China and India: emerging regional powers in the maritime sphere


China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives”. It proposed that Beijing had already has set up electronic eavesdropping posts at Gwadar port which holds an important strategic location and is nearest to the Persian Gulf. It was said to be monitoring ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea.  The bases or infrastructure that China has either develop at key strategic locations in both the Indian Ocean and the South and East China Sea.

China is a renowned geopolitical actor, the strong presence of China in Indian Ocean Region and South China sea, led to its conception and practice can be traced back to the roots of Sino-Indian geographical competition and the evolving Indo-US strategic partnership and preponderance in the Indian Ocean Region such as the Malabar exercise and ultimately the formation of Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue). The recent Sino-Indian standoff is not the first even though it certainly was the worst the two states have experienced as of yet, however, they have been fighting over the disputed Himalayan border since 1962. The roots of contention go back to the demarcation of boundary during British Raj between the two Asian giants. Before China became an independent state, McMahon Line was the agreed upon boundary between India and Tibet, however, when China emerged it did not accept that demarcation line hence, it considers Arunachal Pradesh a part of China. Later, in 1987 Sumdorong Chu standoff and then Doklam clash in 2017 were witnessed between China and India and the cause was a disputed territorial division.  Furthermore, both China and India as emerging regional powers in the maritime sphere of the Asia-Pacific not only desire to enhance their force capability to protect their legitimate economic interests but also demonstrate some power projection in the maritime domain where their economic legitimacy would matter much. Moreover, India and China have been wrestling their economic and military muscle for hegemony and supremacy in Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. Both the states are nuclear armed, capping the list of countries having the highest GDP in Asia and contributing significantly to the global economy. Therefore, since the rise and fall of the Cold War, it is not uncommon for states to develop their ‘region centered’ or ‘country specific’ strategies as either countermeasures to an aggressor or tactics to promote themselves as great powers or regional powers meanwhile discouraging or obstructing the rise of another power that they might find challenging to their supremacy designs. A need for fortified naval presence by rebalancing against Indo-US strategic partnership in the Indian Ocean Region. The second pretext to China’s assertive naval presence in the Indian Ocean and South China sea hence, the need for string-of-pearls can be traced back to the first Malabar exercise conducted in 1992 as a bilateral drill between the Indian Navy and the US Navy in the Indian Ocean. Later, Japan became a permanent member of the exercise in 2015. This was in impartial terms provocative enough for China.

Later, the annual exercise was conducted off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea in 2018 and off the coast of Japan in 2019. Presently, the first phase of the Malabar naval exercise featuring navies of India, the US, Japan and Australia have started in November in the Bay of Bengal. The second phase of this exercise is scheduled to be held in the second half of November in the Arabian sea. Therefore, it can be understood why China’s refers to its actions in the IOR as “defensive”. Consequently, it is not surprising that PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) undertook first ever joint naval exercise with the Pakistan Navy in 2003. This was the first time China had conducted a naval exercise with her foreign counterpart since independence. This exercise was repeated under the banner ‘China-Pakistan Friendship’ in 2005.  In other words, in order to prevent the adversaries forward deployed naval forces in both the South and East Asia Seas, China’s policy paper “White Paper 2015” speaks of “active defense” to “safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests and maintain security and stability along China’s periphery”. India on the other hand considers largely the Indo-Pacific Ocean as Indian Ocean. Geopolitical and geo-economic competition between the US and China and between China and India has led to the creation of space for greater US-India strategic cooperation. India becomes the most reliable partner for the US to hedge against China, while exercising joint patrolling and navigation with the US from the Indian Ocean to the blue seas of the Asia Pacific.

Both the US and India have identified shared mutual strategic interests that in turn successfully convinced the US to sign a civil nuclear deal with India in 2008. This legitimizes India’s footprints to the global market to procure nuclear fuel and technologies. This deal, in turn has enabled India to project its power and economic status broadly in the region of setting China’s rising influence. In this way, India can become an important player to balance military power against China in the naval and strategic domain.  The purpose is to counter a rising China in the Indian Ocean Region and Asia Pacific/South Asia via India by providing it with a modernized and enhanced naval power and a large nuclear arsenal. This is the US offshore balancing strategy to continue its dominance and strategic supremacy within the region of South Asia. Furthermore, this act is termed as the strategic force modernization of India.   The US strategic partnership with India reaffirmed against the backdrop of Obama’s Pivot to Asia Policy. India’s navy will be essential in order to promote the US rebalance to Asia and secure IOR. Therefore, China conceived of its String of Pearls strategy well before 2004 when it was first coined, keeping in view the changing dynamics of the Indian Ocean Region and Asia Pacific to not onlyen circle and contain India but also to secure sea lanes strategic choke points such as the strait of Hormuz and that of Malacca to ensure its enduring supply lines of vital resources such as oil that pass through them. The Strait of Malacca connects Indian Ocean with Pacific Ocean with Malaysia and Singapore on one side while Indonesia on the other side. It lies in close proximity to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which are a part of Indian territory and hold an Indian military base. The Strait of Malacca called the vital artery for the world economy, is essential for meeting China’s energy requirements. Approximately 80 percent of its fuel/oil passes through this choke point from the Middle East. This is also called the “Malacca Dilemma” named by President Hu Jintao. Since, China’s economy is heavily dependent on this choke point, it is easy for India to choke it using a naval blockade.

In 1971, India warned of blocking the Strait of Malacca, when China hinted to align with Pakistan during fall of Bangladesh. Similarly, during the 1999 Kargil war, India choked supply to Pakistan by blocking Karachi port. Hence, it is against these motives that China is motivated to turn the tables in the Indian Ocean. Against the backdrop of Indian aggression in the Indian Ocean and its deepening strategic partnership with the United States, the string of pearls strategy of China has become its need in the 21st century to realize its peaceful rise. Through this policy China has been able to engage strategically important point within the Indian Ocean, South and East China Sea to defend itself against potential Indo-US growing aggressive preponderance in its backyard and to secure its access to sea lines of communication. This can also be rightly viewed as China’s counter policy to the US offshore balancing act in the Asia Pacific vis a vis India.

It was in the response to the 1992 Indo-US bilateral naval exercise in the Indian Ocean, that China sought to strategize its naval modernization to fortify its national interests and ultimately encircle India and utilize its maritime infrastructure and bases to overcome its vulnerability of being choked of resources through the blockage of the strait of Malacca especially by India.  Therefore, China will always feel necessitated to utilize a policy such as the string of pearls mechanism to balance itself against the US offshore balancing strategy vis a vis India in Asia Pacific.

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