The Tiger, the Dragon and the Race for Indian Ocean Supremacy

 A race between the two largest Asian military powers, India and China, to gain influence and securitize the Indian Ocean over the last several years has quietly gained steam through a series of moves that will undoubtedly define the power-balance in the region for decades to come.

Control over important shipping lanes, proximity to Middle East energy supplies and access to the “last global economic frontier” that is the African continent, all prime the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) to be both an economic as well as a militarily strategic commodity. 

The Dragon’s Flight

The significant increase in China’s military and strategic positioning over the last decade and a half have been well documented and publicized, particularly those in the South China Sea (SCS). However, the Asian giant’s penetration into the IOR has flown largely under radar. The last few years have seen China strategically position itself, militarily and non-militarily, around a significant portion of the Indian Ocean perimeter from Myanmar in the east to Kenya in the west. While much of this positioning is tied to China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative, the economic and developmental nature of the initiative cloaks the strategically significant impact that this undertaking has and will have.

China’s inroads to Myanmar have been paved by the recent construction of an 800km oil pipeline linking the two nations, by potential Belt Road Initiative (BCI) transportation projects designed to give China direct access to the Indian Ocean, and by the fact that nearly 70% of Myanmar’s arms have been imported from China over the last five years.

In Sri Lanka, state-run Chinese investment companies have subsidized billions of dollars in the development of the ‘Port City’ in the capital of Colombo as well as in the management of the nation’s Hambantota Port which is approximately 10 nautical miles from the main shipping route between Asia and Europe, and for which they just signed a 99 year lease to operate.

The Maldives is a traditional Indian security partner, but in 2017 the Chinese reached an agreement with the Maldivian government to establish a Joint Ocean Observation Station (JOOS) on the Mukunudhoo atoll in the tiny island nation, due east of the Sri Lankan capital. The station will serve as a vantage point on a crucial Indian shipping route. The Chinese also brokered a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Maldivian government around the same time. The establishment of the station, together with China’s previous acquisition of 17 other islands in the same area, has raised concerns among China’s traditional competitors regarding the lack of transparency about the purpose of these acquisitions. Chinese cooperation with the Maldives expanded in early March 2018 when the Chinese sent a combat naval force to the Indian Ocean in what was believed to be a move in support of the pro-Chinese Maldivian president during a declared state-of-emergency.

China’s relations with Pakistan, historically India’s primary security concern, have also warmed of late. As it relates to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), a major component of this improving relationship has been the One Belt One Road (OBOR)-based China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project which has instituted the building of thousands of kilometers of roads connecting the two nations as well as the construction of Gwadar port, a direct point of access to the Arabian Sea and, subsequently, the origin point of the majority of the world’s oil trade coming out of the Arabian peninsula and adjacent countries.

Like its Asian “neighbors” in the IOR, many African nations are engaging with Chinese state-owned groups in similar infrastructure and commercial building projects.  In the last year, Tanzania made a deal with subsidiaries of the same Chinese investment company that is heading the Sri Lankan projects. This project in Tanzania will see an improvement and expansion of the country’s main port in Dar es Salaam, and it comes on the heels of a variety of infrastructure projects that Chinese firms have supported and will continue to support.

In a similar fashion, Tanzania’s neighbor to the north, Kenya, has also been deeply involved in China’s OBOR initiative. The most significant project related to this involvement is the building of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) which includes an excess of three billion dollars in Chinese funding and which will vastly improve the connection between Kenya’s capital of Nairobi and its most viable port in Mombasa. 

East Africa is also the location of the most blatant military-strategic move by the Chinese in the IOR, the establishment of a new military base in Djibouti. This base, China’s first ever beyond the SCS region, also includes a port as well as a free-trade zone. The base provides logistical support for China’s naval fleet, protects its commercial fleet from piracy and other threats in the region, and can harbor as many as 10,000 soldiers at a time.

The Tiger’s Run

India has also done quite a bit of military and strategic maneuvering in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) over the last several years, in keeping with its own rise to the economic and military world stage and its competition with the Chinese in a myriad of different arenas. India’s position within the center of the Indian Ocean provides a natural geostrategic edge in the race for regional control, but that edge is being severely tested by the onslaught of Chinese expansion and development there in recent years. Furthermore, since the early 2000’s Chinese naval ship building capabilities have reached a level of production that far outpaces India. The Chinese have commissioned substantially larger numbers of destroyers, frigates, and nuclear attack submarines, compared to the Indians. Given this turn of events, India has accelerated its efforts to secure its interests in the region through a series of projects and partnerships that sees its presence stretch from Singapore to Oman to the Seychelles.

In 2017, India upgraded their military partnership with Singapore to allow the Indian navy to use Changi Naval Base (CNB) for all logistical purposes anytime they are present in the region including, if necessary, rearmament of its forces. CNB also provides the Indian naval fleet with operational support in the South China Sea (SCS) in addition to the eastern portion of the IOR, and this support will be reciprocal for Singaporean vessels in Indian controlled ports/bases.

India’s recent action in Sri Lanka and its partnership role in the development and the use of Chabahar Port in Iran are both tit-for-tat moves aimed at countering Chinese engagement in those respective areas. In Sri Lanka, a nation with which India has traditionally deep ties, a forty-year agreement was recently reached for India to lease Hambantota airport. This is a move that is primarily being completed as a means of answering China’s developmental lease of the same port and as a direct challenge to what are believed to be China’s non-commercial ambitions in Hambantota.

India’s 2016 trade corridor deal with Afghanistan and Iran for the development and operation of Chabahar Port provides India with a strategic transit path for economic activities that bypasses the need for these countries to go through Pakistan when trading with one another or transporting goods further into Central Asia. More importantly for India, Chabahar’s proximity to the regular oil trade coming out of the Persian Gulf provides geostrategic value for them in the way Gwadar Port does for the Chinese.

India has also been working to solidify its strategic ties with the Sultanate of Oman, in another effort to extend influence to the Gulf. In February 2018, India signed an agreement with Oman that includes an understanding of military cooperation and, more significantly, exclusive military access to the Port of Duqm. Not only does this provide India’s military with significant geostrategic proximity to Persian Gulf shipping lanes, but it also provides them with logistical support for any sort of operation in the northwest IOR, including the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Djibouti, as well as an ease of potential coordination with economic or supply activities in nearby Chabahar.

Perhaps the most significant strategic move that India has made, however, comes with regard to their agreement to invest half a billion dollars and build a military naval installation on Assumption Island in the African nation of Seychelles. Assumption Island, which is among the southern-most points of Seychelles just north of the Comoros and southeast of Dar es Salaam, provides India’s navy with the ability to strategically monitor important shipping routes in the Mozambique Channel.  India notes that this base will allow them to engage in anti-piracy efforts and combat illegal fishing and trafficking, but it will also provide India with a critical launch point for military oversight of Chinese economic and strategic developments in this sub-region of the IOR.

The End Game: Dragon Dominance or Tiger Supremacy?

The race for strategic control of the Indian Ocean Region is undoubtedly underway and is only showing signs of accelerating in the near future. The competition here between the two Asian giants could play out in several different ways as the race continues to grow and evolve through the establishment of new economic developments, building projects and/or strategic military agreements or alliances.

The most immediate (and obvious) strategic concern for India and other Chinese competitors is China’s establishment of their first ‘external’ (i.e. outside of what China considers to be their own sovereign territory) military base in Djibouti. The number of soldiers that this base could reasonably provide, in addition to its logistical potential, makes it a significant launching point from which the Chinese can direct military operations in the western IOR if the need were to arise. As concerning as this Chinese military endeavor is, its overt function allows competitors to prepare and take adequate counter-measures.

Likewise, much of India’s previously discussed movement in the IOR has been transparent to all parties concerned and has been heavily designed to support a naval fleet that Indians hope will allow them to fill the role of regional hegemon in the Indian Ocean. India’s engagement in what are primarily military-supporting endeavors in the IOR clearly demonstrates its intentions there, albeit to the possible detriment of China, Pakistan and other competitors. As such, and as is the case with China’s base in Djibouti, the necessary planning and counter-measures can be taken by China and others as deemed necessary.

The biggest concern that may determine the future of this race lies with the trajectory of strategically ambiguous development and economic endeavors currently being undertaking by both nations, but particularly China. There is uncertainty regarding China’s future plans for several of the investment projects previously mentioned. On the surface many of these Chinese-led initiatives seem fairly benign. However, the lack of transparency surrounding the purpose and function of many of these initiatives raises alarms both for India as well as other nations with a stake in the region despite China’s continual assurances of their peaceful intentions.

There is legitimate concern by several powers, for example, that China may develop their lease of Hambantoda Port into a naval base, given increased Chinese naval activity over the last few years in the region and the historical precedent of China militarizing parcels of land shortly after taking control of them, legally or illegally. Similarly, there have been few details released regarding the Chinese JOOS initiative in the Maldives and what is known about the observatory is that it allegedly parallels one being built in the South China Sea which is designed, at least in part, to serve military applications. The most unsettling move for India, however, may be the potential for a naval base near Gwadar to be built which would provide the Chinese military with direct access to the Arabian Sea and the important shipping lanes there, as well as strategic proximity to the Indian mainland.

Overt Chinese militarization of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is not the only sort of development that has the potential to seriously impact the course of this strategic race. As has been previously touched upon, China’s OBOR initiative has seen it pump billions of dollars of investment into the development of a multitude nations in the IOR and beyond.  Africa alone was promised $60 billion in development funds by Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2015. One result of this influx of investment and aid has been China’s gradual acquisition of a substantial amount influence and ‘soft’ power with dozens of countries in the IOR. Additionally, China also wields a large amount of control and strategic positioning over a continuous series of ports, shipping lanes, roadways and rail lines that directly connect nearly the entire IOR with various points of the Chinese mainland. This essentially gives China uninhibited operational connectivity throughout the entirety of the IOR that can be used in support of commercial and military endeavors alike and, when coupled with the potential for militarization of initiatives noted above, provides the Chinese with the ability to project force throughout the entire IOR.

India, by contrast, lags significantly behind China at this time in metrics of trade, investment and development projects around the IOR, particularly in Africa. While the Indians have had a developmental presence in Africa for many years and the metrics have shown relatively large improvements since the turn of the millennium, much of the focus over the last twenty years has been in the realm of technical assistance and training and, in any case, is not currently of equal comparison to China’s investment in the continent brought about by the OBOR.

India and China are no strangers to one another when it comes to conflict. In 1962, they engaged in the short but violent Sino-Indian War. More recent decades and years have seen the two nations feud over various territorial claims including Arunachal Pradesh since the 1980s and the Doklam dispute as recent as 2017.The nuclear capable nations continue to be cautiously and acutely aware of one another at all times as their respective economic, military, and strategic movements would seem to indicate, and neither has demonstrated a willingness to “play second fiddle” in the multitude of political and strategic arenas in which they are engaged with one another.

In the short-term, both China and India will continue to fortify their strategic positioning in the Indian Ocean Region via a combination of military means and commercial-economic initiatives. As China’s intentions for military development become clearer, and India’s military initiatives continue to increase, the region could decidedly take on an identity of the classic security dilemma. A prolonged security dilemma, on top of a historically fragile Sino-India relationship, could open the doors to the possibility of more conventional naval engagement between the two nations in the IOR, a land-based confrontation along the vast territorial border that they share, or even the introduction of the use of nuclear capabilities to the equation. The next few years will bring more clarity to the picture developing in the Indian Ocean Region and will be critical in determining whether we see a peaceful competition of two rising powers or catastrophic collision of nations hellbent on regional supremacy.