through the region. But with China's rise as an economic power and a rival to the U.S., Beijing hardly sees the U.S. Navy 5th and 7th Fleets as benevolent hands helping to protect its sea lines of communication. Indeed, ongoing American efforts to court India as a foil against China's expanding regional influence have only added to Beijing's distrust of Washington's intentions.
Then there is Japan, which like China relies heavily upon energy transshipment through the Indian Ocean. With a heightened PLAN presence across the same shipping lane Japan uses to ferry Middle East oil to its ports, it is in the interest of Tokyo to continue strengthening its own naval capabilities while supporting the improvement of those nations similarly alarmed by China's maritime assertiveness. Thus a potential deal for the sale of 12 Japanese-made ShinMaywa US-2 amphibian aircraft to India serves multiple purposes, including strengthening Indo-Japanese defense trade ties and equipping the Indian Navy with a much-needed offshore rapid-reaction capability.
The reality is that after several centuries of dominating the larger IOR, Western power and influence are ebbing and into that vacuum, other actors will emerge to fill the geopolitical space.
The potential for a military showdown is always strong when the interests and concerns of powerful – and particularly rising – nations intersect.
But so too is the potential for partnership and pragmatism.
Trade between China and India has grown exponentially, and in 2008 China became India's largest trading partner. This increased trade volume helps to weave the two countries' economic interdependence. If the 21st century is to continue evolving into the Asian Century that many foretell, then China and India must carefully balance their needs and strategies against the security concerns of the other. Avoiding hazardous missteps in the Indian Ocean would be as good a place to start as any.