The Indian Ocean Base Race Continues Apace

by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.

Indian and Chinese officials sign files as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on after the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018.

Indian and Chinese officials sign files as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping look on after the two leaders held talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018.

A flurry of meetings scheduled for mid-2018 have seemed to demonstrate a rapprochement between China and India, following a tense stand-off on the Doklam Plateau between troops from the two countries in late 2017. In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China’s President Xi Jinping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi held an “informal summit” on 26-27 April 2018, which was intended to “reset” the bilateral relationship. In June 2018, Xi and Modi meet again on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao. Then, in July 2018, the two leaders will meet once more in Johannesburg, South Africa for the 10th BRICS summit.

However, in the maritime realm, the rivalry between China and India continues apace. As previously reported here, 2016 saw the establishment of a Chinese naval base in Djibouti, while China acquired a 99-year lease for the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota in 2017 and India riposted with its own modest base agreement in the Seychelles. Just a few months into 2018, the momentum has continued, with numerous more announcements of port agreements and base openings in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and the Western Pacific. These developments serve to demonstrate that, though there may have been some progress made in China-India relations at the Wuhan summit, there are very real geopolitical concerns that will continue to generate tensions between the two Asian powers.

In April 2018, the Australian media was rife with reports that China is establishing a naval base in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, less than 2,000 kilometres from the Australian coast. Both the authorities in China and Vanuatu have denied that there are any such plans, and it has been noted that China may simply be investigating the potential to establish a facility to monitor spacecraft and facilitate lunar rocket tests. Such a facility could also be used for intelligence gathering but would certainly not serve the same function in the Western Pacific as China’s naval base in Djibouti is meant to serve in the IOR.

However, India is poised to exert greater control over the western end of the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most vital shipping routes and a conduit between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Near the entrance to the Strait, a series of naval and airbases in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands would allow India to severely limit China’s access to resources in the event of a large-scale military conflict. However, the Indonesian authorities announced in May 2018 their intention to grant the Indian Navy use of revamped port facilities in Sabang, an Indonesian island 710 kilometres southeast of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India has yet to seek a presence on the eastern end of the Strait of Malacca, but access to Sabang will allow India to further assert its influence in the IOR.

This follows the announcement in February 2018 that the Indian Navy had gained access to Duqm, a strategic port on the southern coast of Oman. Ostensibly, this agreement on logistics and the use of dry dock facilities at the port is intended to allow India to play an increased role in counter-piracy efforts near the Gulf of Aden. However, it is very likely that the outreach to Oman was motivated by a desire to counter what Indian defence planners and strategists frequently refer to as China’s “string of pearls” policy, a geopolitical strategy according to which China allegedly seeks to contain India and challenge Indian dominance in the IOR through a network of naval and airbases. In this context, China leasing the port of Hambantota is a provocative move, given that it is located less than 500 kilometres from the southern coast of India, but it is not the most ideal way to contain India: with an Indian presence in Duqm in the west and Sabang in the east, India has a strong hand at both the chokepoints to the IOR.

China and India’s Maritime Footprint in the Indian Ocean (Tuneer Mukherjee, "China’s Maritime Quest in the Indian Ocean: New Delhi’s Options", The Diplomat, 24 April 2018).

China and India’s Maritime Footprint in the Indian Ocean (Tuneer Mukherjee, “China’s Maritime Quest in the Indian Ocean: New Delhi’s Options“, The Diplomat, 24 April 2018).

Regardless of whether China is pursuing an elaborate strategy of geopolitical containment or simply seeking privileged access to developing markets, Chinese officials have been just as busy as their Indian counterparts thus far this year. In May 2018, Chinese authorities reported that they had made good progress in negotiations with Tanzania regarding the latter’s proposed mega port at Bagamoyo. Expected to become one of the largest ports in Africa, access to the facilities for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would strengthen the Chinese presence in the western IOR. However, without more detail on the Tanzanian-Chinese negotiations, it is difficult to say whether Bagamoyo will upset the balance of power in the western IOR; as much as Duqm can balance the Chinese presence in Djibouti, the Indian military presence in the Seychelles is much more limited.

Evidently, there is some disconnect between the levels of “high politics” and “low politics” in China-India relations. Even as Xi and Modi are apparently building a good rapport in their high-level discussions in Wuhan and Qingdao, the race is on among Chinese and Indian officials to gain the upper hand in the IOR. This background tension presents a risk to peace and security between the two countries; for example, territorial disputes over India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet, could escalate into another open confrontation as both sides seek to exploit rich deposits of mineral resources there. If the rivalry between China and India is to be set aside, much more must be done at the working level — and in haste — to improve mutual trust and build confidence in areas of security cooperation.

This entry was posted in China, English, India, Paul Pryce, Sea Powers, Security Policy.

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