As the heavyweight economies face territorial tensions on both land and sea, the rivalry between India and China is heating up.
With soldiers from both sides engaged in skirmishes it is the second month that a fierce border standoff in Bhutan’s Doklam region — triggered by a Chinese road construction project in a disputed area and a Bhutanese request for Indian help — is now entering into. But as New Delhi is growing concerned about a Chinese naval presence in its own backyard: the Indian Ocean, a new confrontation in the relationship is arising.
“As the [Doklam] crisis stretches on, China is likely to seek ways to pressure India, both on the border and elsewhere, and this will compound the cycle of competition that is already well underway,” Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said in a recent note published by the Lowy Institute.
Widely interpreted as a coordinated response to perceived Chinese expansion in the Indian Ocean were the recent joint naval drills between the U.S., India and Japan — known as the Malabar exercises.
Noting sightings of 13 to 14 units in two months, Indian media reported a surge in Chinese naval vessels around the area in the run-up to Malabar. A submarine, an intelligence-gathering ship, hydrographic research vessels and Luyang III class destroyers were included in them.
For its “Belt and Road” initiative, an infrastructure program that involves developing port facilities in the Indian Ocean with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Beijing does operate in the area. India has repeatedly indirectly criticized the program for violating Indian sovereignty and it isn’t a member of the initiative.
“China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean is showing signs of a qualitative shift,” Joshi said noting the mainland’s the July 12 dispatch of Chinese troops to a military base in Djibouti — Beijing’s first long-term foreign military deployment in almost 60 years and its growing patrols.
“This Chinese facility is not just a platform from which China can project initially modest power into the western Indian Ocean, but will also justify and support a greater volume and pace of other patrols through the eastern and central Indian Ocean,” Joshi added.
As s reflected by the Malabar drills, New Delhi is certainly paying close attention to those developments, as reflected by the Malabar drills.
“With over 20 ships, including two submarines and over 100 aircraft and helicopters involved in complex maneuvers, [India’s] strategic messaging to China seemed more than clear,” Abhijit Singh, head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at think tank Observer Research Foundation, wrote in a note.
“Indian commentators cast Malabar as a strategic precursor to a more proactive sea-denial strategy aimed at challenging People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in the Indian Ocean.”
Parallels of Beijing’s behavior in a different body of water are being drawn by the situation. In contested sections of the South China Sea, the world’s second-largest economy has been creating artificial islands. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to counter the mainland on his home turf may not be sustainable because the Indian Ocean isn’t a site of overlapping sovereign rights unlike that international waterway.
“There is something essentially flawed about the idea that Indian naval power can prevent Chinese warships and submarines from accessing India’s near-seas. Modern-day trading nations regard the oceans as a shared global common, with equal opportunity rights for all user states,” said Singh.
(Adapted from CNBC)