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China gets serious in the Indian Ocean

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Shannon Renfroe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For India’s prestige and strategic image, the so-called Doklam standoff last year ended in a tactical advantage. Chinese troops and road construction teams had to withdraw from a contested corner at the Bhutan-China border. See our column of August 2017. Since, Indian armed forces have seemed to be able and willing to oppose Chinese attempts to challenge the common border in the Himalayans. The Doklam plateau is of strategic importance for India because it helps to secure the territorial corridor to India’s most Eastern States. But overall it is marginal compared to the growing competition between the two Asian giants for the control over the Indian Ocean. This “battle field” is to be tackled by naval forces, not armies. Most recent figures are telling: Leaving the US Navy build-up outside any comparison, China’s development of naval forces has overtaken naval forces of all other countries in the world. The Chinese build-up during the years 2014 to 2018 alone is larger measured in fleet tonnage than the total naval forces of all other countries, except of Japan and the UK. The Indian naval build-up in particular is being left behind by the Chinese. Current figures for relevant naval vessels show China’s supremacy between the two with ratios of 3 to 1 or 4 to 1, according to the type of vessels. This puts a question mark on India’s ability to impose its strategic control over the Indian Ocean. India’s geographic position in that Ocean is dominant like that of no other country whereas China, in principle, has not one single yard of sea coast bordering the Indian Ocean under its sovereign control. But China, having become the world’s largest trading nation, has a fundamental strategic interest in securing the main trading routes, be they on land or on sea. The most telling Chinese initiative, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims at renewing the ancient “Silk Road” for the benefit of China’s trade with the world, is therefore composed of land lines and maritime lines. Maritime lines which connect with Europe and Africa, including the Persian Gulf area, run through the Indian Ocean. Major deep sea ports in Pakistan, Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka have become Chinese ports, and in Djibouti, the Chinese have developed their first fully fledged out-of-area military base. Still China is far behind the USA as a global naval power, but it has dramatically overtaken India in the latter’s “own lake”, the Indian Ocean. The dynamics of further build-up of naval forces continues to be at China’s advantage, and this by far and more and more. We have repeatedly stated, in this column, that India’s Prime Minister Modi has, since his taking office, systematically taken the right strategic decisions in his international options. But right decisions require material means for the implementation in order to become relevant. But the Union’s Budget 2018, most probably the last one before the next General Elections in India set for May 2019, does not prioritize defence. Loyal to his absolute priority, the country’s development, PM Modi has again put domestic infrastructure on top of his budgetary demands. It is certainly not the wrong decision, because it reflects the country’s material capacities, but it leaves once again the strategic necessities underfunded. The growth prospects for the current Financial Year indicate for the second time in recent years a slightly higher growth figure for the Indian economy than the Chinese. But it still lacks necessary sustainable dynamics of growth for a fundamental change in the race between India and China for the strategic control of the Indian Ocean. Against this background, the leaders of India and China, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, met in Wuhan, China, on 27th April 2018 in a so-called “informal summit”. We do not know what the leaders discussed in private meetings. What we know is that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs published the Prime Minister’s speech held during Delegation Level Talks. That was a sobering speech. The Prime Minister referred to the 1600 years, out of the past 2000 years, when China and India represented 50 percent of world economy and had, according to Modi, a “positive impact in every region of the world”. Let us ignore, for a moment, the fact that global interdependence started with European colonial powers genuinely having an impact “in every region of the world”, which was clearly after the end of pretended “global domination” by India and China. Turning to the near future, then, the Prime Minister expressed the view that India and China “can play a very positive role for peace, stability and prosperity in the world.” This can only be taken seriously, if we understand his words as referring to a more distant future, for in current affairs it is of striking clarity that neither China nor India plays any significant role in the handling let alone solving of any of the world’s burning conflicts. The most urgent place for China to get involved in a spirit of “a very big positive role for peace and stability” would be the nuclear threat coming out of North Korea. In fact, China would be the only relevant power able to make the North Korean Government change its nuclear policies. Instead, it leaves the handling to American rhetoric and concentrates its economic and military power projection on the Indian Ocean, ostensibly assured by PM Modi’s rhetoric that he does not oppose China’s growing influence in its own back yard, despite earlier courageous steps to ascertain India’s interests in its immediate neighbourhood. The most recent Indian moves to appease Chinese expansion seem to indicate a spirit in Delhi of strategic isolation. No thought about strategic alternatives. No thought about Europe, possibly with good reasons. Europe should see its interest in supporting India in its endeavours, but seems to lack means and a vision for intervening in the competition between the Asian Giants. At least, the USA has recognised its interest in partnering with India against Chinese expansion and is reviving earlier promises of a strategic partnership. On the conceptual level, the use of the relatively new strategic term of “Indo-Pacific” as opposed to the China-centred “Asian-Pacific” may be seen as a sign of this policy. For the Indian leadership, however, nothing can replace its own assertive action for the defence of its interests. One year away from his possible re-election, Modi has not found the appropriate language, let alone action, in international affairs that is so characteristic for his leadership in domestic affairs. He may miss opportunities, and so does Europe.

11th May 2018 / Philippe Welti

(Sources and references: International Institute for Strategic Affairs, IISS, Military Balance+, London 2018; India Global Business, India Incorporated, London 2018)

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