Rivals and partners in difficult waters

(To Enrico Magnani)

India and China are the two major Asian powers and among the most important countries in the world. Their relationships are complex and difficult. Although the armed forces of the two nations clash in brief, albeit violent, skirmishes on the mountainous borders of the Himalayas, they are both part of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), a very important economic center and political bloc with extensive contacts (India's exports to China are about $ 21,25 billion and its imports from China are about $ 94,16 billion). But at the same time they are involved in a tough rivalry and game of influences, which in an important part takes place around the geostrategic space of the Indian Ocean (and its waters and surrounding countries).

The Indian Ocean is a region of great strategic importance due to the resources it hosts, the trade routes that cross it and because it contains some of the most important maritime crossing points in the world.1. For India and China it is a region of vital importance to their interests, which has led them to develop strategies to assert their presence, influence and prevalence in this geographical area. As a result, this exacerbated already existing geostrategic competition and the two states increased their efforts to establish naval bases, consolidate alliances with coastal countries to protect their areas of influence and develop a maritime force capable of confronting the other side. For this reason, the Indian Ocean appears to be one of the main areas of the rivalry between India and China.

Geographically speaking, the Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world, stretching from the east coast of Africa to the west coast of Australia. This region has acquired strategic importance and one of the reasons for this is the growing competition between India and China to assert its leadership in this geographical area. The Indian Ocean region is vital for the international maritime trade that passes through it, the procurement of resources such as oil, the crossing points it contains and the maritime communication lines present on it.

In general terms, India and China have two different strategies and approaches, which have intrinsic elements of friction. India intends to establish itself as a regional leader and security provider. While China would try to protect its own New Silk Road and its maritime lines of communication through a strategy labeled as the "string of pearls", a network of friendly states that make it possible to establish economic and military ties with Beijing.

The geostrategic importance of the Indian Ocean has grown in intensity due to the economic growth of Asian countries as a whole, in particular China; it is coupled with the rise of India as one of the most important coastal states in the region, and a greater US presence in Asia-Pacific to contain Beijing.

As mentioned, for India and China, this region is vital. For India, foreign trade through its maritime communication lines in the region accounted for 43,4% of its GDP in 2018. Furthermore, it depends on this area for 80% of its oil supply, being the third oil consumer in the world. For China, the region is even more essential, as virtually all of its maritime trade passes through it. Therefore, the Indian Ocean is a vital region for China's interests. This area is becoming the epicenter of the geostrategic rivalry between India, now the sixth largest economy in the world, and China.

So in Beijing the growing presence (and power) of India is viewed with concern, since, as mentioned above, this region is of vital importance for its trade, supply of resources and their geopolitical ambitions.

After decades of invasion and interference by European powers between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, what is known as the "century of humiliation", China is establishing itself as a new world power in the economic and military fields. According to the World Bank, it is now the second largest economy in the world in terms of GDP, only behind the US (even if the structural fragilities of its economy risk exploding and substantially slowing down growth and the loss of that position).

Driven by strong nationalism, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China is using its economic growth to return to "Greater China", a concept linked to the geography of the country's imagination, under which Beijing would claim the territories usurped by colonial powers during the nineteenth century and implement the setting of the Heartland theory2. But, as an emerging revisionist power seeking to establish a new position in the international order, China needs to ensure a secure supply of energy resources.

Control of maritime lines of communication is critical to maintaining international trade and preserving a global role. This imperative has prompted Beijing to focus its attention in recent years on the oceans and to expand its maritime military capabilities, since the establishment of the PRC, focused only on coastal defense, towards deep waters. Since the South China Sea, adjacent to its territory, imposes some limitations due to territorial disputes involving several states and the presence of the United States, China has partially refocused its eyes on the Indian Ocean to guarantee its geopolitical interests.

As mentioned above, China's interests in this region are to secure the supply of resources, maintain trade routes and develop Maritime Silk Road, with which it intends to challenge Western dominance on international markets and in the Indo-Pacific region. Therefore, China's main objective in this area is to protect its maritime communication lines and for this Beijing has developed a strategy that has been called the "Pearl Necklace" by several analysts. Under this strategy, China will seek to increase its military, economic and diplomatic influence in the region through the development of infrastructure and the establishment of alliances with the coastal countries of the Indian Ocean.

In the Horn of Africa, China established its first military base outside its territory in Djibouti in 2016. In this way it has increased its presence in an area of ​​vital strategic importance, as the Bab el-Mandeb Strait is located there at the entrance to the Red Sea and the route connecting Asia with Europe via the Suez Canal. In addition, China makes large investments with African countries on the Indian Ocean coast, in particular Kenya and South Africa.

This would allow for greater Chinese influence in the Mozambique Channel area, one of the strategic bottlenecks in the Indian Ocean region.

Another vital component of the Chinese strategy is the construction of Gwadar port in Pakistan, in which China has invested heavily as part of the Sino-Pakistani Economic Corridor (CPEC). Located in a region of great strategic value between the Middle East, Pakistan and Central Asia; the port directly connects the Chinese territory with the Indian Ocean through highways and railways.

However, relations between Pakistan and China are subject to various turbulence, and the complicated political life of Islamabad is an element of uncertainty for the Beijing strategy, together with the open situation of Afghanistan, they represent a pending and unresolved threat to the full development of the country. CPEC.

China has also established economic ties with the Maldives, a country that has joined the initiative New Silk Road in 2014. These islands represent an important hub of the geostrategic competition between India and China. In 2018, the candidate most favorable to Indian interests won the presidential election, however, considering that Chinese investments account for 80% of the Maldives' debt, it is very likely that Beijing will continue to maintain its influence.

Beijing also maintains a strong presence in Sri Lanka. In this country he acquired the port of Hambantota. This position not only serves to control merchant ships bound for China, but also allows for monitoring of India's movements in the area. In addition, it can maintain a reserve military force in the event of a conflict.

The recent crisis (now political, the consequence of a mad economic management) in Sri Lanka is closely followed by Beijing, worried about losing an important element of the “Pearl Necklace”.

China is also present in Chittagong, the largest port in Bangladesh, where it invested in structures and warehouses for merchant ships and participated, as part of the improvement of the national network of communication infrastructures, in the construction of the Karnaphuli tunnel (aka 'Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Tunnel' is an underwater tunnel under construction in the city port of Chattogram, under the Karnaphuli River)

Chinese expansion has also materialized in Myanmar, particularly in the coastal city of Kyaukpyu in the Bay of Bengal, which appears to be one of the most critical sub-areas of the Indian Ocean. There, since 2016, China has gained access from the military government to develop a special economic zone and build a port.

By establishing land connections between these premises and the Chinese territory, Beijing would be able to reduce its dependence on the Strait of Malacca for gas and oil imports. Through it, Beijing would seek to control ships passing through the Bay of Bengal towards the Strait of Malacca.

China is seeking to develop surveillance operations near the Cocos / Keeling Islands (Australian Federal Territory)3 and / or Indonesia, another state that aspires to join the BRICS.

Finally, the "Pearl Necklace" stretches across the South China Sea to the coast of the Asian country. Here, the island of Hainan constitutes a very important Chinese military base and the first element of this economic and security architecture of Beijing's strategy.

Because of its geographical position in the Rimland4, India represents an important strategic pivot, critical for China's penetration to the sea.

While history links India to Central Asia, geography drives New Delhi to the Indian Ocean. It is the largest coastal state in this region, and is strategically located between the sea routes that join the Strait of Malacca, Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb; three of the most important sea passages in the world. India perceives itself as the most important state in the Indian Ocean, so it feels destined to be the natural leader of the region. India perceives these waters as part of its territory and its maritime border; that is, the "Indian Ocean" rather than the Indian Ocean. Due to this geostrategic vision, India is hostile to the presence of external actors in the region, especially China. The position of India can be described as the application of its own Monroe Doctrine5, which assumes that the presence of external actors is illegitimate and that littoral states must trust India for their safety and protection. Therefore, India aspires to become the regional leader ensuring the safety of the coastal states of the region. To pursue this goal, India has taken a series of internal and external actions to strengthen its position in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi has several major ports and 200 minor ports on its territory. But, with this in mind, he initiated a plan, called "Sagarmala"6, which is expected to double the number of major ports in the country. Furthermore, it should be noted that India is the third country with the highest military spending in the world (72,9 billion dollars in 2020).

India's diplomatic strategy is focused on improving its relations with countries such as the Maldives and Sri Lanka and preventing them from falling into the Chinese sphere of influence. As for the concrete steps taken, India has entered into an alliance with Iran, a country with which it helped develop the first phase of the construction of the port of Chabahar (Iranian Balucsitan). Site of great strategic importance due to its position near the Strait of Hormuz, this port is of great importance for India. It would not only be present on one of the most important sea routes in the region, but it would also allow it to control the presence of Chinese ships in the area, as it is located only 72 kilometers from the already named port of Gwadar, managed by Beijing.

With similar goals, India has acquired control of the Port of Duqm in Oman, which can provide logistical support to its military vessels in this area, as well as give it access to the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. All this also allows New Delhi to strengthen its maritime communication lines.

India has also established links with Indonesia. Both countries have reached an agreement for India to acquire the port of Sabang, which is vital due to its proximity to the Strait of Malacca. Indonesia has stated that it does not want to join the Chinese New Silk Road, so it can become an important ally for India. Likewise, New Delhi has extended its influence on the African coast of the Indian Ocean. Together with Japan, in 2017 it launched the AAGC (Asia-Africa Growth Corridor) initiative to promote infrastructure development and links between African countries, India and Japan. On the defensive front, a presence in the region would allow India to protect its investments and fight piracy near the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Finally, India has established its presence in the Seychelles and Madagascar. In the first, an agreement was signed in 2015 under which India would help create a coast guard in support of the fight against piracy and the control of maritime traffic. In the second, it installed a radar to act as a preventive system and early recognition of maritime traffic in a region of great importance, since the Mozambique Channel runs through it, one of the most important bottlenecks in the Indian Ocean.

As mentioned above, both strategies collide in the same geographic space, due to the growing geostrategic competition between the two countries to establish their dominance. To understand this better, the question of how India and China perceive each other is fundamental.

From India's point of view, China's actions, especially the "String of Pearls", cause New Delhi to feel that Beijing is trying to surround it. Therefore, India perceives that the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean is not only to pursue its economic interests but is also intended to leave India unable to extend its influence in the region. This is exacerbated by the growing ties between China and Pakistan (India's mortal enemy). Given its great rivalry with Islamabad, this alliance poses a serious threat to India, because, among other things, with the help of China, Pakistan is modernizing its naval strength, albeit not to a degree that pose a serious threat to the clearly more powerful Indian Navy.

In short, there is a perception that China seeks to establish its maritime power in the Indian Ocean in order to become a hegemonic player in Asia, and this to the detriment of India's interests. On the other hand, China does not share India's image of itself as a leader in the region. For Beijing, this image of a regional leader is not reflected in the status of power it has, and it views India as falling short of other nations with a presence in Asia such as Russia and Japan. It could be argued that while India sees China as a major threat, Beijing's perception of New Delhi, despite having to be monitored and countered to prevent it from growing, is lower. Furthermore, China argues that India and other littoral states have a misperception of the "String of Pearls" strategy. Beijing says its only intention is to protect its shipping lines of communication and trade routes, repeating the same karma with all other countries in the world that look suspiciously at China's activism.

It should be noted that China is very dependent on the safety of these waters for the arrival of resources, due to the existence of the so-called "Malacca dilemma"7. This means a great reliance on the security conditions around the Strait of Malacca for resource procurement and international trade, which causes Beijing to make great efforts to protect this area.

For Chinese strategists, the protection of maritime communication lines is a top priority. With this in mind, it can be argued that there is a security dilemma between India and China, and for this reason one state's actions to increase its security can be seen as a threat by other states, making them feel less secure, and making them feel less secure. so that they also try to increase their safety. Although China's actions were only aimed at trying to increase its security, according to Beijing's statements, India believes its security has been diminished by the Chinese presence.

Therefore, New Delhi strengthens its military and economic presence in the region, which makes China fear the possibility of a blocking of its trade routes, causing it to increase its military capabilities in the region. This militarization cycle is exacerbated by the re-emergence of the anarchic nature of the international system and by the uncertainty and distrust of the actions of the other party it generates.

As for the developments of this rivalry, both states have increased their military might and their economic and diplomatic influence in the region. Some analysts point out that India and China have tried to build a geopolitical barrier against the other side.

Beijing has increased its naval presence around Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan and South Africa. Over the past three decades, Chinese defense documents have placed increasing emphasis on military projections to the Indian Ocean. One of the objectives is to increase the ability to stop or mitigate possible disruptions to trade with China and to be able to deal with the United States and / or India in the event of a serious conflict.

Furthermore, the increase in Chinese economic, military and diplomatic ties with India's neighbors such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives can be seen as a way to isolate New Delhi. It appears that Beijing is trying to establish a stable link between Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal to surround India. For all these reasons, it can be argued that China's strategy towards India is to contain the dynamism of New Delhi by trying to establish a dominant position in the Indian Ocean region.

For its part, India is responding to China with a similar approach, attempting to circumvent the "Pearl's Thread" progressively established by Beijing.

It is important to point out the geographical advantage that India has in the region. While China relies on its allies and bases offshore for access to the Indian Ocean, the Indian territory connects it directly to these waters. This advantage helps balance the challenge despite India's military inferiority to China. With the advantage of geographic location, India has strengthened its naval bases in the Indian Ocean, making the country more capable of disrupting China's maritime communication lines between the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca. It also expanded its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, attempting to establish dominance in the Bay of Bengal. In addition, since 1995 the Indian Navy has carried out naval operations in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea with several regional and other partners (United States, France, Australia).

In the latter, China currently has territorial claims, so the increased Indian presence in the area can be seen as a threat from Beijing. In addition, India is developing security ties with Vietnam. Hanoi views with great concern the rise of Chinese military power and in particular the role played by the island of Hainan, dangerously close to the heart of the country, around the Gulf of Tonkin. With Vietnam on its side, New Delhi reacted to China for its growing ties to Pakistan. In the realm of maritime military force, India spends less on naval capabilities than its allies and competitors in the Indian Ocean. However, the country began to understand the need to increase its naval power. India has stated that it aspires to have a maritime force of 200 ships by 2027, developing a substantial force of aircraft carriers (at least three), as well as modernizing its submarine fleet and planning the acquisition of SSBN.

These actions to increase its strategic autonomy were complemented by an external power balance maneuver within the framework of the Quad alliance, made up of India, the United States, Japan and Australia. This is intended to strengthen cooperation on security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, but also to balance power against China's increased presence in the region. For this reason, India's actions in the Indian Ocean should be seen as part of an engagement strategy that combines containment and commitment. However, New Delhi appears reluctant to accept the US request to turn the Quad into a reissue of SEATO8 in an anti-Chinese instrument, it is the indication that despite the rivalries with China, India does not seem oriented to extreme (for the moment) relations with Beijing, also given the importance of economic exchanges.

In conclusion, the strategic rivalry between China and India is developing through a series of actions and negotiations put in place by each country to impose its own dominance and deny the counterpart that establishes its power and influence. The rise of both countries in the international arena has prompted both to focus their attention on the oceans to support their growth. This situation relates the current geopolitical scenario in the Indian Ocean with the theory of Sea Power9. In particular, two elements of Mahan's theory help to understand this geostrategic rivalry: First, ensure and protect the flow of resources through the maritime force. The security of their respective maritime lines of communication was one of the main reasons and justifications for India and China to increase their naval presence in this region; secondly, the creation of bases to establish maritime power it is an integral element of these programs, with consequences on the regional diplomatic scene.

With this in mind, India and China have established bases and assisted various port authorities in the Indian Ocean with the aim of guaranteeing their interests and establishing their maritime power in these waters; and it is expected that in the next few years this competition will continue to establish new bases and ports in the region.

Given the importance that the Indian Ocean represents for both countries, India and China have implemented a series of initiatives that have increased their mutual geostrategic rivalry to establish their dominance and influence in this region. This has led to a competition between the two to establish military, economic and diplomatic alliances with the countries of the area, as well as an increase in maritime military capabilities and the establishment of bases in this geographical region. This rivalry, at the moment, appears much less intense and unstable than other regional confrontations, such as that between India and Pakistan. However, it can be said that a strong geopolitical competition is underway between India and China to secure their interests in the region and that this will last for the next few years.


1 The Indian Ocean is essential for global maritime balance because it contains some of the most important sea crossing points in the world. Specifically, there are four and they are: 1) Bab el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden; 2) the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important sea routes in the world; 3) the Strait of Hormuz, the only passage from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean, and 4) the Mozambique Channel, an important commercial transit route between the Cape of Good Hope, the Middle East and Asia (and from Good Hope to Atlantic).

2 The Heartland theory, developed by geographer John Mackinder (1861-1947), establishes that whoever controls the area between Central Asia, Central Russia and Siberia has a privileged position in front of the domination of the rest of Europe and Asia , and potentially world domination.

3 The Cocos / Keeling Islands have been seen by the US for years as a possible strategic surveillance site aimed at monitoring Beijing's air and naval activities in the area; given the strengthened security ties between Washington and Canberra, this option looks very realistic in the medium term. In the recent past, the possibility that it had appeared closer in the context of the withdrawal of the hypothesized eviction of the US presence in the Chagos Islands, British territory in the Indian Ocean, due to the claims of sovereignty of the Maldives; now this option seems weakened, but China's growing military activity in the region keeps Cocos / Keeling as an important outpost of Beijing's control / counter-attack strategy with strengthened surveillance capabilities.

4 The Rimland is a concept advocated by Nicholas John Spykman (1898-1943), a professor of international relations at Yale University. For him, geopolitics is the planning of a country's security policy according to its geographical factors. He described the maritime periphery of a country or a continent; the densely populated western, southern and eastern edges of the Eurasian continent. He criticized Mackinder's theory for over-evaluating the Heartland as of immense strategic importance due to its vast size, central geographic location, and supremacy of land power rather than maritime power. He took it for granted that Heartland would not be a potential hub of Europe, because: A) Western Russia was then an agrarian society; B) The foundations of industrialization were found west of the Urals. C) This area is surrounded to the north, east, south and southwest by some of the major transport obstacles (freezing and freezing temperatures, lowering of mountains, etc.). There has never been a simple opposition between land and sea power. Spykman thought that the Rimland, the coastal strip of land surrounding Eurasia, was more important than the Central Asian area (the so-called Heartland) for the control of the Eurasian continent. Spykman's vision underlies the "containment policy" enacted by the United States in its relationship / position with the USSR during the post-World War II era. Therefore, "Heartland" seemed less relevant to him than "Rimland".

5 The Monroe Doctrine was a US foreign policy position, launched by US President James Monroe in 1823, which opposed European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. He believed that any intervention in the political affairs of the Americas by foreign powers was a potentially hostile act against the United States. The doctrine was central to Washington's foreign policy for much of the XNUMXth and early XNUMXth centuries.

6 The Sagarmala Program (garland of the sea, in Urdu) is an initiative by India to improve the performance of the country's logistics sector. The program plans to unlock the potential of the waterways and the coast. It involves the investment of 120 billion dollars for the creation of new megaports, the modernization of the existing ports of India, the development of 14 CEZ (Coastal Economic Zones) and CEU (Coastal Economic Units), the improvement of the port connectivity by road , rail, multimodal logistics parks, pipelines & waterways and promote coastal community development, with the goal of increasing cargo exports by $ 110 billion and generating approximately 10 million direct and indirect jobs. The Sagarmala program is the flagship program of the Ministry of Navigation, launched in 2015, to promote the country's port development by exploiting the 7.517 km of Indian coast, the 14.500 km of potentially navigable waterways and its strategic position on the main maritime trade routes. international. Sagarmala aims to modernize India's ports, so that port-driven development can be increased and coasts can be developed to contribute to India's growth. It also aims to transform existing ports into modern world-class ports and integrate the development of ports, industrial districts and inland and efficient evacuation systems through roads, railways, inland and coastal waterways, making ports become the engines of economic activity in coastal areas.)

7 The 'Malacca Dilemma' is a concept coined in 2003 by then Chinese President Hu Jintao. It is a term that represents potential factors that could hinder China's economic development by stifling oil imports. China is the world's largest oil importer, accounting for 80% of the country's total oil used, mainly insured by the United States.

8 SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was an international collective defense organization in Southeast Asia created by the Southeast Asian Collective Defense Treaty, or Manila Pact, signed in September 1954 in Manila, in Philippines and dissolved on September 30, 1977. SEATO members were Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, United Kingdom and United States.

9 Alfred Mahan (1840-1914) 'The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783' (1890) claimed that a nation's ability to control sea trade routes and establish its own military superiority would be the key to power and prosperity of that state.

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