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Power politics in the Indian Ocean: don’t exaggerate the China threat

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In Brief

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is becoming increasingly significant in the world arena. Recent discourse has focused on China’s naval ambitions in the IOR and potential US–India cooperation in response to China’s presence.


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To some extent, the ‘China Factor’ is one explanation behind the recent improvement of US–India relations, as both the US and India are anxious about Chinese entry into IOR. Particularly in India, many strategists are concerned about the imaginary Chinese ‘string of pearls strategy’. However, an in-depth analysis of the three countries’ strategic outlook could lead to a different conclusion.

The perception of the ‘China threat’ mainly derives from a fear of China’s different political system and its astonishing rise, both in scale and speed. But when analysed in relation to intention, capability, or aspiration, it is clear that the potential threat of China has always been over-exaggerated. China’s strategic focus is the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean. It lags far behind the US in terms of maritime power and does not enjoy India’s geographic advantages. More importantly, China has traditionally had a peaceful maritime policy. Even when China was a pre-eminent maritime power, it promoted peace and commerce, as was clearly illustrated during the Ming Dynasty.

Today, China’s naval strategy is to ensure a ‘harmonious sea’ through capacity building and international cooperation. China views the region surrounding the Indian Ocean as a vital energy and trade route, not a battlefield for power struggle. China’s seaward policy is strongly influenced by trade and energy motives, and its open economy is becoming more interdependent with the outside world, particularly the Indian Ocean. Chinese involvement in building infrastructure in IOR littorals is part of China’s economy-oriented ‘Going Global’ strategy. Although it is frequently argued that China should and must develop into becoming a strong maritime power, the Chinese government has always emphasised that their maritime power is totally different from Western-style maritime power. Many Chinese scholars even warn against having a military presence in the IOR.

Nonetheless, the US and India have a history of having different Indian Ocean strategies. Although China’s presence will always promote US–India cooperation, the democratic peace theory will not supersede realistic politics, and the differing interests of the US and India in the IOR will be difficult to reconcile. The US and India have had contradictory strategic policies regarding the Indian Ocean since the Cold War era. In the 1960s, when the US wanted to inherit Britain’s influence in IOR, India opposed the “theory of power vacuum” and instead supported the idea of an ‘Indian Ocean Peace Zone’. During the 1971 Indo–Pakistan War, the US dispatched its Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal, causing great concern from the Indian side.

India’s view of the IOR can be summarised as a sense of crisis and destiny. Regarding the sense of crisis, Indian politicians and strategists pay great attention to the linkages between Indian Ocean and India’s national security. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru argued that India’s independence and survival depended on India’s control of the Indian Ocean. India’s Maritime Military Strategy (2007) highlighted that ‘whatever happens in the IOR can affect our national security and is of interest to us’. As for destiny, India’s unique geographic location forms the cornerstone of India’s aspiration to dominate Indian Ocean or even to transform Indian Ocean into India’s Ocean. Many Indian strategists view the Indian Ocean as India’s ‘rightful domain’ and contend that ‘India will have to play a very large role (in the Indian Ocean) if the prospects for peace and cooperation are to grow’.

In contrast, the US seeks to be a hegemonic maritime power that is not only dominant in the Atlantic or Pacific, but also in the Indian Ocean. Although it stresses the importance of a cooperative maritime strategy, the US is still trying to maintain its status as a pre-eminent maritime power. In accordance with the shift of the world power balance, the US will seek to sustain its strong presence in the Indian Ocean. The US has taken many measures to achieve this goal, including strengthening its presences in Diego Garcia and Bahrain, updating its military cooperation with established allies, and setting up forward military networks to control key choke points.

Thus, although confrontations and conflicts between China, US and India have been predicted in this region, particularly with the rise of China’s maritime power, their different strategic goals may lead to different results. Given the China’s policy aims, intent and capability, China cannot afford to challenge either the United States or India. But with the rapid growth of its economic and military power, India is likely to adopt a more assertive maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. Thus, considering that the US wants to maintain its maritime dominance, an India–US potential power struggle in the Indian Ocean is more likely to characterise the IOR landscape than the ‘China threat’.

Chunhao Lou is the Assistant Director at the Institute of Maritime Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

5 responses to “Power politics in the Indian Ocean: don’t exaggerate the China threat”

  1. If this post is for domestic Chinese readership, statement such as this ” Today, China’s naval strategy is to ensure a ‘harmonious sea’ through capacity building and international cooperation.” may be accepted but not, when the author tried to pass it internationally. One does not need to look too far but, East and South China seas to find what’s going to happen in the Indian Ocean in roughly 10 years time.
    As a matter of fact, there’s hardly a Chinese neighbor that is not working on its security defense upgrade, addressing the common denominator: Chinese aggression.

    • Thanks for the comment. Actually, you point out one problem for Chinese government or scholars,that is how to convince the others, particularlyin the West, or you mean “internatioanlly”, to trust us. We find that whatever effor we take, whatever benign activity we take, some people will always take double-standard. Take the hot East and South China seas issue for example, how many western scholars have undertaken serious research on the starting point of the tension?

      • Interesting article. My thoughts on your article is as below,
        1)”The perception of the ‘China threat’ mainly derives from a fear of China’s different political system”
        China’s threat today is felt more in the neighborhood of China than in US (the political system of China is considered abhorrent only in US).
        2)”China’s strategic focus is the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean. It lags far behind the US in terms of maritime power and does not enjoy India’s geographic advantages”
        -The proportion of China’s trade through the Indian ocean is much higher than through Pacific. China’s geographical disadvantage is the main reason for China’s aggression in IOR. India’s geographic advantage in IOR is highly offset by two of its adversaries in the North. Unfortunately China aids India’s biggest adversary.
        3)”China has traditionally had a peaceful maritime policy”
        -Recent events in East and South China seas doesn’t suggest so.
        4)”India’s view of the IOR can be summarised as a sense of crisis and destiny”
        -Everything you have written on India in this paragraph is sheer propaganda against India.
        China has adopted revisionist policy to claim sovereignty over adjacent territories.
        You end with a surmise of a India-US teaming up against China, which is very unlikely given the rough patch in Indo-US relations at present.

  2. In an important respect, China and India share an identical interest in the Indian Ocean, i.e. to keep the Ocean open, as a thoroughfare, to free passage and closed to great power contestation.

    Going forward, New Delhi and Beijing need to sit down together and gradually frame a broad rules-of-the-road cooperative agreement in the area of maritime security cooperation … a sort of a gentleman’s agreement of what each party expects out of the other in their respective maritime backyards, areas of potential cooperation (like SLOCs), and enumeration of activities that would be deemed to be hostile by each side. And after having had this conversation, New Delhi and Beijing need to elevate their operational interactions in both the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea.

    The port visits, anti-piracy coordination mission, etc. are good starts. The conversation needs to be deepened and thereafter operationalized. A good deal of the insecurities and security dilemmas will thereafter begin to fade away.

    Best, Sourabh

    • @Sourabh

      Only a fool would remain a gentleman in the world polity. In today’s world there is severe competition for resources and a expansive region like the IOR will always have countries vying to get control. Just as the South China sea semantics do not make it China’s (although some Chinese statesmen may disagree) likewise the Indian Ocean sematics do not make it India’s. We have to be cognizant of this intermediate distinction between the semantics…

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