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India, China & the Indian Ocean

The following are my answers to some questions on the above-mentioned subject received by me by E-Mail from an Italian journalist:

Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Akyab Cheduba and Bassein in Myanmar, to Chittagong in Bangladesh: India is afraid of the Chinese invasion of the Indian Ocean?

I will not use the word “invasion”. India ought to be worried about the Chinese acquiring a power projection capability onshore and offshore in the Indian Ocean area.Gwadar, Gambantota etc are only one aspect of it. A more worrisom aspect, I feel, is the increase in the political and economic influence of China.India has the capability to counter the Chinese effectively on the sea—by itself as well as in co-operation with the US. Its ability to counter the Chinese influence onshore is very weak.The present Government headed by Dr.Manmohan Singh believes in maintaining a silence on this issue. Its silence will prove counter-productive.The rapidity with which the Chinese have evacuated their nationals (30,000) from Libya speaks very highly of the assets—political and strategic—that they have built up for themselves in the Indian Ocean and other far-flung areas.The slowness of the Indian evacuation machinery stands in sharp contrast.Our crisis management capability in far-flung areas came in for praise during the Tsunami of  December 2004. Compared to our response in December 2004, our response this time has been found wanting.

The US-India alliance can be explained as an anti Chinese alliance?

There is no alliance presently. There is only talk of an alliance. What we need is not an alliance against China, but mutual co-operation to protect the onshore and offshore interests— political, economic and strategic— of India and the US in the Indian Ocean region and in North Africa. There has been no thinking on this subject. We wait for ideas to come from the US and then react to them. Instead we should take the initiative in strategising and then find ways of making the US part of this strategy born in the Indian brain.That kind of strategic thinking on what India and the US can and should do individually and jointly has not been there.

Most of the imports and exports pass through the Straits of Malacca. This is one of the weaknesses of the Asian giant? As China moves to overcome this weakness? The stability of Asia could be jeopardized by the Malacca dilemma?

The Malacca Dilemma worries China. We have no Malacca Dilemma at present beccause very little of India’s energy supplies come from the region to the east of India. Our energy supplies still largely come from the West.China’s Malacca Dilemma provides strategic and tactical opportunities for us to see that it is not able to address this dilemma effectively. Identification of these opportunities and thinking of ways of exploiting them should engage the attention of Indian strategic thinkers and planners.You are asking whether China’s Malacca Dilemma could destabilise Asia. I don’t think so in a strategic sense. On the contrary it could add to the vulnerabilities of China. In addressing this dilemma, Beijing has been putting many of its eggs in the basket of the military regime in Myanmar just as the US put many of its strategic eggs in the basket of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. Military regimes don’t last forever. The Myanmar military regime is bound to collapse one day just as the Suharto regime collapsed in Indonesia. The US, being a super power with vast resources and capabilities was able to quickly come out of its difficulties when the military regime in Jakarta collapsed. Will China be able to come out of its difficulties without serious damage if and when the military regime collapses in Myanmar? That question needs examination.

The missions in the Gulf of Aden of the Chinese navy what kind of information they give us about the military power of China?

It shows that China has still gaps in its power projection capability. The Chinese Navy has vast financial and technical resources, but it is not yet in a position to project China’s power in far-flung areas. The US and Indian Navies will continue to maintain their off-shore pre-eminence in the short and possibly medium-terms. Can they do so long term? The US Navy is multi-dimensional in its thinking. The Chinese and Indian Navies are uni-dimensional— with the Chinese naval thinking still focussed on the Pacific and the Indian Naval thinking on the Indian Oceam region. China is now trying to emulate the US by developing a multi-dimensional thinking. It is in the common interests of India and the US to keep the Chinese thinking unidimensional. 4-3-11

( The author Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail:

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