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China and India navies vie for influence in Indian Ocean amid border tensions. Illustration: Craig Stephens

China and India navies vie for influence in Indian Ocean amid border tensions

  • Beijing recently sent naval surveillance ships to the Indian Ocean in efforts to expand its regional influence, while India has increased its naval spending
  • Supremacy on the water comes as the two sides are locked in a border stand-off along the Line of Actual Control that separates the countries
Amid clashes between soldiers from China and India along the countries’ unmarked land border, their navies have been locked in an influence operation in the Indian Ocean.

Over the last few weeks, Beijing has not only sent naval surveillance ships to the region, but even held its first-ever meeting of Indian Ocean countries – both moves widely seen as attempts to expand its influence and corner India.

New Delhi, for its part, has launched a series of countermeasures and strengthened its capabilities. Earlier this month, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visited INS Baaz naval base in the strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The base serves as India’s watchtower over the critical Malacca Strait sea route, which is China’s maritime gateway to West Asia and Africa. Reports indicate that the Indian government is now pushing for strengthening maritime connectivity with Indonesia via these islands, as a way of bolstering its regional presence.


India launches its first home-grown aircraft carrier

India launches its first home-grown aircraft carrier

Three months after it inducted its first indigenous aircraft carrier the INS Vikrant into service, the Indian Navy commissioned a 7,500-tonne stealth guided-missile destroyer, the INS Mormugao in December. India also received delivery of the INS Vagir, a Scorpene-class submarine capable of anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare.

In the next few weeks, Delhi is also expected to commission a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, in a move that experts said would greatly add to its capabilities in the region. Last February, Narendra Modi’s government increased the Indian Navy’s budget for new acquisitions and constructions by 45 per cent.

Analysts now believe that frequent disputes between Indian and China will occur in the ocean.

The Indian Ocean region is crucial for both countries. India lies at its centre and does 95 per cent of its trade, by volume, via its 7,500km coastline in the ocean. The waterway is similarly key to China’s economic and security prospects, as nine of its top 10 crude oil suppliers transit through the Indian Ocean.

“From the Belt and Road Initiative to the Maritime Silk Route, the Indian Ocean is a key arena for China to expand its influence,” said RS Vasan, a retired Indian Navy commodore and current director general of the Chennai Centre for China Studies.

Chinese ‘intrusions’ increase

Since August, even as the two sides were locked in a border stand-off along the Line of Actual Control that separates the countries in the Indian regions of Ladakh and more recently, Arunachal Pradesh, there have been at least two instances of Chinese ships visiting the Indian Ocean, sparking Delhi’s ire and raising suspicions.

In August, the Yuan Wang 5, a Chinese research vessel that India suspects of being be used in surveillance activities, docked at Sri Lanka’s port of Hambantota, despite India’s opposition. The vessel was spotted in the Indian Ocean again last month, just days before India was slated to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile, according to an Indian media report.

In early December, Indian navy chief Admiral R Harikumar said “a lot” of Chinese ships were operating in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Navy’s Southern Naval Command chief Vice Admiral M.A. Hamphioli added that “intrusions” by Chinese ships were “not uncommon”.


Chinese research ship docks at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port amid heightened regional tensions

Chinese research ship docks at Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port amid heightened regional tensions
Chinese maritime activity has been coupled with maritime diplomacy, too. In 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, in addition to constructing Pakistan’s Gwadar Port and the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota, which has been leased to China for 99 years.
But in a first-such meeting, in late November, the China International Development Cooperation Agency formed the China-Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation, a grouping of 19 countries in the region. Representatives from Indonesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Australia and African nations attended.
Days later, the Maldives and Australia distanced themselves from the meeting, denying any official participation from their governments.

India boosts warship patrols to catch up with China but funding gap remains

“China’s ambition in the region isn’t new, but it is finding new ways to engage with stakeholders here,” Vasan said. “This latest initiative is all about showing their presence and saying that I might be an extra-regional player but I am a stakeholder, nonetheless.”

“This reminded me some time ago [of] certain Chinese commentators [who] argued that the Indian Ocean isn’t ‘India’s ocean’ and that India shouldn’t act like a headmaster of the [Indian Ocean region],” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

New Delhi counters

The Indian government has been on a spending spree recently to strengthen its naval capabilities. Last week, it approved a combined 12 new purchases for its Navy and coastguard, including naval anti-ship missiles, multipurpose vehicles and hi-tech high endurance autonomous underwater vehicles, which will give India’s anti-submarine operations a major boost.

India revives maritime security bloc with an eye on China’s growing influence

News reports also indicated the possibility of the Indian Navy deploying additional maritime forces in the eastern Indian Ocean by leasing a jetty in a private port north of Chennai, aiding its operations around Southeast Asia.

Many are pointing to Beijing’s posturing in the Indian Ocean and comparing it to 2017, when it stepped up its naval presence in the waterway while locked in a stand-off with India at the Doklam plateau.

“There’s a sense that it’s impossible to stop the Chinese from coming to the [Indian Ocean region] anyway,” said Koh, adding that India is trying to deter “a repeat of the Doklam episode”, referring to the military stand-off with Chinese troops who attempted to build a road in a disputed border region.
China cannot surprise India in the Indian Ocean … What happened at the Line of Actual Control cannot happen in the maritime domain
RS Vasan, retired Indian Navy commodore

Last week, the British Royal Navy’s offshore patrol vessel HMS Tamar sailed to the Indian Ocean’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands for joint maritime exercises with the Indian Navy. Koh said such exercises would help India to strengthen its regional presence.

Vasan, the retired commodore, agreed and added that Delhi wanted to anticipate China’s increased assertiveness in the region

“It’s in India’s larger interest to remain the guardian and net security provider in the Indian Ocean region, something China cannot do due to geography,” he said.

Vasan said Delhi’s recent moves, coupled with India’s geostrategic advantage, gave it a head start over Beijing.

“China cannot surprise India in the Indian Ocean,” he said. “What happened at the Line of Actual Control cannot happen in the maritime domain.”