Ranjit B Rai
Vice President Indian Maritime Foundation
Former DNI and DNO in the Indian Navy
Small contentious issues in history are harbingers that tend to shape the larger power plays between nations. The naked truth in international affairs as articulated by strategist Paul Kennedy, is that India and China are two rising military and economic powers who will cooperate with each other for trade, and in competition for the same markets and influence, in the coming decades. Such countries are dubbed ‘competitive friendly enemies’. China is India’s largest trading partner, and has entered the Indian Ocean region with its PLA Navy via anti piracy patrols. It has also planted its footprint in India’s neighbourhood and Africa, with its chequebook diplomacy. Pakistan and China are proclaimed all weather friends, and China has built the deep-water port at Gwadar, and plans to transfer military supplies and nuclear plants to Pakistan.
Recent incidents at the naval encirclement of India, at Hambantota and Gwadar, and possibly Bangladesh, dubbed as China’s ‘string of pearls,’ put an end to the rapidly improving relations with India. China dismissed the theory, arguing that India built ports with ADB and World Bank loans, which some developing countries find difficult to obtain. China’s naval analyst, Zhang Ming, contends that India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands could be used as a ‘metal chain’ to block Chinese access to the Straits of Malacca, known as China’s ‘Malacca Dilemma’ and argues India is building an ‘Iron Curtain’ with its influence in the Indian Ocean islands, and ganging up with US on a defense framework. During the Second World War the Japanese built airfields in the Andaman Islands, and China worries that India could emulate this strategy, as well.
Ray Cline, a former Deputy Director of the CIA, had predicted that nations with geography and population would gain ascendancy in the 21st century. He juxtaposed it with maritime strategist Mahan’s prediction that the future may well be decided on the waters of the Indian Ocean. The first signals came when India and China clashed in Bahrain on 2 June 2010, at the monthly SHADE (Shared Awareness and De confliction) anti-piracy conference jointly chaired by the EU and US-led Combined Maritime Force. India stalled China’s bid for co-chairmanship. All 18 naval delegates, Interpol, and shipping reps around the table which have ships deployed and interests for anti piracy patrols in the Horn of Aden, supported China’s long standing bid, but the Indian delegate, Deepak Bisht, was the lone objector. He stated that before China takes the chair, the terms of the reference of chairmanship of SHADE needed to be laid down. Senior Col, Zhou Bo PLA(N), was taken aback.
A visibly surprised Chairman, Cmde Adrain Vander Linde, the EU Task Force Commodore from the Netherlands, asked if India wished to bid for a rotating chair. Only then, would a subcommittee attempt the terms of reference. India’s delegate contented, India would consider the option to chair only if India knew the terms, and this upturned China’s bid, which was accepted at the last meeting. Murmurs round the table were heard, as this writer was present with Foreign Service reps in the audience. India had successfully blocked China on this minor issue.
Currently the IMO has marked a 400-mile International Recognised Transit Corridor (IRTC) off Aden for the safe transit of ships to and from the Red Sea. Indian Navy’s single ship deployment on patrol since 2008 (presently INS Bhahmaputra) has successfully escorted 1,000 Indian and other flagged ships, and INS Brahmaputra is on station. The Navy promulgates the convoy schedule through India’s DG Shipping, as on 2 June, 17 ships were in captivity in Somali waters. Russia plans to replace the Udaloy-class guided-missile destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov that stormed and rescued MV Moscow University by Admiral Levchenko Neustrashimy and Yaroslav Mudry. Dutch Defence Minister, Eimert van Middelkoop, announced its Navy will deploy a submarine in the area and Singapore has increased its patrol strength with two Puma helicopters.
Unwritten in China’s bid is an attempt to break up the 400-mile IRTC into patches, and allocate it to national navies amounting to parcelling the Indian Ocean. China could stipulate Chairmanship criteria to make number of ships multiplied by hours on patrol to count and India may not qualify with one ship on patrol.
The Chinese and Indian swords are sheathed for the time being, but India has to be prepared for the Pearls versus the Iron Curtain competition. India has banned Chinese firms from partaking in projects and placed restrictions on Huawei, which has supplied communications gear to India’s mobile operators. India has geography and a large young population on its side and will have to cope with the meteoric rise of China. It has been said, ‘India is like boiling water, steam and froth on top but rather calm below’. ‘China is like boiling oil, calm above but violent and seething below.’ If an eruption does take place in one nation, it could be violent. The jury is out whether the Chinese top down approach will prevail over India’s rather slower and democratic bottom-up approach. But the competition for influence in the Indian Ocean region has begun.