Indian Ocean: China-India-US Jostling For Power – Analysis


By D. S. Rajan

The strategic importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), providing major sea routes for world commerce, connecting East Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and Africa, with Europe and Americas is growing day by day.

Author Robert Kaplan is right in pointing out in his book (“Monsoon- the Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power”, 21 November 2010), that in this region, the interests and influence of China, India, and the United States are beginning to overlap and intersect and that therefore the IOR is bound to become a centre of 21st century international conflicts and power dynamics.

2. Taking the position with regard to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) first, it has to be admitted that till now its focus continues to be on the Pacific and not on the IOR. It would however be a folly to ignore the gradually unfolding changes in the perceptions of Beijing on the IOR. Beijing’s principal interest at this juncture seems to lie in the need to protect the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCS) along the Indian Ocean, vital for the country’s energy imports. While this is being so, the PRC’s official-level articulations on IOR are gradually gaining intensity; the day may not be far off when Beijing comes out with a comprehensive Indian Ocean doctrine for implementation. In the present scenario, suffice to note that China, through its aggressive soft power diplomacy, has begun to shape the IOR strategic environment. By providing large loans on generous repayment terms, investing in major infrastructure projects such as the building of roads, dams, ports, power plants, and railways, and offering military assistance and political support in the UN Security Council through its veto power, China has been able to secure considerable goodwill and influence among countries in the IOR.

3. It is not difficult to trace the connection between China’s increasing maritime security interests and its fast changing perceptions on the IOR. To help achieving the declared goal of turning the country as a fully modernized one by middle of the century, the PRC has evolved an overall strategic approach towards procuring much needed resources from all over the world; it has set demands on China to ensure security of supply routes, both land and maritime. The IOR has thus become vital for China. As corollary, the PRC’s naval objectives have undergone a shift – from that of conducting coastal defence activities to offshore defence and ultimately to far sea defence. A case in point is the stress noticed in China’s Defence White Paper (2013) on “protecting national maritime rights and interests” and “armed forces providing reliable support for China’s interests overseas”.

4. The allotted responsibilities for the PLA Navy (PLAN) now include “defeat invasion from sea, defend territorial sovereignty and protect maritime rights”. For fulfilling them, the PRC is making naval modernization efforts aimed at equipping the Navy with capabilities to operate in waters far beyond its borders. Such efforts encompass[1] a broad array of weapon acquisition programs, including anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), submarines both nuclear and conventional, surface ships, aircraft, and supporting C4ISR (command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) systems. China’s naval modernization has following main orientation- addressing the situation with Taiwan militarily, if need be; asserting or defending China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea; regulating foreign military activities in its 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ); displacing U.S. influence in the Western Pacific; and asserting China’s status as a leading regional power and major world power. China may also use its navy for other purposes, such as conducting maritime security (including anti-piracy) operations, evacuating Chinese nationals in foreign countries when necessary, and conducting humanitarian assistance/disaster response (HA/DR) operations.

5. The first official signal that China has begun paying attention to the IOR, came through a statement (Galle, Sri Lanka, 13 December 2012) made by Vice Admiral Su Zhiqian, Commander of the East China Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy. It laid stress on the ‘freedom and safety of the navigation in the Indian Ocean’ acting as a crucial factor in global economy and declared that the Chinese navy will actively maintain the peace and stability of the Indian Ocean through carrying out ‘maritime security cooperation’ with the navies of various countries, especially seeking to establish a maritime security ‘code of conduct’ between them under the ‘premise of respect for each country’s sovereignty and maritime interests’[2]

6. Next clue was seen in the Blue Book of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) released in June 2013. It had chapters on India’s “Look East Policy” and the “U.S-India axis of relation in Indian Ocean region”. As a document of an authoritative Chinese think tank, it appears as policy indicators. The Blue Book observed that “In the past, China’s Indian Ocean strategy was based on ‘moderation’ and ‘maintaining the status quo’, but the changing dynamics of international relations necessitates China play a more proactive role in affairs of the region”. It frankly admitted that Beijing presently is not having any Indian Ocean strategy unlike U.S. and India who were following a well-defined “Look East” policy and the “pivot” or “rebalancing” strategy respectively. Adding that in absence of a strategy, China’s development prospects would severely be hit, it observed, “With changes in the relations among countries in the Indian Ocean Region and in the international situation, China’s diplomacy should also change, but Beijing’s interests will be driven only by commercial, and not military, objectives”. The document asked China to deepen economic ties with the nations in the IOR while cautioning that if China, United States and India do not constructively engage each other, the Indian Ocean can end up as an ocean of conflict and trouble. As the CASS publication predicted, no single or regional power including Russia, China, Australia and India, can control the Indian Ocean by itself in the future and after jostling among powers, a fragile balance of power might be reached in the region. It acknowledged that the rise of China was worrying the littoral states of IOR, particularly India.

7. Among subsequent commentaries on the IOR made by influential Chinese academicians, an article of a leading state-controlled Chinese think tank[3], look very significant. The write-up declared that China’s strategic focus is the Pacific rather than the Indian Ocean and the PRC lags far behind the US in terms of maritime power and does not enjoy India’s geographic advantages. It asserted that China follows a naval strategy aimed at ensuring a ‘harmonious sea’ through capacity building and international cooperation, viewing the region surrounding the Indian Ocean as a vital energy and trade route, not a battlefield for power struggle. China’s seaward policy is strongly influenced by trade and energy motives, and its open economy is becoming more interdependent with the outside world, particularly the IOR.

8.The article added that Chinese involvement in building infrastructure in the Indian Ocean region littorals is part of the PRC’s economy-oriented ‘Going Global’ strategy. Interpreting India’s views on the Indian Ocean region as a sum-up of senses of crisis and destiny, it says that as for crisis, Indian politicians and strategists pay great attention to the linkages between Indian Ocean and India’s national security and as for destiny, India’s unique geographic location forms the cornerstone of India’s aspiration to dominate Indian Ocean or even to transform Indian Ocean into India’s Ocean. Contrasting India’s position with that of the US , the article found that the US seeks to be a hegemonic maritime power that is not only dominant in the Atlantic or Pacific, but also in the Indian Ocean. Although it stresses the importance of a cooperative maritime strategy, it finds an unfavorable condition in that regard, i.e the US is still trying to maintain its status as a pre-eminent maritime power and seeking to sustain its strong presence in the Indian Ocean.

9. In conclusion, the article said that although confrontations and conflicts between China, US and India have been predicted in this region, particularly with the rise of China’s maritime power, their different strategic goals may lead to different results. It added that given the China’s policy aims, intent and capability, the PRC cannot afford to challenge either the United States or India. But with the rapid growth of its economic and military power, India is likely to adopt a more assertive maritime presence in the Indian Ocean. Thus, considering that the US wants to maintain its maritime dominance, an India–US potential power struggle in the Indian Ocean is more likely to characterize the Indian Ocean region landscape than the ‘China threat’

10. Significant have been the remarks of the spokesperson of China’s ministry of National Defense admitting [4] on 29.1.2015 that China has plans to conduct escort missions of the naval ships in the Indian Ocean. The PRC in this way seems to justify its naval presence in the Indian Ocean. Senior Colonel Yang Yujun, after being asked a question on the PLAN submarine movements in the Indian Ocean, tried to downplay Chinese naval activities in the region, characterizing them as “normal” and emphasizing that “there is no need to read too much into them.” He added, “China has sent various kinds of naval ships to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast to conduct escort missions since 2008. And in the process, we have notified relevant countries of the escort missions of the PLA naval ships, including the PLA naval submarines. In future, the Chinese military will send different kinds of naval ships to take part in the naval escort missions in accordance with the situation and the requirement to fulfill the task.”

11. Close to China’s admission of its plans to dispatch of naval escort ships to the IOR, unconfirmed reports appeared that the PRC will soon be adding one additional fleet to the three existing ones (the North Sea, East Sea, and South Sea Fleets) it currently operates. This new fleet could be headquartered in Sanya on Hainan Island and project Chinese naval power into the Indian Ocean.[5] If true, this development is bound to have security implications for the IOR.

12. Taking India’s case next, more than 70 percent of India’s liquefied energy supplies travel through the Indian Ocean, making it vital to the country’s energy security. It is therefore natural that for that purpose, India is stepping up efforts to improve bilateral ties with Indian Ocean littorals. They include Indian External Affairs Minister’s recent visits to Maldives and the UAE, the meeting between the Indian Prime Minister and the new Sri Lankan President in New Delhi and the Indian Prime Minister’s impending visits to Sri Lanka and Maldives in March 2015. Also, India and Sri Lanka under President Sirisena have of late agreed in New Delhi to expand their cooperation on defense and security issues. Getting focus now is their maritime security cooperation, including in the trilateral format with Maldives. India is keen to strengthen the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Apparently to counter the likely Chinese challenges in the Indian Ocean, India is considering plans to build seven frigates equipped with stealth features and six nuclear-powered submarines. [6]

13. Washington’s interest in the IOR centers round three imperatives for the US- Securing Indian Ocean for international commerce, avoiding regional conflict on issues of strategic choke points in the IOR- Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca strait, and dealing with Sino-Indian competition in the IOR. [7] The Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR) 2010 of the US Department of Defense had the goals of ensuring open access to the IOR to be achieved through a more integrated approach across civil and military organizations. The Department’s document “ Strategic Choices and Management Review” ( July 2013) stressed the need for US to develop an Indian Ocean policy on the basis of building coalitions with regional allies like Australia, Japan and the Philippines and partners like Vietnam and India. The QDR for 2014 has said that the US will support India’s rise as an increasingly capable actor in the region, and deepen strategic partnership with it including through the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative. It added that “the US will continue efforts to help stabilize Central and Southwest Asia and deepen its engagement in the Indian Ocean region to bolster US rebalance to Asia”.

14. The US follows an “Indo-Pacific” concept as part of its approach towards the IOR; it aims to achieve through implementing the concept, the freedom of navigation and reassurance to allies and partners in the region. But this means differently to India and China. New Delhi views the concept in the background of India’s ‘geographical, historical and political ‘necessity. It displays wariness to China’s expanding engagement in the region. For China, the concept marks creation of a highway connecting Indian and Pacific Oceans which can play a role in transporting much-needed resources. But it is suspicious of US intentions to use the concept for containing China[8].

10. The data given above, give enough hints to the likely shape of future Indian Ocean Region (IOR) scenario. The following conclusions can be drawn:
(a) China’s priority will continue to be on protecting its energy security interests, by way of securing the Sea Lanes of Communications, spreading from the Gulf to the South China Sea. In the short and middle terms, realizing its existing inferior position compared to US maritime power and India’s strategic advantage in the IOR, China may persist with its ‘harmonious sea’ approach. It will shun a military approach and push for ‘constructive engagement’ in the IOR between three powers – the US, China and India, and concentrate on achieving ‘greater space’ in the IOR by way of promoting maritime security cooperation with the Indian Ocean littorals. China’s wish for a maritime code of conduct in the IOR is notable in this context. In strategic terms, China, under perceived conditions of continuance of India’s domination and the US strong presence in the IOR, may intend to project its own power into the region to bring about a balance in its favour to the situation. ’
(b) China’s current fears that the US is trying to contain the PRC by roping in Indian Ocean littorals, under an ‘Indo-Pacific’ framework, might motivate it to woo these littorals through economic and other means so as to keep them away from the US influence. Its drive to build infrastructure in IOR littorals as part of its ‘going global’ strategy, is setting the trend in this regard.
(c) Important is the Chinese analyses that India, with its regional economic and political power rising, may become more assertive in the IOR. At the same time, China tends to believe that India will always maintain its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis other nations and will not gang up with the latter, particularly the US, against the PRC’s interests. Wooing India will therefore be China’s long term endeavor; the PRC’s “Look West” strategy accords primacy to and rebalance ties with India (this idea is being publicized through highly placed Chinese scholars like Wang Jisi).

(d) India’s understanding with President Sirisena led Sri Lanka on defence cooperation and the trilateral format with Maldives, along with its initiatives towards other littorals, could mean the country’s intentions to increase its strategic influence over the IOR, as a counter balance to rise of China’s clout there.

(e) The US links its Indian Ocean policy with its rebalancing approach in Asia, revealing its overall current outlook aimed at securing its strategic interests at a time when China is asserting itself in the region.

11. Of specific interest to the situation in the IOR, are the developing scenario in Sri Lanka and Maldives as the three parties- China, India and the US, jostle for power there. There is no doubt that the PRC’s courting of Sri Lanka will continue during President Sirisena’s rule. The reason is the demand on China arising from its Indian Ocean strategy. The strategy is indeed related to China’s global requirement – it needs access to raw material from resource-rich regions to facilitate the country’s domestic modernization. To facilitate that, it visualizes in particular the necessity to link the country with Europe via Indian Ocean , Central Asia and Middle East and has accordingly announced two grand schemes – New Silk Road and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the first providing new road and rail links through land route and the second aimed at building a network of commercial port facilities in the Indian Ocean. It is natural that China would like to increase its physical presence both along land and sea routes net work in order to ensure safety of energy imports. The countries concerned especially the Indian Ocean littorals on their part have reasons to worry about the strategic component of China’s schemes, which on the surface look only economic.

12. It is natural for China, in the circumstances above, to follow a proactive policy in Sri Lanka. The approach to that policy is two pronged – commercial and strategic. The first aspect is compelling China to woo Sri Lanka economically, The PRC is the biggest creditor to Sri Lanka and has invested heavily in the latter’s infrastructure projects, besides supporting it on human rights issues. Its development loans to Sri Lanka with respect to latter’s projects are very substantial. The Chinese-aided projects in Sri Lanka include US$ 361 million Hambantota port project (first phase over now, 85% Chinese loan), US$ 1.4 billion Colombo port terminal project, first four-lane expressway and National theatre. Sri Lanka has granted Chinese state-owned companies operating rights to four berths at the Hambantota Port once they are completed in 2016. The new President of Sri Lanka has given go ahead to the Colombo port project, though in his election campaign it was told that the project could be abandoned. Colombo says that as per stipulation, the project needs parliament’s approval within three months, which has elapsed now. This is putting a question mark on the project’s implementation. China is Sri Lanka’s biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). China-Sri Lanka bilateral trade exceeded US$ 3 billion in 2013. The latter at the same time has trade deficit with China (US$ 2.4 billion in 2012). China is the destination for less than 2 percent of total Sri Lankan exports. It is Sri Lanka’s second largest source of imports behind India. The two nations are now working towards concluding a Free Trade Agreement between them.

13. Strategically, China considers ties with Sri Lanka as key to the success of its Indian Ocean policy. It realizes that Sri Lanka is the gateway to resource rich regions of Middle East and Central Asia, especially Iran, a vital exporter of oil to China. The commitment of Sri Lanka to join the Chinese Maritime Silk Road initiative indicates the proximity of the strategic aspirations of the two countries and is a reflection of the assimilation of national interests. President Sirisena had indicated prior to his election that his government would “review some of the Chinese projects”. In such a situation, the PRC may fear that with a new regime in charge in Colombo, its erstwhile influence over Sri Lanka might diminish. Beijing’s efforts to fill this gap are therefore likely to intensify from now on. Much would depend on what happens during President Sirisna’s proposed visit to China in March 2015.

14. India’s overwhelming influence over Sri Lanka vis-à-vis China cannot be denied. It comes from India’s huge geographic size, economic strength and global political influence from times immemorial. Strategically important from India’s point of view is the question whether China’s port facilities in Sri Lanka can cater to the needs of the PLA Navy. In 2014, Chinese submarines have made port visits to Sri Lanka twice, raising India’s concerns. China on its part explains that the submarnies’ port call is part of its escort mission undertaken with the permission of Sri Lanka (para 8 above). But India’s concerns seem to be justified as potentials for dual use of ports that service Chinese cargo ships cannot be ignored. President Sirisena’s visit to New Delhi, first foreign destination since he assumed office, saw the two sides signing civil nuclear and defence cooperation agreements. Sri Lanka under President Sirisena, appears to be intent on resetting its ties with India and China, to make them more balanced.

15. Notable are the emerging fresh US perceptions on Sri Lanka under President Sirisena. Welcoming Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Samaraweera to Washington DC, Secretary Kerry has hailed the ‘new directions’ of Colombo after the elections. He has expressed support for a Sri Lanka that is peaceful, democratic, prosperous, inclusive and unified and to the Government’s 100-day programme, The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal has said in Colombo that the US hopes for ‘brighter’ reality for all Sri Lankans, an indication of US unhappiness with the earlier regime. Sri Lanka has been included as part of a 2015 US National Security Strategy where the US Government will assist countries in transition, as pointed out by US National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The Deputy US State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf has praised the ‘commendable’ steps taken by the new Sri Lankan Government to address reconciliation and other long-standing issues.

16. In Maldives also, the three powers- China, the US and India, are engaged in a power play. In a development signifying success of China’s regional aspirations, Maldives has given its support to the former’s 21st century Maritime Silk Route (MSR) initiative. China- Maldives economic cooperation is gaining momentum. The decision to sign the country’s first-ever free trade agreement was made during the first Maldives-China Joint Commission meeting held in Beijing in December 2014. Beijing has also signed a deal to modernize the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport (INIA) in Maldives and an agreement to build Male-Hulhule Bridge which will connect Male with the city’s international airport. Talks are on between Male and Beijing on oil exploration. China-Malidives defence cooperation is progressing. The two countries signed a military aid agreement in 2012. According to reports, China may seek a naval presence in Maldives as part of its strategic stretch in the Indian Ocean. Beijing has denied such reports.[9]President Xi JInping’s visit to Maldives in September 2014 has symbolized the emerging closeness in Beijing-Male ties.
17. India has not lagged behind China in offering assistance to Maldives. India has expressed willingness to cooperate with Maldives in the field of oil exploration. In 2012, India offered to help the Maldives government in its surveillance of its Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends for 200 nautical miles (370 km) from its shores. This will allow Maldives to safeguard its economic and strategic maritime assets. India has also agreed to supply Maldives a state-of-the-art 260-ton fast-attack craft to aid in guarding coastal waters, in addition to providing other defense equipment and setting up of radar systems on all 26 Maldivian atolls. India’s Prime Minister may visit Maldives in March 2015 which could take relations between the two nations further forward.

18. Concerning US role in Maldives, reports suggested [10] that Maldives government is in the process of signing a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the United States which will allow the country to establish a military base in the atoll nation. President Yameen of Maldives has denied such reports.[11]

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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