The two Asian giants China and India have been locking horns in the Indian Ocean (IO) for creating their supremacy through their maritime strategies. Geostrategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan once said, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia.
Brewster (2014), quoted a well-known Indian maritime strategist K.M. Panikkar, who described the Indian Ocean, as a “truly Indian.” But on the other hand, Captain Zhao Yi, working with Institute of Strategy, is of the strong opinion that IO cannot be an Indian backyard. When these two statements juxtaposed, clearly makes the Indian Ocean a place where two Asian giants, China, and India wanted to have supremacy by outmaneuvering each other.
Unfathomable Maritime Strategy: String of Pearls to OBOR
Holmes & Yoshihara (2005) noted that the current maritime strategy of China has been influenced by Mahan. Martinson (2016), has argued that the Chinese maritime strategy has not been influenced by Sir Julian Corbett and A.T. Mahan, rather it is a civilian concept. Although prima facie, it is civilian in nature but practically it could be for both purposes civilian and strategic, hence it is unfathomable.
The String of Pearls was a Chinese geostrategic maneuver, primarily focusing on the network of commercial facilities and building strong strategic infrastructure. Recently upgraded military facility in the Hainan Island, an upgraded airstrip on Woody Island, container shipping facility in Chittagong (Bangladesh), a deep water port in Sittwe (Myanmar) and a navy base in Gwadar (Pakistan) and Hambantota in Sri Lanka are some of the important pearls. Pehrson (2006), has argued that it is not only a naval strategy which is restricted to constructing ports and airfield but it is more than that i.e., regional strategy comprehensively covering diplomatic ties, and force modernization.
One Belt and One Road (OBOR), a strategic initiative under the incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping, launched in 2013 with two main projects. The first one comprised of the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the second one is Maritime Silk Road. The idea behind both projects is to develop better connectivity and infrastructure for trade and promote the bilateral development of key investment projects between China and the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe.
According to Zhang Gaoli, the Vice Premier of China, the main objectives of this project are: enhancing policy coordination across the Asian continent; trade liberalization; financial integration; and connectivity including people to people links. It means a very comprehensive strategy, however, China is hesitant to call it a strategy and now it is being called as OBOR Initiative. As far as South Asia is concerned, under the OBOR Initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor have already been translated into reality. These projects (China’s maritime and overland Silk Road) have created the unfathomable Chinese maritime supremacy over India in the Indian Ocean.
Indian Maritime Strategy
In the 21st century, India has been emerging as a potential economic power and on account of that, it has maritime interests in the India Ocean. These include sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity, safety and security of Indian citizens living across the countries, safety and security of sea lanes of communications, shipping, trade, energy supply, are some of the important maritime interests which are needed to protect against the maritime threats. Since IO has also been becoming a battlefield for the great game among the external and regional powers, thus, peace, stability and security in India’s maritime zones, maritime neighbourhood and other areas of maritime interest become paramount importance in Indian strategic calculus (Indian Maritime Doctrine 2009:65).
In October 26, 2015, the Indian Navy had released its latest maritime strategy, titled “Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy,” along with a “net maritime security provider.” which is revised and updated version of the previous strategy, ‘Freedom to Use the Seas: India’s Maritime Military Strategy (2007).’It has been argued that the previous maritime strategy had not taken into account the changing geopolitical environment and its strategic implications for India’s maritime interests. The updated maritime strategy 2015, would bridge up this gap by complementing the evolving security dynamics in the Indian Ocean.
India has also launched the ‘Mausam’ and ‘Sagarmala,’ projects. The project ‘Mausam’ is under the Ministry of Culture, focuses on extending the India’s cultural links with maritime neighbours as well as to explore maritime routes that link India to different parts of the Indian Ocean littorals. On the other hand, the project ‘Sagarmala’, aims at the provision and efficient operation of port infrastructure. Though this project is about the infrastructure creation in Indian ports, but for the given of geopolitical contested nature of Indian Ocean, this project could be expanded into a regional undertaking.
Strategic Slipup: India Missing Sea Opportunities
India is being considered as a major sea power. In order to seek Indian maritime cooperation, the littoral states have been extending opportunities to India to create the maritime infrastructure such as ports and signet posts, maritime strategic cooperation etc. to ensure their sovereignty, unity and integrity. But Indian maritime strategy seems to be very half-hearted and lethargic. The Hambantota project was offered to India in which India did not show any interest and ultimately it was taken over by China. In 2011, Vietnam has offered the Nha Trang port as a military base near the South China Sea, but this opportunity has also been missed. It has also been argued that India has been going very slow in taking up Agalega Islands as a naval and air bases which were leased by Mauritius. India has remained cold shouldered to Mozambique’s proposal to make a naval base on its northern coast. India’s reticence in owning up the opportunities and defense of the distant neighbours shows India is still not in a position to be a great potential power. Maritime regional cooperation is also going at snail’s speed. During the visit to Japan. PM Modi agreed to heighten the bilateral relationship to a ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership,’ but despite two years passing on, no substantial progress in this respect has been made. An agreement on joint weapons development, finalization of the sale of the US-2 amphibious maritime surveillance aircraft are going very slow despite getting full assurance for the transfer of the technology. The other handicaps of the maritime strategy included delaying in Indian Navy’s procurements, half of its submarines with advanced lifespans, critical shortage of anti-submarine helicopters.
What India Should Do?
At the last, it can be concluded that though India is making a lot of efforts to catch up with competitor China’s uncontrollable sea supremacy, but it maritime strategy has been facing serious challenges. India has not been moving with the time to put its promise into reality. Despite a lot of opportunities have been offered to develop and use the ports but half-heartedly approach have been disappointing the neighbours and littoral states. Moreover, Indian Navy which could become a major anchor and lynchpin in the maritime strategy, being handicapped by its procurement process, old age and shortage of weapons etc. Thus, it is highly recommended that in order to compete with Chinese maritime policy and keep the Indian Ocean as the Indian Ocean, India has to extend deep maritime cooperation with its neighbours, littoral states, extra and regional powers and has to exploit the maritime cooperation opportunities offered by the other countries. Moreover, the important part is Indian Navy, which must be strengthened by adding requisite manpower, officials, and indigenization of weapon inventory to sail in the same boat with China.