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China’s Indian Ocean Dilemma; By Balasubramanian C

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Image Courtesy: The Tribune

Article Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group

Article 20/2020

In December 2019 Chinese Shiyan-1, a research vessel owned by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, was found carrying out research activities near Port Blair in India’s EEZ without permission from the Indian Navy. After being warned, Shiyan-1 retreated outside the Indian EEZ. This occurrence portrayed China’s growing maritime scientific ambition. China’s extensive investment in marine scientific research forms part of its rise as a formidable maritime power. Beijing nursed these ambitions through its ‘Marine Science Diplomacy’ to good effect in the South China Sea over the last many years it has now begun to extend to the Indian Ocean (IO). This incident is a grim reminder to India on the need to invest more in maritime scientific research and the need for strengthening its own comprehensive national capabilities.

For China to access the IO the situation is poised by a series of maritime geographical constraints. For China, its Yulin Naval Base and the Hainan Island Submarine Base (situated south of Yulin Base) are the closest to IO situated in the present-day South China Sea (SCS). Interestingly, the French colonial records state it as ‘Indo – China Sea’. With the Philippines to the east and Vietnam to the west, China has in the past bullied both these countries and intimidated them with force and aggressive posturing. A case in point is the recent incident where a Vietnamese fishing vessel, with eight fishermen onboard was rammed and sunk by the Chinese vessel.

The PLA Navy (PLAN) to reach the IO has to sail down south and choose one of the three straits of the maritime ecosystems viz the Malacca Strait (MS), Sunda Strait (SS) and the Lombok Strait (LS) of which the shortest route is the Malacca Straits (MS) past Singapore which is a major shipping channel. However, the disadvantage for China lies in its presence being detected by all maritime intelligence units of the neighbouring countries. Also, the average depth of MS is around 25 meters deep posing a disadvantage for larger ships to sail through. To avert this ‘Malacca Dilemma’, using the SS, PLAN can use its Aircraft Carriers to reach the IO after a substantial journey which is as shallow as the MS. Still, in both the straits the PLAN submarines will have to sail on the surface upon which it loses its coveted ‘stealth’ cover.

Perhaps, the PLAN to use the Lombok Strait (LS)  has to pass a long journey covering double the distance. Of much significance and less visible one is the ‘Strait of Ombai’, situated further to the east of LS and closer to Australia. Recently, Prime Ministers of India and Australia in their first virtual bilateral summit stepped up bilateral relations to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ and concluded nine agreements including the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) and the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA). Such military logistics sharing pact would lead to more joint exercises; training missions including allowing militaries of the two countries to use each other’s bases for repair and replenishment of supplies besides facilitating scaling up of overall defence cooperation. India has already signed similar agreements with the US, France and Singapore.

From Yulin Base to IO via Ombai Strait, the distance is around a whopping 9000 km which is certainly too far for small and conventional ships of the PLA Navy including its submarines which needs refuelling to sail underwater undetected. This route is conventionally used by PLAN Nuclear Submarine.

It needs to be noted as soon as any Chinese Vessels enters the IO by any of these 4 routes they are under the surveillance of the Indian Navy (IN). The eyes and ears of the IN stretch from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca which subsumes within its ambit the Chinese strategy of ‘String of Pearls’. India’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) was scaled up by setting up of Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) in 2018 jointly administered by the Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard.

Four sectors are undertaken by India to assess and analyze the maritime safety and security situation: the Gulf of Guinea, Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal and South-East Asia. Thus, IN posturing has the capability to cut the string so that the pearls fall off in case of offensive posturing by the PLAN.  However, there is a need for India to develop a comprehensive Underwater Domain Awareness strategy.

The IO has been a major focus of China’s Maritime Silk Route (MSR) as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the fallout due Covid-19 has the potential to severely damage it, or at least considerably alter it. India has been proactive in its maritime diplomacy by evacuating citizens of different countries those evacuated included citizens from IOR countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Maldives, South Africa, and Madagascar.

India as part its Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations have been a major supplier of medicines to different countries worldwide in the fight against COVID-19. India sent a consignment of life-saving drugs, including hydroxychloroquine, to Mauritius and Seychelles.

India’s Indian Ocean Regional Diplomacy (IORD) is about taking a leadership role in maritime region-building, countering China’s Aid Diplomacy in the IOR and ensuring ‘Free Fair Open Indian Ocean’ assuring ‘Rule-Based Order’. Regional & Sub-regional mechanisms are but platforms to engage with India’s maritime neighbourhood.

Two strategic factors must shape India’s regional approach. First, it must sustain the new economic growth trajectory, which is imperative to ensure that regional instability does not hamper India’s growth trajectory. Next China’s growing footprints must be in foresight of India’s regional strategic calculus. At a time when China’s pre-meditated military moves along our northern boundary are drawing the nation’s attention, it is important that we don’t lose sight of our surrounding seas and maritime environment. Given the complexities of ‘Post CoVID World Order’ India’s diplomacy and role of IN in the IOR could define its position in the new world order.

(Balasubramanian C is a Research Officer at the Chennai Centre for China Studies.  His areas of interests include Sino –Russia Relations, Indian Ocean Region, Geo-economics, Security and Strategic Studies. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author)

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