Middle Kingdom

China in the Indian Ocean: Competing Priorities

10 Feb, 2014    ·   4302

DS Rajan says that maritime security interests have come to dominate China’s thinking on the IOR

A very recent (January 2014) naval drill in China conducted by a three-ship Chinese navy squadron has received wide attention in the world media. The country’s largest amphibious Chinese landing ship – Changbaishan – along with two destroyers took part in it. The choice of Lombok Strait near Indonesia as the drill location has been significant as by doing so, Beijing has confirmed that its navy is paying close attention to operating in the East Indian Ocean.

It has to be admitted that the PRC’s strategic focus continues to be on the Pacific and not on the Indian Ocean region. It would however be a folly to ignore the gradually unfolding changes in the Beijing’s perceptions of the IOR’s strategic importance; they are indeed pointers to the future. As for now, Beijing’s principal interest seems to lie in the need to protect the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) along the Indian Ocean, vital for the country’s energy imports. However, official-level articulations on China’s IOR views are gradually gaining intensity, which may culminate in China coming out with a comprehensive Indian Ocean doctrine ultimately.

It is not difficult to trace the connection between changing Chinese perceptions on the IOR and the steady emergence of maritime security interests, marking a new trend since the end of the Cold War. It is a key element of China’s overall national security strategy. It has contributed to a shift in the PRC’s naval objectives - 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 latest Defence White Paper (2013) on “protecting national maritime rights and interests” and “armed forces providing reliable support for China’s interests overseas.” It is clear that the PRC intends to expand the capabilities of its navy, especially to operate abroad.

A series of signals appearing in official statements and observations of authoritative scholars, including in remarks made in the Blue Book of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published in 2013, confirm that maritime security interests have come to dominate China’s thinking on the IOR. They have given enough hints about the likely shape of China’s future Indian Ocean Region (IOR) strategy. Given below is an estimate, and possible regional consequences of responses by two important involved powers, the US and India.

China’s priority will always be on protecting its energy security interests, by way of securing the SLOC, spreading from the Gulf to the South China Sea. In the short and middle-terms, realising 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. In the long-term, China, under perceived conditions of the continuance of India’s domination and strong US presence in the IOR, may intend to project its own power. Beijing may actively work to create alternative energy supply routes, safe from US and Indian challenges.

China’s currently fears that the US is trying to contain the PRC by roping in Indian Ocean littorals within an ‘Indo-Pacific’ framework; this may always influence Chinese strategic thinking. One can expect increased Chinese efforts to woo these littorals through economic and other means. Its drive to build infrastructure in IOR littorals as part of its ‘going global’ strategy is already setting the trend in this regard.

India is expected to influence China’s long-term strategy, as noticed in Chinese analyses so far. India, with its rising regional economic and political power, 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, particularly the US. Wooing India will therefore be China’s long term endeavour; the PRC’s ‘Look west’ strategy accords primacy to rebalancing ties with India (being publicised through highly placed Chinese scholars like Wang Jisi).

The Indian response to China’s Indian Ocean strategy is manifesting in its stepped-up efforts to improve bilateral ties with Indian Ocean littorals. Significant is New Delhi’s participation in multilateral fora like the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) and the Indian Ocean Naval symposium. The US has reportedly been invited to join the IOR-ARC.

Washington’s IOR strategy is based on three imperatives - securing the 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 (‘Defining US Indian Ocean Strategy’, The Washington Quarterly, Spring 2012, published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington). The US Defence Department’s document ‘Strategic Choices and Management Review’ ( July 2013) has stressed the need for the 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. Washington is currently promoting an ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept, which connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans as part of its approach towards the IOR.

The geostrategic conditions in the IOR are still developing. The current trends indicate that the three main powers involved – India, China and the US - have their own priorities with potential for conflict. This may not be conducive to the establishment of regional peace and prosperity, a dream of all concerned nations.