Boosting Maritime Capabilities in the Indian Ocean

People's Liberation Army (P.L.A.) Navy seamen stand guard during a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao to the Stonecutters Naval Base in Hong Kong on June 30. (Photo: Mike Clarke / AFP-Getty Images)

Maritime power represents military, political, and economic power, exerted through an ability to use the sea or deny its use to others. It has traditionally been employed to control "use-of-the-sea" activities undertaken by nations for their general economic welfare and, often, even for their very survival. Maritime power and naval power are not synonymous, the latter being a sub-set of the former. Traditional land powers are more and more focusing on developing their maritime capabilities to safeguard their economic interests and extend their sphere of influence.

Historically, China has been a land power. However, over the past two decades, it has found itself increasingly dependent on resources and markets accessible only via maritime routes. This has left Beijing with the dilemma of how to safeguard its trade routes and flow of resources in a world in which the United States is the dominant naval power, and both India and Japan — China's neighbors and strategic rivals — are stepping up their own naval capabilities.

Ensuring a continuous supply of energy has come to be the most important prerequisite for China in building an advanced, industrialized state. Despite being the world's sixth largest oil producer, China has been a net importer of oil since 1994. It imported 40 million metric tons in 1999 and is projected to import 100 million tons by 2010. China's dependence on seafood has increased in recent years. China will therefore have to ensure security of its sea lanes and shipping industry to ensure its continued development As of today, 85 percent of China's trade is sea-based. Also, with its 26 shipyards, China has emerged as the world's fourth largest shipbuilder. Thus for both reasons, China needs assured access and control over its adjacent oceans.

China and Indian Ocean Nations

China's perceptions regarding other major powers, especially Moscow and Washington, have been the most important external factor molding its Indian Ocean vision and policy initiatives. While initially it was American containment that explained all their activities in the Indian Ocean, the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960's made China suspicious of Moscow's initiatives and intentions in this region.

In the recent years, a new great game has begun between India and China to bring the Maldives and Sri Lanka under their respective sphere of influence in the Indian Ocean Region (I.O.R.). After Myanmar and Bangladesh, to complete the "arc of influence" in South Asia, China is determined to enhance military and economic cooperation with the Maldives and Sri Lanka. China's ambition to build a naval base at Marao in the Maldives, its recent entry into the oil exploration business in Sri Lanka, the development of port and bunker facilities at Hambantota, the strengthening military cooperation and boosting bilateral trade with Colombo, are all against Indian interests and ambitions in the region.

Although China claims that its bases are only for securing energy supplies to feed its growing economy, the Chinese base in the Maldives is motivated by Beijing's determination to contain and encircle India and thereby limit the growing influence of the Indian Navy in the region. The Marao base deal was finalized after two years of negotiations, when Chinese Prime minister Zhu Rongzi visited Male' in May 2001. Once Marao comes up as the new Chinese "pearl," Beijing's power projection in the Indian Ocean would be augmented.

Recently, Sri Lanka allocated an exploration block in the Mannar Basin to China for petroleum exploration. This allocation would connote a Chinese presence just a few miles from India's southern tip, thus causing strategic discomfort. In economic terms, it could also mean the end of the monopoly held by Indian oil companies in this realm, putting them into direct and stiff competition from Chinese oil companies. At Hambantota, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka where Beijing is building bunkering facilities and an oil tank farm. This infrastructure will help service hundreds of ships that traverse the sea lanes of commerce off Sri Lanka. The Chinese presence in Hambantota would be another vital element in its strategic circle already enhanced through its projects in Pakistan, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

It is Sri Lanka's strategic location that has prompted Beijing to aim for a strategic relationship with Colombo. Beijing is concerned about the growing United States presence in the region as well as about increasing Indo-U.S. naval cooperation in the Indian Ocean. China looks at using the partnership with Sri Lanka to enhance its influence over strategic sea lanes of communication from Europe to East Asia and oil tanker routes from the Middle East to the Malacca Straits. China has been consolidating its access to the Indian Ocean through the Karakoram Highway and Karachi, through the China-Burma road to Burmese ports and through the Malacca Straits, especially once they have established their supremacy over the South China Sea.

China's Indian Ocean policy has been clearly influenced by its ties with the other major powers. Its interest in the Indian Ocean started partly as a reaction to its perception that increasing United States presence there was aimed at encircling China. The policy has also been directly linked to its problems with New Delhi. China feels India is facilitating the American presence in the Indian Ocean region as a means of countering Beijing.

The United States Navy maintains a substantial permanent presence in the I.O.R. from its Fifth Fleet base in the Gulf, its substantial naval and air assets at Diego Garcia as well as by rotational deployments of Seventh Fleet units from the Pacific, centered on one or two nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed aircraft carriers. It was last deployed in major hostilities against Iraq, was briefly involved in Somalia and was on call to resist the Australian preemptive intervention in East Timor.

Chinese Naval Power and the Indian Ocean Region

The Indian Ocean, along with other sea lines of communication, have attracted the attention of Chinese naval planners. The takeover of the Panama Canal by a private Chinese firm after the United States withdrawal in 1999, reported Chinese threats to intervene in the Straits of Malacca and the active Chinese role in the West Asian region indicate unfolding Chinese interest this region. Beginning from the early 1980's, Chinese naval modernization underwent a sea change, partly with the modified perceptions about the value of the oceans.

China has launched an ambitious futuristic weapons development program, including high energy microwave beam-weapons, ship-based laser cannon and space-based weaponry to destroy communication and reconnaissance satellites. The country is the greatest source of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology. History has shown that China is not averse to using force in order to achieve its aims, and its attitude towards its neighbors is a constant source of concern.

Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Sitwe (Akyab) in Myanmar have functioned essentially as fishing harbors. The growing Chinese interest in these places and China's generous offer of assistance to these countries for converting their fishing harbours into maritime ports of international standards has aroused doubts about Beijing's motive in increasing its naval presence in the region.

Beijing is trying to give its Navy a greater visibility, operability and rapid action capability in the Indian Ocean region than it enjoys now. Gwadar, Hambantota and Sitwe form important components of its maritime security strategy. China is also interested in the island nation of Seychelles. It is important to monitor the growing Chinese interest there as part of any study of China's maritime strategic moves.

Beijing has given signal to the world of its aspirations to assume a role beyond its natural geographic and historical maritime boundaries. Any Chinese threat to India's maritime interests in the near future is economic and political as well as military. China is setting up a series of military bases as part of an endeavor to project its power. In Bangladesh, Beijing is seeking extensive naval and commercial access. Dhaka already shares close defense ties with Beijing. In Myanmar, China is also building naval bases and electronic intelligence gathering facilities at Grand Coco Island in the Bay of Bengal. However, the military junta, wary of excessive dependence on China, has turned to New Delhi for military supplies. In Cambodia, Beijing is helping to build a railway line from South China to the sea. In Thailand, China is funding the construction of a $20 billion canal across the Kra Isthmus. This would allow ships to bypass the Strait of Malacca. China has also set up electronic posts near the Persian Gulf to monitor ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.

New Delhi's Role in the Indian Ocean Region

India has been apprehensive about China's growing naval expansion in the Indian Ocean, which New Delhi views as encirclement. As China's naval diplomacy take roots in the region, India cannot remain a mute spectator and, much like China, has increased its military engagement in the region. India now regularly conducts naval and military exercises with the United States, Japan, and China, as well as with its South Asian and South-East Asian neighbors. New Delhi has signed a defense agreement with Singapore and has cooperative arrangements with many nations stretching from the Seychelles to Vietnam. It has participated in mechanisms to protect maritime traffic passing through the strategic Malacca Straits.

In recent years India has intensified its pace of cooperation with countries in the Indian Ocean littoral. After the success of its tsunami diplomacy, New Delhi is looking forward to evolve new channels of naval diplomacy with these countries. During the past year, the just-retired Indian Navy chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, visited many South East Asian and South Asian capitals. The primary goal of these visits was to enhance bilateral cooperation and strengthen naval ties.

Two Indian warships recently made friendly port calls in Bangladesh and Myanmar. The navies of India and Bangladesh have also discussed possibilities of connecting the Vishakapatnam and Chittagong ports. An access agreement with Dhaka would allow more extensive patrolling, both sea borne and from the air in these sensitive waters. The Indian navy is also keen to maintain vessels at the Bangladeshi ports, to compete with Beijing's strategic gains in that sector. China has signed a training and equipment agreement with Dhaka.

India's geographical location at the natural junction of the busy international shipping lanes that crisscross the Indian Ocean has had a major impact upon the formulation of New Delhi's maritime strategy. The sea area around India is among the busiest in the world, with over 100,000 ships transiting the shipping lanes every year. The Straits of Malacca alone account for some 60,000 ships annually. India itself has a 4,670-mile long (7,516 km) coastline and several far-flung island territories. The 13 major and 185 minor ports that mark India's coastline constitute the landward ends of the country's sea lines of communication. The development of additional ports is a high-priority activity and is taking place all along the western and eastern seaboards of the country. India, today, has a modest, but rapidly-growing merchant-shipping fleet, presently comprising 756 ships and totaling 8.6 million "Gross Registered Tonnes," with an average age of around 17 years, as compared to the global average of 20 years. The Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard are major stabilizing forces in the movement of energy across the Indian Ocean, not just for India, but for the world at large.

The region of India's maritime interests, which on primary geographic considerations might suggest itself only as the north Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, in fact has to take maritime factors into account and developments in distant areas such as the western Pacific, South China Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, the central and southern Indian Ocean. Also under review are islands such as Diego Garcia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles, in addition to South Africa and Australia as they dominate the southern approaches to the Indian Ocean. This is because of the flexibility and mobility of naval forces and the rapidity with which they can traverse large distances, concentrate, deploy, withdraw or disperse.

India's maritime diplomacy, like its broader diplomatic effort, radiates out in expanding circles of engagement, starting with the country's immediate maritime neighborhood. As a mature and responsible maritime power, New Delhi is contributing actively to capacity building and operational coordination to address threats from non-state actors, disaster relief, support to United Nations peacekeeping and rescue and extrication missions.

In fact, India's maritime diplomacy is now an essential component of New Delhi's "Look East" policy. India has concluded bilateral arrangements with Thailand and Indonesia for joint coordinated patrols by the three navies in the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Malacca Straits. New Delhi is also ready to contribute to capacity building of the littoral states in the interests of maritime security. Southeast Asian navies participate in the bi-annual MILAN exercises. At the multilateral level and within the maritime domain, India has launched a series of initiatives to provide an inclusive and mutually-consultative forum in which the navies and maritime security agencies of the region - whether large or small - can meet and discuss common issues that bear upon international security.

Economic growth and opportunities in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean have attracted China into taking an interest in the region. Beijing feels compelled to look outwards in order to craft joint strategies for achieving faster economic growth and peace and security. China is a long-term concern by reason, not only because of its phenomenal economic growth and military power, but because of its ambitious and determined drive towards great global power status. The drive is already manifesting itself in the modernization of its armed forces — in particular the expansion of its navy and maritime capabilities. The Chinese, however, argue that their initiative towards the Indian Ocean is guided by both strategic and economic compulsions and capabilities, as a significant proportion of its sea borne trade (around 85 percent) passes through the Indian Ocean.

Given its sensitivities to the United States and India, China has supported proposals for the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. The country's long-term strategic outlook is global and not regional. Beijing seeks to develop its naval capabilities and seek definite sea superiority over other naval powers in the region. Some of China's initiatives in the Indian Ocean are also geared to preventing any littoral country from granting Taiwan their membership. China's ability to deter Taiwan thus is more effective since the Indian Ocean states seem willing to oblige Beijing. Thus, Taiwan is not a member of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission although it is represented in the fishing associations of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

By 2020 China plans to deploy task forces consisting of two aircraft carriers, two S.S.B.N.s, six S.S.N.s, 18 destroyers and about 30 frigates in the I.O.R. However, until about 2045, it will be difficult for China to deploy its naval forces permanently in the Indian Ocean. By that time, it remains to be seen if Pakistan, Myanmar and other countries in the region become full-fledged Chinese allies.

India is trying to create a balance of power in the I.O.R, as the country is emerging as a major power and is often regarded as a pivotal influence in the region's geopolitics. It has established a "Far Eastern Strategic Command" headquartered in Port Blair to monitor the military situation in the region. However, in order to have a strong hold over the region, India needs economic assets as well as a strong military presence. India must have access in the region of Chinese influence, by establishing political, economic and security ties with East and Southeast Asian countries. New Delhi must strengthen its ties with other major regional and global forums to maintain its sphere of influence. At a strategic level, India will have to attempt to balance China's power realistically, through development of its own economic and military potential and through building strong relationships with neighbors, and regional organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (A.S.E.A.N.).

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