Battle For Supremacy Of Indian Ocean Region – OpEd


“Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to the seven seas. In the 21st century, the destiny of the world will be decided on its waters.” Prediction on the Indian Ocean of Alfred Mahan, American naval strategist of the 19th century, seems to be coming true. And this is coming true in the 21st century.

Adani’s Colombo Port Project gets $553 million funding from US

“The US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) commitment of $553 million in private sector loans for the West Container Terminal (WCT) will expand its shipping capacity, creating greater prosperity for Sri Lanka – without adding to sovereign debt – while at the same strengthening the position of our allies across the region,” DFC CEO Scott Nathan said in a statement. This Colombo port terminal project, partly owned by India’s Adani Group, advancing the first foray by an Indian company into the sector. India and China vie for influence in the island nation located along the busy shipping routes. The Port of Colombo is the largest and busiest trans-shipment port in the Indian Ocean.

Experts said it was a resistance move by the US to the growing Chinese influence in the region through heavy investment in infrastructure. Colombo Port also has a terminal run by China Harbour Engineering Co. This news called for to revisit the ongoing Battle for Supremacy of Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Can China leapfrog its way into the future?

There is no doubt that the Chinese Dragon “Can and Will” if the world does not come together to blunt this smooth and swift leapfrogging also known as island hopping. Cyber warfare would also allow China to leapfrog by means of technology transfer and exploiting adversary weaknesses. President Xi is forcefully pursuing his pet proposal of ‘One Belt and One Road’ Initiative (BRI).

China continues to encircled India through the so-called strategy of ‘String of Pearls’ by heavily investing in ports, infrastructure and defence exports to India’s immediate neighbours.  In the process, China made grounds for future bases in the garb of Economic development. ‘Red Dragon’ has leap frogged over land and sea and in the process strangulated India’s environs of its strategic sphere of influence. To achieve this Pakistan has been an instrument to provide the initial springboard to extend China’s reach and sphere of influence. 

Response to Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region 

China’s growing presence in the IOR has raised concerns among some countries. India sees China’s activities as a strategic challenge to its influence in the region. In its pursuit to neutralize China, India finds ready partners in the US, Australia, Britain and Japan. From the Chinese standpoint, alliances like the Quad (comprised of Japan, Australia, India and the US) and AUKUS (Australia, UK and the US) demonstrate American intentions of containing China’s rise. The Quads have emerged as a force to resist Chinese maritime and economic aggression. India, in addition to Japan and Australia, are seen as a proxy to the American hegemonic ambitions. China and Russia both have shown concerns over the QUAD partnership.

India too, is conspicuously reinforcing its capabilities in the region. India is in advanced stages of setting up facilities allowing additional warships, aircraft, troops, and drones to be stationed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. With the last of these islands only 90 nautical miles from Indonesia and the Malacca Strait, India’s military deployment is dangerously close to the lifeline of China’s economy. 

India has also obtained rights to a listening post at Duqm port in Oman, to monitor suspicious Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean. Further, by partnering with Japan, India has logistics access to Djibouti port.

On the island of Alaléga, owned by Mauritius, India has built a 3000-meter runway capable of hosting the Indian Navy’s Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft. This will enable India to keep an eye on this part of the ocean and “will constitute a key staging post in the Indian maritime domain awareness,” says a report done by the Australian National University National Security College on the Indian Ocean. 

All Chinese warships, including submarines, pass through the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda Straits to reach the Indian Ocean. Australia and India need to come together as to check and be able to monitor all three of the straits for China’s naval presence both above and below the water’s surface. This capability would require additional facilities in the IOR.

China Counters

China hosted the first meeting of the Indian Ocean Region Forum on Development Cooperation on 21 November 2022 but kept India out of it. The meeting was held in a hybrid manner under the theme of “Shared Development: Theory and Practice from the Perspective of the “Blue Economy” in Kunming, Yunnan Province.China during the meeting has proposed to establish a ‘Marine Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Cooperation Mechanism’ between China and countries in the IOR. China stated that it is ready to provide necessary financial, material, and technical support to countries in need. China’s strategy is to prevent India’s rise as an economic competitor and counter India’s strong influence in the IOR where India-backed organisations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association, (IORA), which has a membership of 23 countries have taken strong roots.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a gigantic project which will connect Gwadar’s deep-water seaport in Pakistan to Xinjiang in China.  This allows China to connect to the world by road and sea through the BRI utilizing Pakistan’s location to bypass the chokepoint of the Malacca Straits. Making the route of its energy supplies to Xinjiang from the Persian Gulf via Gwadar warm waters of the Arabian sea, this route will shorten the distance by thousands of miles and reduce the traveling time considerably. The route passes through Gilgit-Baltistan (POK) making it the shortest route for China to reach Gwadar port and posing a major concern for India. PLA has around 10,000 troops stationed in POK northern areas in the garb of technicians and labourers.  

China has established a full-fledged naval base in Djibouti, its first outside the country, Beijing has acquired the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka on a 99-year lease besides building the port at Pakistan’s Gwadar in the Arabian Sea opposite India’s western coast besides infrastructure investments in the Maldives. 

To pursue its objectives China is also using other platforms like the BRI, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

India’s Look East policy as well as Connect Central Asia policy also stands to be undermined by growing Chinese influence.  China has gradually enhanced its foothold in the Indian peninsula, gradually expanding its footprint in South East Asia and Central Asia. India needs to be wary of China’s Economic designs which will be detrimental to India’s long-term interests and should formulate policies to protect its interests with new alliances.

Patial RC

Patial RC is a retired Infantry officer of the Indian Army and possesses unique experience of serving in active CI Ops across the country and in Sri Lanka. Patial RC is a regular writer on military and travel matters in military professional journals. The veteran is a keen mountaineer and a trekker.

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