India, China and the US in Indian Ocean

The Maritime Silk Route and the Chinese Charm Offensive

17 Feb, 2014    ·   4310

Dr Vijay Sakhuja traces the Chinese objectives behind its new maritime strategy towards the Indian Ocean

China appears to be in an overdrive to charm India.  At the recently concluded 17th Annual Dialogue of the Special Representatives of India and China, state councilor Yang Jeichi proposed a dialogue between the two naives on freedom of navigation and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response (HADR).  He also invited India to join the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ which Beijing announced in September 2013.  The above initiatives auger well for India-China relations and set in motion the planned joint celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Panchsheel. 

The Indian Ocean Maritime Dialogue 
The idea of a maritime dialogue is not new and was first proposed by Yang Jeichi himself during his visit to India in 2012. It included joint counter piracy operations and sharing technological knowhow on seabed research. The former emerged in the form of the multi-nation Asian initiative involving China, India, Japan and the Republic of Korea who established an Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) through which international shipping is escorted by their navies to prevent attacks by Somali pirates. However, the Chinese proposal to share technical knowledge of the seabed was received with suspicion given the fears that China would obtain sensitive underwater data which could be used for its submarine operations. 

Freedom of navigation on the sea is a sensitive issue and has been a subject of varying interpretations based on the national understanding of the 1982 Law of the Sea. There is a history of naval incidents between the Chinese and the Indian Navy in the South China Sea in 1958, 2000 and more recently in 2012 when an Indian warship INS Airawat was challenged by the PLA Navy while it was transiting along the Vietnamese coast.  Notwithstanding that, the proposal can be explored and both sides can deliberate to develop a common understanding and can even work on an INCSEA (Incidents at Sea) agreement to prevent ‘close quarter’ situations either in the South China Sea or the Indian Ocean. 

There is an opportunity for the Indian Navy and the PLA Navy to cooperate and develop best operational practices for HADR operations. This can be an extension of their engagement in the HADR exercises under the ADMM Plus (ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus) and both navies had participated in the multinational HADR exercise in Brunei Darussalam in June 2013. 

China and the Maritime Silk Route 
In October 2013, during his visit to Malaysia and Indonesia, President Xi Jinping underscored the ‘shared destiny’ of China and ASEAN members and invited them to join China to build a ‘new maritime silk road’ similar to the ancient Chinese trading route and help accelerate economies of the regional countries. Xi even proposed setting up a China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund to augment maritime-related projects being undertaken by the ASEAN member countries through capacity building. 

However, the ASEAN countries do not appear to be very excited about the Chinese proposal since there are a number of issues that require clarification about the management of the fund, Chinese involvement in these projects, public-private partnership, and above all security issues which undermine Chinese intentions. The Chinese have clarified that the initiative is just an ‘idea’, an ‘open ended platform for cooperation’ and it is open to ‘good suggestions from other countries’.  

China also shared the idea last week with the visiting Sri Lankan foreign minister GL Peiris and expressed its interest in jointly developing Sri Lanka’s maritime economy, connectivity, fisheries, disaster prevention and mitigation and search and rescue assistance at sea. China is already engaged in the development of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.  

The ‘new maritime silk road’ offers a number of opportunities for India which suffers from technological gaps in its maritime infrastructure. It can harness Chinese capability to construct high quality ships, build world class ports, core technologies for marine bio-pharmaceuticals, seawater utilization, offshore wind, sea water and tidal energy, capture and aquaculture fisheries production and offshore equipment manufacturing. This will also help India-ASEAN maritime connectivity initiative which is languishing due to lack of infrastructure.   

However, it is important to point out that the Chinese companies have been barred from participation in India’s maritime infrastructure projects due to security concerns. For instance, the installation of a Chinese made 10-cm S-band doppler radar system imported by the Indian Metrological Department for real-time monsoon predictions was rejected; Chinese encryption devises in systems and assemblies; joint venture in Vizhinjam Deep-sea Container Transshipment Terminal project involving a Chinese company, etc. 

China can be expected to push its idea of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ and win support from a number of countries in the Indian Ocean particularly the small island states who are constrained due to lack of expertise and finances. The ‘Maritime Silk Road’ also helps China to dispel the notion of ‘string of pearls’ strategy, legitimize its engagement in Gwadar and other maritime infrastructure projects along the ‘maritime silk road’.