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Great Game in the Indian Ocean

by Harsh V. Pant

Special To The Japan Times

Revelations that Pakistan has invited China to build a naval base at the strategic 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 “pearl” in Beijing’s “string” of facilities around the Indian Ocean littoral. Though the Pakistani request has not been entertained by China, at least for now, the 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 the Indian Parliament last year that “the Government of India has come to realize 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. Though China may have rebuffed Pakistan’s overtures on Gwadar for now, Beijing’s growing influence in Pakistan doesn’t make it any less of a headache.

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 neighbor, 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) navy in 2009. Gone was the reticence of yore when China was not ready to even admit that it had such capabilities. Chinese commanders are 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 the focus of attention of the military modernization program that is being pursued with utmost seriousness.

China’s navy is considered the third-largest in the world, behind only the U.S. 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.

China is investing far greater resources in the modernization 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 say that China will increasingly have the capacity to challenge the U.S.

Senior Chinese officials have indicated that China would be ready to build an aircraft carrier by the end of the decade. Such intent to develop a carrier capability marks a shift away from devoting the bulk of the PLA’s modernization 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.

China realizes that its maritime strength will give it the strategic leverage that it needs to emerge as the regional hegemon and a potential superpower — and there is enough evidence to suggest that China is comprehensively building up its maritime power in all dimensions.

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.

Yet, China is consolidating power over the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean with an eye on India — something that comes out clearly in an oft-cited secret memorandum issued by the PLA General Logistic Department director: “We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians. We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account.”

Given the immense geographical advantages that India enjoys in the Indian Ocean, China will find it 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 will generate apprehensions in India about Beijing’s 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 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. Chinese media reported that its warships forced the Indian sub to surface, which was 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.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College in London.