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Dragon in the Ocean – Part II

China is now the top shipbuilding nation in the world, and the PLA Navy possesses the largest naval fleet in Asia, a possible forerunner to a permanent Indian Ocean Fleet of the future.

Govind Bhattacharjee | New Delhi |

In response to the changing geopolitical environment, India had to revise its maritime strategy in 2015, marking a paradigm shift from the earlier 2007 strategy of “Freedom to Use the Seas”, to “Ensuring Secure Seas”, reflecting a boldness not earlier seen in its maritime strategy.

The new strategy posits India as the ‘net security provider’ for ‘securing’ the region to “shape a favourable and positive maritime environment, for enhancing net security in India’s areas of maritime interest”. This vision was also enunciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015 when he put forward the concept of SAGAR ~ “Security and Growth for All in the Region”.

This strategy also marked an important shift towards the Indo-Pacific region by bringing the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific theatres under one strategic umbrella. In furtherance of this objective, India has built the Chabahar port in Iran, signed an agreement with Seychelles to develop and manage facilities on its Assumption Island and another with Mauritius to develop dual use logistics facilities in the Agalega Island, obtained berthing rights in Duqm Port in Oman and Maputo in Mozambique.

It has also taken up development of the Sittwe Port in Myanmar as part of the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project for building a multi-modal sea, river and road transport corridor for shipment of cargo from the eastern ports of India to Myanmar through Sittwe.

India is building upon its already existing listening post in northern Madagascar and has obtained access to the US naval base in Diego Garcia, and to the French naval bases in Mayotte and Reunion islands. It should now aim to obtain access to the Australian naval base in Cocos (Keeling) Islands to bolster its presence in the region.

Clinging to a stale non-alignment policy has taken us nowhere and we must build on effective partnerships. We already have several such partnerships, like the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia- Pacific and IOR formulated in 2015 or the annual Malabar exercises conducted jointly with US since 1992 and with Japan since 2015.

We must build upon these partnerships further, engage with the small island nations in the IOR and South and West Pacific, and increase the level of bilateral cooperation with IOR countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Japan etc. to build a strong security architecture in the IOR and to successfully project itself as a credible net provider of security in the region.

The only way to contain China’s increasing invasion into India’s sphere of influence is to devise an aggressive counter-strategy to check the Dragon’s increasing footprint in the IOR by vastly increasing the reach of our naval power. The days of benign rhetoric and wallowing in the complacence of our once largest naval fleet in the region are over.

In our competition with China, whosoever yields will lose in terms of economic benefits and security. Unfortunately, the strategy of containing China by reinforcing our own naval strength and partnering with other countries has so far been followed only half-heartedly.

This was seen in India’s refusal to endorse Australia’s participation in the Malabar exercise last year. If the resumption of the quadrilateral dialogue or the Quad between India, the US, Japan and Australia in 2017 had signalled a new beginning for Indian assertiveness in the IOR, today India is being perceived as the weakest link in the Quad.

The apparent reason for objecting to Australia’s participation was respecting Chinese sensitivities, but if India has to show leadership in its own backyard, it needs to show its ability to stand up to the only hegemon in its neighbourhood that cares a tuppence for Indian sensitivities, in order to inspire confidence among other nations of the IOR which are also at the receiving end of Chinese territorial assertions, as demonstrated in the South China Sea.

In his book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and Future of American Power, the American author, Robert Kaplan, had argued that the geopolitics of the twenty-first century will be decided by events in the Indian Ocean rim which is emerging as the new geopolitical centre of the world. While trade in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans has been stagnating for some time, the trade in the IOR has actually been booming.

From geopolitical and strategic perspectives of the 21st century, the security, stability and sustainability of the IOR are increasingly becoming important. Waters of the Indian Ocean reach 28 countries which together account for 35 per cent of the world’s population and 19 per cent of the world’s GDP. 60 per cent of the world’s oil shipments from the Gulf countries to China, Japan and other Asian countries pass through these waters which host 23 of the world’s busiest ports.

The three strategic naval chokepoints at the Strait of Hormuz, Bal-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Malacca, connecting the Indian Ocean Region with the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the South China Sea respectively are all located in the IOR. About 120,000 ships transit its expanse every year, carrying two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments, one-third of bulk cargo traffic and half the world’s container shipments.

An estimated 40 per cent of the world’s offshore oil production comes from the IOR. An attempt to control the Sea Lines of Communications by any country is likely to turn the region into a dangerous flashpoint, but it will be in the interest of many countries, including India and China, to protect their respective sea trades and energy supplies against possible disruptions.

Indeed, the considerations of energy security of the highest energy-consuming country of the world is one reason behind China’s increasing maritime footprints and activities in the IOR ~ a region that supplies 60 per cent of its domestic energy requirements, but the underlying ambition is to become a world power, without which, as a Chinese scholar Ye Zicheng had said, “the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be incomplete”.

This is a theme that reverberates repeatedly throughout the Chinese political discourse. Making China a great maritime power through comprehensive control of the seas is reckoned essential for the achievement of the Chinese dream of becoming a global power. Dominance of the IOR also brings many other ancillary advantages, like mining of the rich sea-bed and resource extraction to fuel domestic growth.

China is currently exploring an area of 10000 sq. kms in the South West Indian Ocean Ridge through its state-controlled China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA), and also exploring the Clarion- Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific. Side by side, it is modernising and upgrading its naval fleet on a massive scale, and is augmenting its indigenous manufacturing capability by empowering its two largest state-owned shipbuilders ~ China State Shipbuilding Corporation and Shipbuilding Industry Corporation through support, technology and financing.

China is now the top shipbuilding nation in the world, and the PLA Navy possesses the largest naval fleet in Asia, a possible forerunner to a permanent Indian Ocean Fleet of the future. In the IOR, it is clearly challenging the supremacy of India with determination, while staunchly refusing to accept that IOR is the ‘backyard of India’.

India is way behind China both in strategy and implementation. Our shipbuilding and defence PSUs lack the energy, innovation, economics of scale and the kind of governmental support that can transform them into effective competitors of their Chinese counterparts.

Our policy towards China has been characterised by timidity and inconsistency all along, and even the strong persona of Prime Minister Modi has failed to overcome these hesitations and match China’s determination and strategy. Unless it wants to give up its leadership of the IOR to China, India must stand up to and face the challenge.

It must take a cue from the ancient Chinese general and philosopher, Sun Tzu, who had said in Art of War, “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”, and leave no stone unturned to subdue the Chinese strategy in the IOR.

(The writer is a commentator. Opinions are personal.)