Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-nation Indian Ocean tour attests to this region’s critical importance for Indian security, including preventing India’s encirclement by hostile powers. If China were to gain the upper hand in the Indian Ocean region, it will mark the end of India’s great-power ambitions. India thereafter will be seen as merely a sub-regional power whose clout does not extend across South Asia, with Pakistan challenging it in the west and China in the north and south.
India’s tactical and strategic disadvantages along its land frontiers are more than compensated by its immense geographic advantage in the Indian Ocean. Such is peninsular India’s vantage location in the Indian Ocean — the world’s premier energy and trade seaway — that the country is positioned dominantly astride vital sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), including China’s emergent Maritime Silk Road.
Despite India’s inherent maritime leverage, its land-frontier compulsions have instilled a landlocked mindset. With its attention fixated on the disputed land borders, India — far from exploiting its advantage on the maritime front — often has difficulty facing up to the fact that it is a major maritime country. Worse still, India diplomatically neglected the Indian Ocean region in the 25-year period from 1989 when it was governed by coalitions. Tellingly, Modi is the first prime minister to visit Seychelles in 34 years and Sri Lanka in 28 years.
India’s long neglect has become China’s strategic gain. China’s quiet manoeuvring in the Indian Ocean, where it is chipping away at India’s natural geographic advantage through multibillion-dollar projects along the great trade arteries, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.
The Indian Ocean promises to shape the wider geopolitics and balance of power in Asia and beyond. India, however, finds itself on the back foot in its own strategic backyard. According to Jawaharlal Nehru, “History has shown that whatever power controls the Indian Ocean has, in the first instance, India’s sea-borne trade at her mercy and, in the second, India’s very independence itself.” The irony is that this is the only ocean in the world named after a single country.
China has been assiduously pursuing a strategy to build a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean so as to gain strategic clout and naval access. By rebranding the “string of pearls” strategy as a “21st-century maritime silk road” project, China has now sought to disguise its real intentions. This signature initiative of President Xi Jinping merely recasts the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms. Stripped of its rhetoric, the Silk Road — just like the “string of pearls” — is designed to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map by making China the preeminent power.
The Silk Road indeed exemplifies China’s use of aid, investment and other leverage to pull littoral states closer to its orbit, including through the construction of seaports, railroads and highways. Such construction may provide a counterpoint to China’s military assertiveness. Yet it is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to bind countries to China’s economy and security and to convince them that it is in their interest to accept China as Asia’s alpha power.
How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese submarines at the newly opened, Chinese-majority-owned container terminal at Colombo harbour. China’s desire for permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean, where it has carried out three deployments, is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz. China has operationally taken over the port it built at Gwadar to develop not its commercial value (which remains unpromising) but its potential as a key naval outpost.
Given the emerging challenge to India in its maritime backyard, Modi must develop a credible strategy to counter it. His charm-offensive tour of regional states with offers of new economic and defence tie-ups marks just a beginning. Modi did well to drop the Maldives from his itinerary, given the political mess there. But he could have delayed his Sri Lanka trip until after the forthcoming parliamentary elections there, especially given the fact that his visit comes barely a month after President Maithripala Sirisena’s India tour.
In keeping with his highly personalised imprint on diplomacy, Modi thus far has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. Diplomacy alone will not suffice. Sirisena, for example, makes his first official visits to Beijing and Islamabad soon after hosting Modi.
To prevent Chinese military encirclement, India needs to significantly accelerate naval modernisation. It must build sufficient naval prowess to potentially interdict Chinese SLOCs in the Indian Ocean and hold the Chinese economy hostage if a Himalayan war were thrust upon it again. A major holdback of tanker traffic in wartime would be a crippling jolt to the Chinese economy, though it might not alter the war’s outcome.
Even as the Chinese military keeps Indian ground forces busy in peacetime by staging Himalayan border incursions and other flare-ups, the oil and liquefied gas flowing from the Gulf and Africa to China pass through the Indian Ocean unmolested and unimpeded. Over 80% of China’s oil imports pass through the Malacca Strait chokepoint. Boosting SLOC interdiction capability would allow the Indian Navy to dominate key maritime routes and help improve the Chinese military’s behaviour along the Himalayas.
The contest for major influence in the Indian Ocean is pivotal to the success of China’s strategy to fashion a China-centric Asia. This is a contest India cannot afford to lose.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author
The views expressed by the author are personal