The Rise of China and the New Situation of (in) the Indian Ocean

C. Uday Bhaskar
Visiting Fellow, National Maritime Foundation

For a ‘rising’ China, the Indian Ocean is of critical geo-strategic significance given the quantum of hydrocarbons and trade that transit the sea lines of communication (SLOC) to and fro in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).  Consequently China’s investment in the littoral countries of the IOR has been part of its long term strategy to dilute what Beijing perceives as its ‘Malacca dilemma’.

In maritime / naval terms, China is constrained along its Pacific periphery by the prevailing geo-political orientation and US led security architecture in East Asia and has been seeking to find a credible toe-hold in the Indian Ocean. Hence, Beijing has assiduously nurtured countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Currently, China has major projects related to port infrastructure in all these countries.

Since the PLAN began its anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean in December 2008, the Chinese Navy has maintained a steady presence in the IOR and this is one of the elements that has led to the emergence of what may be described as the ‘new situation’ in the Indian Ocean.

The IOR has a distinctive relevance in the post Cold War / post 9-11 security calculus of three major powers – namely the USA, China and India.  Among them, India is the resident power and is enabled by geography.  The US has a post World War II politico-military profile that is manifest in a lattice that stretches from ASEAN to Australia and includes some states in the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. Diego Garcia and the French island possessions further buttress the US presence in the IOR.

Against this backdrop, China is the new entrant to the IOR and strategic logic and major power maritime compulsions would suggest that the PLAN will continue to maintain and seek to enhance its presence in the Indian Ocean.

This paper argues that the really game changing initiative by China would be if it can change its political geography a la Wegener so as to acquire an abiding presence in the Indian Ocean. It is in this context that islands such as the Maldives acquire critical significance in the major power contestation in the Indian Ocean.

From an Indian perspective it may be averred that China’s growing economic weight will draw most South Asian countries into its economic orbit. India would have to match this in an appropriate manner. On current evidence it appears that India’s regional strategic assessment and related diplomacy has not been as nimble and astute as it ought to have been in relation to the IOR littoral and the Maldives in particular.  Redressing this situation is imperative for Delhi.

Both the South China sea and the Indian Ocean islands are representative of constraining and expanding the maritime geography of the Pacific and Indian Oceans from a Chinese perspective.  Major powers should be cognizant of the long-term implications of these developments and the ‘new situation’ that is gradually crystallizing in the Indian Ocean.