India’s global return to prominence, alongside China, has been an interesting and a fascinating story. Earlier dismissed and often disregarded, the rise and return of the two behemoths, first economically and then politically, has captured the world’s attention.

Collectively described through its portemanteau Chindia (Ramesh 2005), their combined ascension has led to many international analysts heralding a coming Asian century (Mahbubani 2008). Indeed, such tectonic shifts in balance of power, from the ‘old’ West to the ‘new’ East, has resulted in the urgency to study more closely the geopolitical turbulences it is creating in the global order. Commanding more than one fifth of global economy and containing within its borders around two fifths of humanity (Bardhan 2010, 1), China and India set to become key international players of the 21st century. At the very least, make a lasting stamp on it.

However that is the essential trouble of understanding geopolitics through either acronyms or portemanteaux, as reality often trumps such idealisation. The rise of Asia cannot be understood as a uniform phenomenon, as Asia is not a single construct. This holds particularly true in the context of China and India. Albeit their parallel rise and possessing complementary economies, the two countries remain as different as ever. Although cooperation on certain mutual agendas between these two giants remains inevitable, it is competition that will realistically mark the relationship between these two nations. Both nations share a deep mistrust engrained since their brief conflict over their disputed borders in 1962. China’s close relationship with Pakistan also remains a grave dilemma for Indian policy makers.

The New Great Game and the String of Pearls

However, Chakravartti and Lehmann (2013) state that such fierce competition will be most witnessed in maritime competition in the sphere of energy security, as both countries must fulfill its burgeoning appetite for imported hydrocarbons. This is most evidenced in China’s geostrategic String of Pearls policy in the pan Indian Ocean Region. China has invested billions in building civilian maritime infrastructure in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, that could potentially be transformed into military installations. Baker (2015) states that although the future militarization of such facilities remains a possibility and not a certainty, the relevance of Chinese strategy should be understood not limited to Chinese infiltration in the Indian Ocean Region through India’s immediate neighbors, but also its belligerence in the South China Sea, evidenced by its recent construction of airfields and military installations. Such policies manifest China’s geopolitical ambitions of locking the entire region from southern China to eastern Africa for its maritime interests, as well as the containment of India.

Already, the Indian ocean rimland extending to the Pacific Ocean accounts for more than 70 percent of global trade traffic in petroleum products, and contains the three most strategic ‘choke points’ in international energy trade, vis-à-vis, the Malacca Straits, the Gulf of Hormuz, and Bab-el Mandeb. For the moment, it seems evident that China’s economic might, maritime superiority, and proactive foreign policy are outpacing India’s in its own sphere of influence. Indian foreign policy, on the other hand, has always remained paralyzed and reactive due to various historical and geopolitical reasons (See Fukuyama 2012).

Today, India is at a crossroad where it aspires an enviable position in regional and international affairs. To meet its own current demands with success, and to compete against an adversarial China, India needs to shed its erstwhile foreign policy reluctance of strategic engagements, and forge actionable policies that put “India First”. India’s competition with China is essentially maritime. To start, India finds itself at a backfoot vis-à-vis its immediate maritime neighbors. Although India has over the last two decades made some strides in the Indian Ocean rim engaging Seychelles, Mauritius, Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa, its engagement and relations with its immediate maritime neighbours have been less successful. Not to mention Pakistan, India’s policy on Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives have been far outmatched and outclassed by China. Furthermore, although Myanmar shares a geographical and maritime border with India, and lies in the ‘geopolitical shadow region’ between the two giants, India’s obsession with the SAARC makes it ‘lose sight of’ Myanmar (Sibal 2013), even though greater strides could have been made since 2011 after Than Shwe stepped down opening the once isolated country. India’s much coveted “Look East Policy” and “Pivot to Asia” must begin with its immediate neighborhood.

Secondly, on the tactical front, India is far outpaced by China in terms of naval spending, might and outreach. Chinese naval capabilities are far superior given their numeric advantage (submarines, destroyers, frigates, and amphibious ships), technological superiority, and budget. Chinese naval operations today serve in humanitarian and international security operations (Poulin 2016). India on the other hand is merely trying to catch up. In order to project oower effectively, India must invest in a modern blue water navy. However, the political indecisiveness, bureaucratic red-tapism, coupled with laborious procurement processes have hampered the modernization of Indian navy (as also evidenced in India’s policy complications in acquiring French Rafale jets). Furthermore, recent naval accidents have glaringly exposed the weaknesses of Indian naval might.

Finally, success seems to evade India even at its home turf. This is clearly evidenced by the failure of the much hyped military joint command (army, air force and navy) that was created in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2001. The Andaman islands are located at a strategic maritime gateway to the Straits of Malacca (where more than 60,000 ships pass every year), and further to the South China Sea. An effective geopolitical vision for the Andaman islands is key to unlocking India’s Look East Policy, and matching China’s influence as far as the South China Sea (Mukherjee 2014). The joint command was again a failure of India’s policy paralysis and institutional infighting. The individual services from the start feared a loss of power and budgetary cutbacks.

Although India’s strategic interests remains distracted in securing the lines of its northern borders, it is the invisible lines of navigation and maritime security in the Indian Ocean region that has the potential to unlocking India’s destiny in the 21st century. Hopefully the Indian elephant would step up to the task, lest it is too late.

Dr. Suddha Chakravartti

Suddha Chakravartti is a Professor of International Relations at the EU Business School, Switzerland, and a visiting faculty at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Switzerland.