Dominating the Indian Ocean has emerged as a central point of contention in the competition between India and China. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Robert D. Kaplan, a security expert, argues that the Indian Ocean will take centre stage in the 21st century as India and China compete in a “great-power rivalry” over the waters.
If India wants to dominate this central trade interstate, it must ramp up its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, China is escalating its role in the waters, hoping for a stronger geostrategic footing and the economic clout that comes with it.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Kaplan notes the fairly obvious: that the Indian Ocean is —and has been historically—a major trade passage. Presently, 90% of global commerce is conducted on the sea, and half the world’s container traffic is in the Indian Ocean. He notes that 70% of petroleum-related products pass through the Indian Ocean.
Even in a world of bustling air traffic and cross-country pipelines, few geographical passageways are as important to India as the Indian Ocean.
He writes, “Like a microcosm of the world at large, the greater Indian Ocean region is developing into an area of both ferociously guarded sovereignty (with fast-growing economies and militaries) and astonishing interdependence (with its pipelines and land and sea routes).”
India must reckon with an antagonistic China in its waters. As Kaplan notes, China is opening naval bases in neighbours’ backyards, notably a base in Gwadar, Pakistan. It has plans for other facilities in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
While India’s military capability is certainly within the top 10 of the world, much of its capacity, it seems, is geared toward confronting or checking Pakistan. This is certainly important but it’s just not enough to deter China.
Greater naval capacity, careful strategic thinking and spending is needed. China has already decided that it will play its cards aggressively in Asian waters, generally. On Monday, US officials issued a stern rebuke to China, saying that its vessels harassed an American surveillance ship in the South China Sea.
India cannot afford to let China dominate the Indian Ocean. India’s navy is expanding, expecting to add three nuclear-powered submarines and three aircraft carriers by 2015, Kaplan says. This is welcome news, but India must ramp up its naval capabilities further—otherwise China will secure its own interests, and foothold, in the Indian Ocean.
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