China and India are fast emerging as major maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific as part of long-term shifts in the regional balance of power. As their wealth, interests, and power expand, the two countries are also increasingly coming into contact with each other in the maritime domain. How India and China get along in the shared maritime space, particularly in the Indian Ocean, may be a major strategic challenge of coming years.
The Sino-Indian relationship is quite a difficult one: security relations remain relatively volatile and are complicated by numerous unresolved issues, including their border dispute in the Himalayas and China's de facto alliance with Pakistan. Then there is China's growing presence in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi perceives Beijing as attempting to reshape the strategic environment in its favour, including by forming alignments with countries in the Indian Ocean region that could be used against India.
Indian analysts have long claimed that China was pursuing a policy of 'encirclement' of India through building a 'String of Pearls' – a string of ports across the northern Indian Ocean that would be available for use by the Chinese navy. Chinese port developments in Myanmar (Kyaukpyu), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Sri Lanka (Hambantota and Colombo) and Pakistan (Gwadar) are often held up as putative Chinese naval bases. The utility of these ports as full scale naval bases in the event of major conflict has been questioned by naval experts , but there can be little doubt that they could be useful logistics points for Chinese naval vessels. For its part, Beijing long derided claims that it planned to build foreign military bases, things that are apparently useful only for Western imperialists.
These debates over China's intentions, which were once mainly the province of strategic commentators, are now becoming reality as China and India each move to position themselves for a new strategic order in the Indian Ocean.
Last December, China crossed its own Rubicon when it announced its intention to build naval facilities at Obock in Djibouti, ostensibly to support China's anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and peacekeeping operations in Africa. Beijing is also pushing ahead with plans to construct overland links between western China and the Pakistani port of Gwadar as part of its One Belt One Road initiative. The developments at both Obock and Gwadar will include air bases which could significantly extend China's reach. [fold]
India has also stepped up its moves to expand its presence throughout the region. It has long been developing its military capabilities in the Andaman Islands near the Malacca Strait, which is now focused on maritime surveillance. Over the other side of the Indian Ocean, India recently announced that it would be building a new port at Chabahar in Iran. Chabahar's main purpose is to provide an economic link between the Indian Ocean and Central Asia. However, its location, close to the Strait of Hormuz, inevitably pairs it with Gwadar as a potential logistics point for naval vessels operating near the Persian Gulf.
India has also been active in developing its military presence in the southwestern corner of the Indian Ocean, across the sea lanes that carry oil from West Africa. In 2015, India announced that it had reached agreements to build 'infrastructure' on the isolated Assumption Island in Seychelles and in the Agalega islands in Mauritius. In both cases this will likely involve the development of radar and signals intelligence capabilities, improved airstrips for use by the Indian navy and air force, and new jetties for use by the Indian navy. All these are aimed at enhancing India's maritime surveillance and strike capabilities in the region.
India is making most progress on Seychelles' Assumption Island at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, where work on a 'jointly' developed naval base will commence this year. While Mauritius has reportedly agreed in principle to similar infrastructure construction on its North Agalega island, work has not yet commenced. Mauritius' loud denunciations of the US base on the island of Diego Garcia, which is claimed by Mauritius, may complicate India's aspirations in that country.
These are all early moves by China and India, presaging a long game between them in the Indian Ocean. China's naval strategy in that theatre is still evolving, but in the longer term will likely move from one of limited and asymmetric sea denial to a strategy of limited sea control. For its part, India is developing its own naval capabilities, with US assistance. One of Delhi's key focus areas will be on developing maritime domain awareness over a broad area running from the Malacca Strait in the northeast Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf in the northwest and Mauritius in the southeast. This will likely require collaboration with other regional partners.
One Chinese naval analyst has likened these moves to a game of Go (the Chinese equivalent of chess). In Go, each side tries to acquire the largest area in the board using his chips, and one's posture in the endgame is determined where one places one's chips at the beginning.
This post forms part of a research project undertaken by the Australia India Institute with the assistance of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Photo by Flickr user Jaro Larnos.