India set to pose growing challenge to China at sea
- New Delhi is developing its strategic partnership with the US, Australia and Japan as part of efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean
- Some observers say its relationship with Washington has already developed in a quasi-alliance
Last week, the Indian Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force held a joint exercise in the Indian Ocean, as part of the nascent “Quad” that also involves the United States and Australia.
India has already held regular bilateral exercises with the other three armed forces and has said it might invite Australia to join the “Malabar” war games it holds with Japan and the US.
Lin Minwang, deputy director of Fudan University’s Centre for South Asian Studies, said the country’s relationship with the US had already developed into a quasi-alliance.
In recent years New Delhi has signed several agreements with Washington, some of which have significant military implications.
These deals include the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement to enable the use of each other’s land, air and naval bases for repair and resupply; the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement that opened the way for sales of sensitive US military equipment; and the General Security of Military Information Agreement to share classified information.
Discussions are also under way to place liaison officers in each other’s commands.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also set out plans for an “Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative” to ensure security at sea that echoes similar proposals by the US.
“India’s strategic concern is targeted at China,” Lin said.
Tensions between India and China remain high following last month’s deadly border clash that killed 20 Indian and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers.
“The Indian Navy alone cannot compete with the PLA Navy. But by allying with Japan or the US, it could be in a much better position,” Li said.
“India wants dominance in that region while the Americans are playing them off against China.”
The Indian Ocean lies at the centre of global oil transport networks, and is also a vital trade route for China, linking it to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The PLA Navy has become increasingly active in the region in recent years, starting with anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in 2008.
In addition, China has built ports in Gwadar in Pakistan, in Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Kyaukpyu in Myanmar under the Belt and Road Initiative, but critics – including India – have warned they have potential military uses.
A recent report published in Modern Ships, a military magazine published by state-owned warship builder China State Shipbuilding Corporation, said the navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean was part of an “inexorable trend”, because its economic value to China was even higher than that of the Pacific.
But India’s geographic location means it can cut China’s trade routes to Europe using its air force and its naval expansion plans – including three aircraft carriers – would allow it to compete with China for air superiority across the Indian Ocean.
Li said the best way forward for the Chinese navy was to develop its capabilities and influence, but to show restraint while doing so.
“The Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean, and the PLAN will continue its normal voyages and activities,” he said.