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Maritime Strategy for India, China and Japan in the Indo-Pacific Region; By Commodore R. S. Vasan IN

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

Image Courtesy: Chatham House

Article No. 043/2018

Asian Century?

It is often said that the 19th century belonged to the British, the 20th century belonged to USA and the present century will be an Asian one, with two arch rivals China and India jostling for power and influence not just in their neighbourhood, but also in far off areas frm their shores. Japan being an emerging power with new found determination adds up the equations in the Indo Pacific area. It is now taken for granted that the new arena for power play is the Indo-Pacific, which is also being increasingly referred to by the Trump administration. That even the Pacific Command was renamed as Indo-Pacific Command brings out the maritime military dimension of this area.  This region which stretches from Africa to Australia, therefore, has become increasingly vital for connectivity, strategic engagement, seaborne trade and commerce. China, Japan and India are facing the attendant challenges of protecting the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) while dealing with both conventional and unconventional threats. With some 1,00,000 ships using the SLOCs in the Indian Ocean Region, there are numerous challenges for all the stake holders. For instance, the number of both legitimate and illegal vessels is set to grow in the coming years.

Maritime Power Potential

Even traditional continental powers such as China have clearly understood that without building a maritime power potential (MPP) there would be serious limitations to acquiring the great power status. The description of MPP and what defines India’s maritime core interests has been covered in a special Strategic Analysis edition published by Routledge in 2012.

Though not conclusive, there has been plenty of debate on the Indian Ocean strategy of China in academic circles. The military capabilities of China are causing regional and global concerns. China has a clear understanding that the oceanic dimensions are essential for acquiring big power status. This has motivated Beijing to look at the maritime potential with high expectations. In fact, China brought out a white paper which, in unambiguous terms makes it clear that it will invest in creating the necessary structures for both offensive and defensive missions at sea.

In the emerging great power competition, the ensuing discussions would centre around the three Asian Powers (India, China and Japan) who will play a dominant role in shaping/remoulding the required architecture for global security, prosperity and stability. The discussion does not discount the role of big powers, which remain relevant in the emerging power dynamics.

India, Japan and China Parleys

Peninsular India, a country blessed by geography with centrality in the Indian Ocean considers itself to be in a position to be the ‘net security provider’, which an oft-misunderstood term. The more appropriate and achievable aim would be the role of a ‘net security enabler’ or ‘facilitator’ as none of the present day challenges at sea can be handled by one nation alone. The Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA) or similar arrangements with USA, Oman, Singapore and France are options for mutual support in the quest for stability and security.

India is the fastest growing economy in the world and has set its sight high to promote its own MPP and also aid the process of harnessing the oceans on its own steam and by collaboration. Its ‘Security and Growth for All in the Region’ (SAGAR) redefines the ambitions of a resurgent India, for joining hands with its neighbors to ensure a safe and secure Indian Ocean. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for India to stave off the danger posed by an increasingly aggressive and assertive China. To the detriment of India, China is using the economic route in the much debated Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to expand its zone of influence through economic leverages.

China’s thrust through the Maritime Silk Route

The discussions on the impact of BRI in this paper would be limited to the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) which is the oceanic component of this programme. The MSR is part of the grant strategy of China to use the oceans to promote its long term interests. MSR while not being new (old wine in new bottle), is ambitious in its conception with long-term funding support for these projects. Without any doubt, goods and even more Chinese goods for new markets will be carried to both new and existing destinations over land and sea routes. The surplus capacity and capability of Chinese production houses, which have peaked, are being exported to sustain the high volumes of production of cheap goods that have captured the markets around the world. From the point of view of India, the MSR also targets countries which are traditionally considered as in India’s backyard where ancient cultural and historical relations have an ecosystem of their own. The MSR has the potential of altering the strategic and economic status quo in the region, hence causing concerns to other players who need to get their act together and reshape their maritime strategy to counter China’s aggressive designs.

China has deep pockets and it is putting it to good use to woo smaller economies across continents. The inability of Sri Lanka to repay the loan/interests resulted in conversion of the outstanding amount to equity in this southern port which was given away on lease for 99 years. This has come as a rude shock to other nations which were looking at China’s investments with high expectations. Indonesia’s recent decision to allow India to have access to Sabang, a deep water port compliments India’s Act east policy. Indonesia has also rejected the MSR initiative of China. One can expect greater scrutiny of MSR initiatives by destination countries in future.

AAGC as alternative to MSR

The MSR and some of the recent actions of China has spurred India and Japan to work together and create viable alternatives that could lend benign support for connectivity and investment options to the emerging economies. As and when more and more developed western economies join this alternate model, it would bring about a balance in the thus one sided tight embrace of China with developing countries. The Asia Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is one such joint initiative of India and Japan who would like to steer clear of the MSR and also create an alternate model. The opening up of the routes from Chahbahar will also connect the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC) along with AAGC would serve the trade/economic corridors in Eurasia. The recent developments related to Iran which is likely to come under US sanctions will complicate issues in the region.

Gaining foot hold in the Indian Ocean

The grand maritime strategy of China is to have access to Gwadar through the CPEC in the Arabian Sea close to the Strait of Hormuz; have access to the Bay of Bengal through Bangladesh and Myanmar and create bases/facilities the Indian Ocean. The longstanding Kra Isthmus project will continue to be pursued by China, despite severe opposition from environments and analysts to this plan to cut through Thailand. The talks keep cropping up at fairly regular intervals and it also has caused concerns in Singapore and other neighbours as it would affect shipping trade. This complements its energy security and provides options to overcome the Malacca dilemma.

The commissioning of Djibouti as a first foreign military base and the availability of other ports for operational turn round has enabled China to move in to the Indian Ocean in a big way.  The anti piracy patrols since 2008 brought out the inevitability of creating bases in the Indian Ocean for sustained operations. This is an important development that helps in addressing the Malacca dilemma and overcoming the tyranny of distance from the Pacific to the areas of commercial and strategic interest.

China on its part has also invested some USD 62 billion in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) with utter disregard to the sensitivity of India which was peeved that China intentionally used the alignment to pass through Pakistan Occupied Indian territory. From the recent developments it is evident that both China and Pakistan have miscalculated the impact of CPEC and there is now apprehension even in the minds of Pakistani analysts on the negative impact of such large investments in Pakistan that may lead to debt traps as in the case of Sri Lanka.

The land border disputes with India and the disputes in East China Sea with Japan will continue to keep the pot boiling. The cartographic aggression in South China Sea (SCS) and the takeover of many reclaimed disputed Islands which are being militarized, has brought about tensions in the region through which some 3 trillion US Dollars goods pass through annually. Any misadventure by China along the land borders with India, has the potential to snowball in to a possible maritime front being opened by India to hit China where it hurts the most-the SLOCs in IOR which are the life lines for all in the region. It is here that the maritime strategy of India would face challenges in terms of numbers and quality of surface, sub surface and air units now equipped with net-centric operations (NCO) capability which was demonstrated during the last edition of Malabar.


The Quadrilateral (QUAD) Strategic Dialogue is an example of how the great power competition is panning out by alignments to recalibrate the maritime strategy. The QUAD concept is not new, and was tried out in 2007 with participation by India, Japan, USA and Australia. From all available data it is clear that the four nations developed cold feet after that edition, in the face of stiff opposition by China to such ganging up of democracies! It has taken a decade for the players to revisit this strategy of working together to counter China’s expansion. It is still too early to say how Quad will be an intention multiplier with deliverables for the new realms of maritime strategy. The QUAD can be made to succeed as long as there is lesser focus on war mongering and nations involved concentrate, on maritime operations other than war (MOOTW).

Pacific Region Developments

Due to the long duration of their presence and posturing to protect their commercial, political and strategic interests, Extra Regional Players whether in the Indian Ocean or in the Pacific have become permanent de-facto stake holders. The Pivot to Asia policy of the USA, debated as the grand strategy of USA to serve its interests in the current century, is predominantly maritime in nature. China’s extensive build up of its military and its strained relations with the disputants in the region was a major factor. However, with the change of guard in White House, the grand strategy of slew to Asia appears to be sagging, although the plan to redeploy around sixty percent of the maritime forces to Pacific remains unaltered. The recent interest of USA is driven by a resolve to restore nuclear stability and peace in the Korean Peninsula. The strategy was aimed at honoring commitments to the allies in the Pacific, provide security and stability and be there when required. The Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) and over flight, in the contested areas in the SCS, are aimed at challenging the illegal occupation of contested reefs and rocks which have now become military outposts within the contested nine dash line. Though limited, it is also to reassure the smaller neighbors in the region that USA will protect their interests as enshrined in the United Nations Conventions on the Laws of the Seas.(UNCLOS). The utter contempt with which China rejected the Permanent Court of Arbitration award illustrates the weakness of global instruments.

Blue Economy and a Blue Water Navy

Blue is the colour of this century. Every maritime nation is wearing the blue economy initiative on its sleeve, as there are high expectations of promoting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as brought out in the concept paper at Rio in 2012. The postulations in the famous book by Pauli Ganter hold an irresistible appeal, as it promises jobs and economic growth and advocates harnessing, the full potential of the oceans in a responsible manner. Each nation has embarked on this initiative and the big powers have realized that all the investments made in different sectors of Blue economy have a security dimension. It is clear that India is leveraging the advantages of long coast and access to the seas for promoting blue economy sectors as brought out by the Ministry of Shipping, India, in a vision document released at the 16th meeting of Maritime States Development Council in Goa India.

With the expanding scope of maritime activity, nations will be compelled, to invest, proportionally in safeguarding the investments in the maritime sector, blue economy or otherwise. The size, shape and colour of the maritime security agencies will witness a sea change. India and China are emerging blue water navies in the region who will invest to protect these assets. There has also been an increase in the number of PLA Navy units including nuclear submarines deployed for deterrence. This requires C4ISR efforts to be augmented.

Need for Sound Maritime Strategy and Doctrine

India While discussing the strategies for great power competition, what is clear is that articulation of a sound policy is a prerequisite to join the big league. A clear postulation of maritime doctrine (not naval) based on core interests is inescapable for clearly defining the ways to build on MPP in a gradual manner. In the case of India, the Indian Navy was the first armed service in India to come out with a maritime doctrine, way back in 2004. This has been updated several times and the latest was issued in 2015. The title of this suggests that the Indian Navy is more assertive and seeks to ‘ensure secure seas’ as a part of its maritime security strategy. The Ministry of Shipping likewise has issued its own vision document. However, unless there is synergy between all the stakeholders to agree on a sound approach based on common principles, these doctrines would remain on paper and fall short of expectations. Stand-alone doctrines by individual ministries or piecemeal efforts do not contribute to the mission of becoming a great sea power.

China with a continental mindset kept its maritime forces within the first and second line of defence and it is making all the efforts to overcome geographic limitations. This is definitely due to the realisation of the importance of the seas to its growth. The white paper on its well thought out road-map to be a great maritime power leaves no doubts about China becoming a dominant player in the Indo-Pacific with all maritime credentials. China has invested well in expanding its merchant fleet to augment its maritime potential and expand its horizons. The PLA Navy has all the makings of a robust blue water navy with the commissioning of the carrier, nuclear/ modern conventional submarines and integral/ shore based air assets. China is investing in aircraft carriers in a big way and recently the totally indigenous aircraft carrier started its trials and is likely to be operational by 2020. Whether China admits it or not, the maritime strategy is modeled on the same lines as USA which still has the largest expeditionary force in the world that endows PLA Navy with a far shore capability. An important component of PLA Navy’s expansion is also the added emphasis to technological and scientific innovation as it goes from strength to strength.

Japan is increasingly becoming relevant as a major stake holder under Shinzo Abe. He has brought about a paradigm shift in the way Japan wishes to approach to regional and global affairs. There is also an inclination of Japan to be relevant also in UN missions. This will provide the impetus to invest in various instruments of sea power. However, Japan needs sound maritime strategy as it moves out of the shadows of USA and needs partners. India appears to fit the bill to fulfill its ambitions through maritime engagements.

Japan and India have increased the level of maritime engagements particularly after the successful resolution of a Japanese pirated vessel MV Alandro Rainbow in 1999. With the participation in Malabar and the offer of the Amphibious plane US2, the mutually beneficial maritime relations are set to grow on a positive trajectory.


To conclude, it is well established that to become great, a country has to nurture the MPP and have a sound strategy to acquire the tag of a maritime power of substance. The century which has been described as an Asian one and also one that belongs to the seas, will redefine the nature of competition in the Indo-Pacific region. Besides the inevitable conflict and competition, there would be areas in which there would be ample scope for cooperation.

By no means will the ability or power of USA will diminish in the near future. USA will continue, to lead in more ways than one and will remain instrumental in providing security and stability in the maritime domain. Its own debatable decline in some ways would impinge on how US and its allies respond to the developments particularly vis-à-vis China’s expansion. China has followed Deng’s principle of “..hide our capabilities and bide for time..”. China’s time has come to take centre stage.

India has the potential to provide security and stability in the Indian Ocean due to geography, its system, a strong Navy and some of the natural strengths of democracy. China on its part will continue to pose obstacles in India resolving the vexed border issues, getting admission in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, UN Security Council and counter-terrorism issues.

There are expectations about the constructive role that Japan can play in consort with other democracies. Japan would actively pursue its ambition to be a big power again of global eminence through a robust maritime strategy. Overall, the world will witness a keen competition in the race to acquire big power status through the oceans.

The Asian powers of the Indo-Pacific are dependent on oceans for their well being and prosperity and need to have well-defined plans for harnessing the seas. While Blue economy seems to have bright prospects for all nations, the security challenges will be acute, hence requiring mature handling, as nations vie for a place on the high table. China’s continued ascendency in the maritime domain, building up of a blue water navy, economic initiatives to wield power and influence across continents and its aggressive behaviours in the South China Sea has unnerved the smaller neighbours and triggered other powers including USA to look at alliances and options for containing an expansive China.

Proactive actionable maritime strategy by the stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region will shape the destiny of the Asian century.

[Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) is Director, C3S and Regional Director, Chennai Chapter of National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of any institution he is affiliated with. He can be reached at]

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