Written by C Uday Bhaskar.

On December 14th Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined India’s maritime ambitions at the commissioning ceremony of the INS Kalvari, the first in a new generation of French designed but indigenously built Scorpene-class attack submarines, destined for active service with the Indian Navy after 2020. In the speech, Modi displayed commendable fluency and grasp over the fine-print of the Indian Ocean and is indicative of the increased focus on maritime and naval affairs that New Delhi has exuded in recent years.

The overriding and abiding challenge for India’s aspirations  in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) and the realization of the Modi acronym – SAGAR  (Security and Growth for all in the Region) will depend decreasingly to a large extent on the Chinese footprint and intent in this, India’s strategic backyard.

China’s presence and footprint in South Asia is likely to grow over the next five years and Beijing may feel encouraged to assertively display its comprehensive national power. The strategic imponderable is how this power will be utilized. For the greater common good or in defiance of  the  prevailing status quo?

In the last week, Beijing has dropped anchor in Hambantota, the Sri Lankan port astride the Indian Ocean, and, earlier this year, China set up its first overseas military base in Djibouti close to the vital strategic waterways that lie along the Horn of Africa.

Why has China now taken an interest in the India Ocean Region?  To briefly recall the big picture regarding South Asia’s maritime domain, between 1945 to 1991, the Indian Ocean  was, with the exception of naval clashes during the Indo-Pakistani wars (1947, 1965 and 1971), a  dormant strategic arena. Compared to the Persian Gulf or the North Atlantic, the IOR fell well below the median strategic relevance in the  context of the Cold War. During these five decades of brinkmanship, the global maritime focus was overwhelming shaped, by the geographical locations of the participants the United States and Soviet Union.

As a result, not including the Soviet Union’s Indian Ocean Squadron or the 1971 deployment of the Enterprise carrier group to East Pakistan (Bangladesh),  South Asia was not a strategic priority.

Since 1991 and especially since 2000, we’ve seen a significant shift towards South and East Asia in the post-Cold War years, symbolized in the emergence of the phrase, ‘Indo-Pacific’.

As the economic relevance of Asia began to rise, powered by the growth of China and India so too did the Indian Ocean Region. Over the next decade,  the trade dependency of major economies in east, southeast and south Asia increased in a visible manner and two further phrases were introduced to the regional security lexicon.

In 2003 then President Hu Jintao spoke about the ‘Malacca Dilemma’ – being reference to China’s high dependency and thus vulnerability, to hydrocarbon imports from the Persian Gulf.  This was followed with the resurrection of the centuries old ‘Silk Route’ that became under Xi Jinping the New Silk Road. This referenced the increasingly crowded sea lanes that stretched from the Straits of Hormuz through Malacca and  onward towards ASEAN and China’s Pacific coast.

What both these phrases hinted was that Beijing increasingly view the IOR as an area of major importance to China’s regional security.

The entry of Chinese naval ships in December 2008  into the IOR as part an anti-piracy effort was an event of  deep strategic importance for India and this has been corroborated  by more recent events: Firstly, the setting up of a Chinese military facility in Djibouti;  and, secondly, the priority accorded to the OBOR (One Belt- One Road)  by  President Xi Jinping at his ‘coronation’ speech at the 19th Party Congress in October.

In dispatching the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa utilizing amphibious assault ships, from the southern port of Zhanjiang, China has taken a significant step in enhancing its  trans-border military footprint in the Indian Ocean.  A permanent Chinese military presence in Djibouti marks the first overseas military base for Beijing in centuries and the strategic location of Djibouti in proximity of the Red Sea.

As this base develops, in the coming years this will make China a credible Indian Ocean power with all the attendant implications and with a high degree of salience for India.

It is instructive that Beijing  embarked upon  its  Djibouti initiative even as India,  the United States and Japan were commencing the operational phase of  their joint naval exercise, Malabar 2017. The image of three aircraft carriers (the USS Nimitz, INS Vikramaditya and Japan’s Izumo)  operating in tandem in the Indian Ocean with a PLAN surface group en route to Djibouti, may well be the abiding template for the  Indian Ocean  in the years ahead.

China’s  public narrative marks December 2008 as a historic moment when Beijing sent three naval ships to join the  international  anti-piracy effort off the coast of Somalia. For the Chinese naval professional, there was a certain symbolism in transiting the Straits of Malacca. The Chinese military base in Djibouti, when fully established and with appropriate assets,  will be yet another date that China will mark with pride.

The logic from the Chinese perspective is compelling – to break out of the US-shaped military constraints along its Pacific Ocean seaboard – and gain unbridled access to the Indian Ocean.

Concerning the second major development of 2017 with equal relevance to New Delhi,  is the manner in which Xi Jinping has framed the OBOR initiative. It may be recalled that Beijing held a major summit meeting to unveil the OBOR in May 2017 and India was the only major nation that chose not to participate.  This decision was arrived at  by Narendra Modi after due consideration, since Beijing was seen as indifferent to the Indian sensitivity about the disputed territory of Kashmir through which one strand of the OBOR will traverse.

The priority accorded to  OBOR was reflected in the speech of President Xi Jinping  at the 19th  Party Congress. In no other project has Xi, save for his anti-corruption purge, gas injected such political capital at so great a risk. If India remains opposed to joining One Belt One Road and the priority with which Xi has accorded this macro-connectivity project,  as part of realizing the China Dream, the under-currents of tension  and related political-military dissonance between Delhi and Beijing will be palpable over the next few years.

India’s OBOR dissonance is a factor that  could have potentially discordant   strategic consequences across the Indo-Pacific region. Particularly if the United States, Japan and  perhaps even Australia or Singapore come together in a naval partnership intended to balance China’s influence across the region.

China’s presence and footprint in South Asia is likely to grow over the next five years and Beijing may feel encouraged to assertively display its comprehensive national power. The strategic imponderable is how this power will be utilized. For the greater common good or in defiance of  the  prevailing status quo?  Will Beijing  agree to become a stakeholder in  Narendra Modi’s SAGAR vision? Or are we on the cusp of a new era of Great Power rivalry in South Asia?

C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and has been reposted with the permission of the author. Image credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.

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