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China’s Growing Interest in the Indian Ocean by R Madhumitha

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Image Courtesy: CNBC

Article 14/2023


In March 2023, the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN) named five seabeds in the international waters of the Indian Ocean after Chinese musical instruments. China has named nine topographical features in the Indian Ocean as of now, The Hindustan Times reports. The latest names the PLAN released are Huapengu sea knoll, Tang drum sea knoll, fishing drum sea knoll, and waist drum seamount (Patranobis 2023). Although they have named undersea geographical entities in other maritime regions like the South China Sea, this is the first time they have made public the names in the Indian Ocean. It is also significant that the names have been made public without supporting information about the locations of the seabeds. Articles 89 and 90 of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) state that although navigation and productive activities in the High Seas may be allowed, no state can validly claim sovereignty over any part of the high seas (UNCLOS 1982).

According to newspaper reports, the seabed features that China has renamed lie in international waters, but the precise latitude and longitude of the features remain unknown. China’s release of the names of these beds seems to take advantage of the grey zone in the laws of the Sea - China’s move may not fall under a strict claim of sovereignty of the seabeds, nor does it come nearly under the provision that allows navigation and research (UNCLOS 1982). The act of naming itself seems subtle, carrying different connotations in different situations. In this case, the Chinese official stated that the Chinese names did not threaten Indian sovereignty without commenting on how it related to China’s territory or productive interests like navigation or research.

Officially, the government representative of the PLA stated that India must not view this as a threat to her sovereignty but that this was an example of China’s “soft power” (Patranobis 2023). On the other hand, Chinese experts have celebrated similar cases of renaming locations in the South China Sea as affirmations of Chinese sovereignty in the region. (Shumei 2019). Herein lies some murkiness and a double standard in how China uses the naming of topographical features. At this juncture, the claim that the naming and its acceptance in the International Database of undersea features is a statement of national soft power is a remarkable one. This informs my article that attempts to understand how India may view and respond to this issue.

I attempt to establish the significance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for India and China, arguing that the Chinese expression of soft power in the region often seems intrinsically tied to reaffirming its role as a leader.

An Ocean Between India and China

The Indian Ocean Region is emerging as a strategically critical region to both powers. It is vital to trade, connecting the Middle East to South-East and East Asia, which is essential to several countries like China, Japan, and South Korea, to name a few. Most of China’s imports have been from the Middle East and Angola, and 80% of their trade has to pass through the Malacca Strait. The energy dependence that increased in the 21st century is a significant source of competition between India and China, which are key players in the region. Dependence on critical waterways and ports is an essential concern for the Asian giants. The crux of the strategic competition in the IOR is the ability of countries to maintain military bases near critical chokepoints in the region, which then allows the country to protect or disrupt the trade lines (Bhaskar 2010).

Indian strategic interests in the region are mainly in line with the global aims of preserving the region to harness its natural resources and maintain stability for global trade. Earlier this year, a defence official from China commented that the “Indian Ocean was not India’s Ocean'', to which India retaliated by questioning China’s legitimacy in the South China Sea (Eurasian Times 2023). In the last few years, India has been a more active player in the IOR, and the Indian navy has increasingly started to consider the region a “primary area of interest” (Bhaskar 2010). The Northern areas of the Indian Ocean - the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Persian Gulf, constitute India’s primary interest. India has focussed on Sri Lanka and the Maldives as its immediate maritime neighbours and increased partnerships with Mauritius and Seychelles (Bhaskar 2010).

With the drawing down of the US Navy and the shrinking UK Navy, Commodore Uday Bhaskar states that China and India are internationally significant with long-term naval growth trajectories in the region (Bhaskar 2010). China’s is fuelled by a high annual defence budget and naval modernization, with a growing importance of the Navy in China’s national security. India, too is cognisant of the importance of the maritime domain, recently announcing initiatives like the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) (The Hindu 2021). This makes the IOR a high-stakes region that may significantly shape the politics of both countries. Both countries are dependent on the ocean to some degree, particularly for the movement of hydrocarbons from the Persian countries. As of now, China’s naval growth has higher projections than India, and they have been building the navy and increasing its political importance since 1988. There is some weariness between the two countries after the brief suspension of bilateral relations and the recent border skirmishes. Military circles in New Delhi seem to regard Chinese moves in the Indian Ocean with caution. For instance, Chinese investments in ports in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The framing of security issues in India is a reflection of this - known as Beijing’s “string of pearls'' strategy, it is perceived domestically as having the potential to contain India (Bhaskar 2010).

In this context, China’s comments that her renaming of seabeds in the IOR is emblematic of its soft power is a substantial claim. In the following paragraphs, I examine the development of Chinese soft power and participation in the Indian Ocean Region to situate its recent moves in relation to these claims.

China in the Indian Ocean: Aligning Soft Power with Security

In the aftermath of the Cold War and the pervasive forces of globalisation of the 1990s, liberalist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power”. This refers to the indirect, non-militaristic power that a state is able to exert through multiple actors that extend beyond the government. According to Joseph Nye, the primary resources of soft power are the country’s culture, political values and foreign policy (Nye 1990). Several countries have well-established and well-researched sources of soft power. For instance, Japan has an extensive base of soft power - people across the world enjoy manga, anime, Japanese cuisine, and fashion. Essentially, this gives Japan the ability to exert cultural and ideological influence on populations outside of its direct state control. Similarly, South Korea and the United States dominate the scene of popular culture, and the European Union boasts of its touristy appeal and harmony within nations (Nye 1990).

The emergence of any form of ‘soft power’ in China can be traced to the financial crisis of 1997 when Beijing was a source of financial support to the debt-pressed developing countries. ASEAN announced, "China is really emerging from this smelling good.” Coinciding with China’s economic rise and being modelled as an “ideal for the developing world”, it opened up the possibility that China may emerge as a leader, safeguarding Asian interests in the global arena (Kurlantzick 2006). Since then, Beijing’s soft power has hinged on a couple of strategies - being a benevolent provider of economic aid to South Asian regions and adopting a stance of non-interference in the domestic policies of neighbouring countries or partners (Kurlantzick 2006). Chinese policy in the Indian Ocean Region in the 21st century can be analysed within this conceptual backdrop.

In the 21st century, China’s Public Relations around the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Region have referenced Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty admiral who led seven epic voyages for the Chinese emperor. His maps of the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Red Sea form the basis of several modern navigation maps. Ironically, Communist leaders in China sing praises of the Ming admiral whose voyages were meant to spread the glory of the Ming empire. Chinese officials emphasized the non-militaristic nature of these voyages and attempted to portray China as a trustworthy leader. (Yoshihara 2009). The importance of the navy and hard power reared its head most dramatically during the Tsunami of 2004 that impacted several littoral states. Liberal democracies led by the US were able to engage in vast humanitarian assistance to affected states while maintaining the most powerful military. During this time, China’s energy dependence began to accelerate, and influential people within the Chinese strategic community began to call for naval expansion to protect their sea routes. In 2006, the Defense White Paper, for the first time, identified China’s access to raw materials as a concern for national security (Yoshihara 2008). Under Hu Jintao, the Chinese Navy witnessed intensified militarisation, surpassing the US military in 2020. At this juncture, China attempted to simultaneously improve its soft power and military capacity, which would allow China to surpass the influence of the US in the region (Yoshihara 2009).

This need to assert control over the region through militaristic and other means may spill into pursuing a more active policy in the governance of the IOR. This provides a context for understanding China’s attempt to become a leader in non-traditional security threats like fishing issues, terrorism, disasters and pandemics (Yoshihara 2009). At the same time, their non-interference policy in countries’ domestic affairs continues to be their brand - China attempts to establish itself as an important node in the governance of the region while developing relations with states. Specifically, Chinese anti-piracy missions in the region allow China to form partnerships with the littoral states. The Maritime Belt and Road Initiative is also an avenue for military partnerships. These initiatives are viewed with weariness in New Delhi (Baruah 2021). Thus, while a trustworthy relationship by the Chinese and non-violent exploration of the seas may have seemed possible even a decade ago, its emergence as the most powerful navy in the region and its hardline stance on other political issues make its narratives appear more of a threat. Taking Chinese statements at their word, the development of their maritime narrative and the renaming of Oceanbeds must be understood in the light of its potential to simultaneously assert soft and hard power in the Indian Ocean region.

The Indian Perspective

From the Indian perspective, the Chinese assertion of naming IOR ocean beds cannot be read as a direct threat to Indian sovereignty. Although it seems to lie in the grey area of the UNCLOS, merely renaming the ocean beds with reference to Chinese culture does not prompt adversarial rhetoric from New Delhi. One of India’s responses must be to work on its bilateral relations and strengthen partnerships in the region. Considering the importance of the IOR in energy and trade, maintaining good relations with littoral states is essential. Most of the states in the IOR are threatened by non-traditional security challenges (Baruah 2021). In such a scenario, India must actively bolster its military, simultaneously increasing its governance capacity in issues like fishing, human trafficking, climate disasters and other non-traditional security threats in the region. Responding to China’s moves with foresight and understanding and achieving some degree of success in mitigating issues in the region can be a valuable response from the Indian side.

The Indian response to this move must not be a knee-jerk reaction, mainly because the ocean bed features lie in the international waters of the IOR, not the Indian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (Patranobis 2023). India stands to gain extensively from pushing for good governance in the region - it could balance the increasing Chinese presence while becoming an asset to the Indian people.


  • Bhaskar, C. Uday. "China and India in the Indian Ocean region: neither conflict nor cooperation preordained." China Report 46, no. 3 (2010): 311-318.

  • Kurlantzick, Josh. "China's charm: Implications of Chinese soft power." (2006).

  • Nye, Joseph S. “Soft Power.” Foreign Policy, no. 80 (1990): 153–71.

  • Yoshihara, Toshi. 2008. “China's Energy-Driven ‘Soft Power.’” ScienceDirect.

  • Yoshihara, Toshi. "Chinese Soft Power in the Indian Ocean." In APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper. 2009.

(Ms. R Madhumitha is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed in this review are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)

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