Prime Edition

India will balance, not contest China in the Indian Ocean

Shanta Maree Surendran, visiting researcher at Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, talks to Nidhi Gupta about China’s activity in the Indian Ocean and its likely repercussions for India.

NIDHI GUPTA  6th Apr 2013

The INS Chakra, a Russia-made nuclear-powered submarine, at its commissioning in April 2012

ou have argued that whether or not the impetus behind China's moves is purely economic and energy-related, a military component is likely to be an accompaniment to their activity in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). What activity on behalf of China has been seen in the Indian Ocean in the recent past that can qualify as bearing a military imprint? Do you see an expansionist tendency here or are these solely for security reasons?

A. China's activity has ranged from diplomatic visits to piracy patrols and most significantly to increased presence in the region through acquisition and management of strategically positioned port bases. These include bases in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and most recently Gwadar port in Pakistan. This pattern of investment and activity has been viewed by many analysts as part of an 'encirclement strategy' and a precursor to naval build up in the region. That these developments can also be explained by the significant energy needs and vulnerabilities faced by China, is important to acknowledge. The purpose of referring to the military angle was to acknowledge that whilst activity may be considered benign in the short term, justified by energy and trade interests, a military aspect is likely to eventually accompany economic action. This partnership is alluded to in cultural doctrine as well as policy documents and so consideration of the implications of this outcome is prudent.

Q. India has often been criticised for neglecting its water boundaries, instead focussing on other aspects in its search for a world power status. How has India worked upon building a maritime presence? What are its aims? How has India's strategic outlook supplemented or obstructed this development?

A. India's colonial legacy instilled it with focus on land-based concerns. Land borders, particularly between Pakistan and China, have occupied priority of place leading some commentators to accuse India of 'ocean blindness' or myopia.

A long term agenda to achieve 'world power status' is not definitively articulated in the public space, this makes India's IOR grand strategy and related aims difficult to identify and comment on. There is no accessible 'white paper' or similar central document articulating core national interests or approaches, as can be found with other key IOR stakeholders including China and the US. Instead, a broader exploration of a range of documentation is required. The issue of Freedom of Navigation and Access to Trade along Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) emerges as a key focus. This agenda is emphasised in government, naval and policy documents and aligns India with many nations. This outlook is likely to supplement rather than obstruct naval development.

India's activity with respect to the maritime domain has involved investment in both indigenous and foreign built vessels as well as equipment, training, recruitment, and weapons testing. India's established maritime presence is being expanded through these avenues as well as through developing its own network of bases including the Indian naval station, INS Baaz, at the mouth of the Malacca Strait and interest in Chabahar port in Iran, which is situated adjacent to the Hormuz Strait.

Q. How crucial is this sea to India's security — both internal and external — and for what reasons? What, apart from China, are the major threats it faces?

A. The Indian Ocean is important to India for many reasons including economic, energy and security interests each of which have both internal and external security implications. Whilst India's geography places her in close proximity to SLOC, her massive coastline creates a vulnerability to traditional threats such as encirclement or attack from the sea, or denial of access or passage, as well as non-traditional threats.

Non-traditional threats include both the consequence of weak or failing states in the region as well as potential environmental threats. Piracy, terrorism, natural disasters, and any act or event that interrupts energy and economic trade pathways is important to consider. It is in the area of terrorism and piracy that China and India are likely to find common ground on which to collaborate as it is in the interests of both nations for Sea Lines of Communication to be secure.

If India perceives China’s actions as a threat and acts in a hostile way then she risks antagonising China which is unlikely to be a constructive outcome for India. Steps must be taken slowly carefully and with as much information as possible to avoid miscommunication, misunderstanding or misreading of a situation.

Q. Seeing as China's motives are seen as suspect in every domain, by India and the world at large, how do you suppose India will seek to counter China's actions in the IOR?

A. Whether India's response will constitute a countering of China's activity is not yet a given. While wariness over China's motives may be a valid status quo given Indian and China's history of simmering tensions and distance in ideology, there are also increasingly important connections between the nations that cannot be overlooked. The Chinese and Indian economies are largely entwined and each nation is a critical trading partner for the other. Whilst caution regarding China's motives is advised by commentators and experts, some also speak of the opportunity to collaborate and partner with China. The situation is multi-faceted and deeply textured.

It is not in India's interests to antagonise China, just as it is not in India's interests to ignore expanding maritime presence at India's back door. If India perceives China's actions as a threat and acts in a hostile way then she risks antagonising China, which is unlikely to be a constructive outcome for India. Steps must be taken slowly, carefully, and with as much information as possible to avoid miscommunication, misunderstanding or misreading of a situation.

Much is made of China's seeming adherence to Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan's works; Mahan's principles are widely regarded as still relevant today — to a point. It has not been as well established that Indian focus or response will subscribe to the same approach. The role of other nations is important to consider, with India seen as a potential balancing force against China by the US and many Southeast Asian nations. India's tradition of non-alignment must also be considered and this stance may inform participation in Chinese containment strategies. In the short term India is likely to invest in developing national and blue water capabilities and focus on protecting Freedom of Navigation and access to trade.

Q. How is the US responding to this, seeing as the Diego Garcia is still a crucial base for the superpower in its offshore balancing techniques?

A. The US response to the rise of China and increasing IOR footprint has been to invest in the much discussed Asian Pivot and to promote 'rebalancing' agendas in the IOR. The US has also announced intensions to re-station 60% of its warships to Asia by 2020 giving credence to this focus. The activities of the US, demonstrate the regard for the geostrategic and economic importance of the region.

The US has also engaged in training drills with key IOR nations including India. These types of drills enable sharing of technology, techniques and tactics as well as building of diplomatic connections.

The US has also expanded its interest and activity in the IOR by courting nations such as Myanmar and India as well as stationing a small naval unit in Australia. The range of groups and organisations in the region that now exhibit US representation is also indicative of the US interest in monitoring developments and repositioning itself to address any threat to US national interests.

Newer | Older


iTv Network : newsX India News Media Academy aaj Samaaj  
  Powered by : Star Infranet