Long ago the famous US Navy flag officer, strategist and historian, Alfred Mahan opined that the true power lies with the country that dominates the seas. His ideation has had an enormous influence in determining the naval powers across the world, with a special focus on the present day Indian Ocean Region.
With two of the most populated and nuclear armed major economies, India and China, vying to take control of the IOR, the region has truly been a global hotspot.
Threats to China
India’s growing international stature gives it strategic relevance in the area ranging from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca… India has exploited the fluidities of the emerging world order to forge new links through a combination of diplomatic re-positioning, economic resurgence and military firmness.
— Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister (India)
Today a major chunk of Chinese oil imports from the Persian Gulf pass through the Strait of Malacca, blocking of which will bring a terrible effect on Chinese economy. Hence, PRC has a vested interest in eliminating transnational (esp. India, USA, and Japan) threats in the waterway.
At present nearly 60 per cent of China’s energy imports pass through this seaway, which is expected to reach up to 75 per cent by 2015. Beijing knows the vulnerability of the passage, and therefore, is trying hard to take an unprecedented authority of the area.
China’s Answer: String of Pearls
To act as per their ambitions and evade the challenges of their geostrategic rival India, Chinese defence experts came up with a plan that is perhaps best defined by Booz Allen consultants as String of Pearls. Under this initiative, China is making a significant strategic presence in the neighboring states of India.
Beijing is already well-known as an all-weather friend of India’s arch rival, Pakistan and is currently developing the Pakistani port in Gwadar. In addition to this, China has also made substantial investments in Chittagong in Bangladesh, Kyaukphyu in Myanmar, and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It is also developing links with small nations like Nepal and Bhutan that are strategically located to India’s proximity.
With such a dominating presence encircling India, China has somewhat managed to thwart the Indian threat to their consignments in the IOR.
Threats to India
Like Germany in the late 19th century, China is also growing rapidly but uncertainly into a global system in which it feels it deserves more attention and honor. The Chinese military is a powerful political player, as was the Prussian officer corps. Like Wilhelmine Germany, the Chinese regime is trying to hold onto political power even as it unleashes forces in society that make its control increasingly shaky.
— Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek
String of Pearls is basically aimed to restrict India’s expansionist motives right on their backyard. The Chinese strategy of tying a noose around India means India has nothing to do but to acquiesce at the behest of Beijing. It is, therefore, a major threat to India’s sovereignty.
Apart from this, strategic positioning of PLA Navy en route Indian oil and gas imports is not at all desirable to ensure their safe passage. Any disruptions in the mid-ocean could bring devastating effects to the Great Indian Dream. And how can a disruption-free passage for the Indian imports in the IOR is guaranteed as long as Chinese dragon is caught flaring over there?
India’s Answer: Iron Curtain
Backed by a burgeoning economy, New Delhi too aspires to be hailed as a true blue water navy, and they will always deter the Chinese aspirations in the IOR. To live up to this very notion, India too is answering boldly by juxtaposing its presence alongside that of China in the IOR — a strategy that has been termed as Iron Curtain.
India is presently exchanging dialogues with Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh to identify the areas of investments in these countries. In Myanmar, it is developing the Sittwe port. The Tripartite Technical Expert Group (TTEG) consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore that administers the Malacca Straits has recently received substantial monetary aid from India. By the virtue of which the group has involved India’s naval expertise to survey shipwrecks in the area that has left China fuming for obvious reasons.
Militarily too India has expanded its presence in the IOR by setting up listening posts in Seychelles, Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius. Recently India has also gained berthing rights in Oman and Vietnam, which again is sure to give the mighty Chinese dragon cold vibes.
The so-called China’s String of Pearls strategy is not yet advanced enough to put the Indian maritime security in question. Nevertheless, someday or the other India will have to find a suitable answer to the Chinese naval presence in its own backyard, be it by executing Iron Curtain or by implementing some other strategy.
Beijing too cannot afford its Achilles heel, i.e., its vulnerability to any disruption of crude oil flow for much longer. Both nations, therefore, should look forward to draft a Sino-India Maritime Agreement. It could be loosely modelled on INCSEA of the Cold-War era that has controlled a lot of US-Soviet naval encounters to go out of control.