In the hoary past, Indian influence and culture spread to distant shores in Southeast Asia, East Asia, East Africa and many other parts of the world through the maritime realm. However, once the country became independent in 1947, the focus turned inward and India became more of a continental power. This was partly dictated by geography, as New Delhi has been embroiled in land wars with its western neighbour Pakistan and a short border war with its northern neighbour, China, in 1962.
However, the end of the Cold War forced India to shed its continental focus and look anew at the maritime realm. The Indian Ocean is hugely important for India’s economy and its security. More than half of the world’s container traffic passes through the Indian Ocean. In addition, close to 70 per cent of the total amount of the world’s petroleum products pass through the waters of the Indian Ocean. In addition, a huge number of Indians work in the Middle East and sent in close to $72 billion in remittances last year(the highest in the world), something which is very important for the health of the Indian economy.
In his seminal book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, the renowned naval historian, Alfred Thayer Mahan, noted that it was the British Navy which stood between Napolean and his domination of the world. Similarly, as New Delhi aspires to play a bigger role on the global stage by pitching for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), its Navy will remain an important force multiplier. The Indian Navy plays a key role in ensuring the safety and security of the country’s sea-lanes of communication. This is important since India is a net-energy importer.
China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative is part of its overall “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative that has been initiated by President Xi Jinping, who has often talked about the so-called Chinese Dream. The OBOR is in many ways a reinvention of the ancient Chinese Silk Road which ran from China to Europe and branched off to various countries including India. The other part of the “One Belt One Road” is the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” through which China is trying to build land connectivity through the Central Asian countries to Europe.
China is a net energy importer and one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Its gargantuan appetite for energy has seen it import energy resources from various parts of the world. Various observers have doubted China’s real intentions in the South China Sea region. They are fearful that China may go ahead and declare an Air Defence Identification Zone in the region. The commander of the US Pacific Fleet Admiral Harry B Harris has cautioned that China was building “a great wall of sand” in the South China Sea.
India has always been the resident power in the Indian Ocean region with the sole exception of the United States. Its Navy has a commanding presence in the region between the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Malacca while its Andaman and Nicobar chain of islands lies at the entrance of the Strait of Malacca, which has been termed by many observers as China’s Achilles Heel. The setting up of a tri-services command by India in the Andaman and Nicobar islands gives it an unmatched reach in the region.
In many cases, India’s interests in the neighbourhood are at odds with those of Beijing. For example, New Delhi has always had close ties with the island nations in the region like Sri Lanka, Maldives and Seychelles. However, of late, Beijing has been rapidly trying to make inroads into what New Delhi has traditionally seen as its own “backyard”. China’s string of pearls strategy of helping set up bases in Gwadar (Pakistan), Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Kyuakpyu (Myanmar) and Chittagong (Bangladesh) has worried many observers in India that Beijing’s main intention is to keep India tied down in its immediate neighbourhood.
India was also recently taken aback when China put a technical hold on its attempts to have Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad’s chief Maulana Mohammed Azhar designated as a terrorist at the United Nations. This clearly shows that China has double standards when it comes to dealing with terrorists. While it considers Uyghur separatists as terrorists, they have applied a different standard when it comes to Pakistan-based terrorists. China’s “all-weather friendship” with Pakistan is also worrisome for India given the fact that Beijing has been alleged to supply nuclear and missile know-how to Pakistan.
India should be wary of getting entangled in China’s Maritime Silk Road since it could be a smokescreen for China to reach out to countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Beijing’s growing economy is ravenous for energy resources especially from the Middle East and Africa and the Maritime Silk Road could be yet another Chinese ploy to make these countries, especially the ones in Africa even more dependent on imports from China.
New Delhi should think of its own initiative similar to the Maritime Silk Road as traditionally Indian influence has spread by the sea. India’s “Act-East” policy has been very effective. This “Act-East Policy” is about India’s re-engagement with the countries of East Asia and Southeast Asia with which it had historical links in the past, but had lost out in the period after its independence in 1947. India has recently agreed “in principle” to sign a “logistics support agreement” with the US which will allow the militaries of the two countries to use each others’ bases for refuelling and logistics. This is a big leap forward from the days when India and the United States were on the opposite sides of the Cold War divide which meant that India was closer to the erstwhile Soviet Union.
In case India joins the MSR, it will lose another card up its sleeve. China claims the entire Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh and has in the past refused to issue visas to high-level officials from Arunachal Pradesh. Beijing has also been issuing stapled visas to citizens from the border Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir. Once it joins the MSR, it will also be difficult to opt out of the same without upsetting other nations too. Just in case, India were to join the MSR, there should be some kind of a quid pro quo with China supporting India’s case for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Deng Xiaoping had advised that “hide your time and bide your strength”. The present Chinese leadership seems to have discarded this dictum given by the Chinese statesman and has now adopted an openly belligerent posture. India needs to proceed with extreme caution and not be caught unawares as in 1962 when Chinese forces took India by surprise by staging a sudden attack across the Himalayas. As they say “whoever is the lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice”. India would do well to remember that.
Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is currently a Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He has been a Assistant Professor of International Relations, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, India and a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge and at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, Tokyo. The views expressed are personal.